Album Review: Hoodie Allen - 'Whatever USA'
An unassuming but masterfully crafted fourth studio album, Hoodie Allen’s 28-minute ‘hometown inside his head’ is an outing which sees the internet’s favourite pop rapper more comfortable on the mic than ever before, resulting in his most concise effort since All American.
“Bring back the album reviews!” called out an unexpected Twitter DM from the New York rapper/singer/songwriter in my inbox just eight minutes before the UK release of his anticipated first project since 2017. He refers, of course, to an off-the-cuff video review of his last album The Hype I uploaded towards the back end of my floundering YouTube career in a previous life. This is not uncommon for Allen (real name Steven Markowitz), who has made a career, I’m sure he would insist, out of and alongside his dedicated online fanbase, with whom he interacts on a personal level day in, day out. For a quick illustration, in the run up to Whatever USA’s release, Allen ran a pre-order contest offering five fans lifetime tickets to his high-energy live shows and one fan an acoustic concert in their backyard, wherever in the world they reside. At the time of writing, Allen has spent much of release day reading fans' thoughts and feelings on the album on Twitter and replying to them one by one to thank them for spending half an hour inside Whatever USA. An artist always on the cutting edge, always one step ahead of the archaic chart system, Hoodie Allen’s popularity only seems to grow with each new set of infectious pop rap jams. Yet Whatever USA, his most consistent offering in seven years, feels like a clearer reflection of the artist himself than ever before.
The natural place to start (if there’s one thing about this album, it feels wholeheartedly natural) is the track Hometown Kid, which sees Hoodie come through with some of his most relaxed and confident flows to date; he’s evidently most at home on the microphone while dissecting his hard-working creative mindset. Lyrics “My goal was not to blow up, just not to blow out my brains / ‘Cause if I couldn’t create, I’d probably go insane” likely slam his long-since-gone career at Google, and flow with a relentless ease over a neon-draped beat painted with equally distant synths and piano. Allen finds time to channel early Mac Miller on the bars “Jimmy Neutron, got my dancing shoes on / I work hard so I never have to put a suit on”, yet the lyrical content still feels quintessentially Hoodie. This is the 'Prince of Manhattan' content with his position in life regardless of whether he cracks the mainstream, far from the humble ambitions of a track like No Faith in Brooklyn.
"Hoodie Allen is evidently most at home on the microphone while dissecting his hard-working creative mindset."
But that’s not to say this album doesn’t have mainstream appeal. It does, it has it by the truckload. Second single Come Around, which dropped back in June, is an effortless blend of guitar pop and rap. The production is so crisp and is handled with such taste that it avoids all comparisons to the likes of Ed Sheeran’s recent material and instead puts the Christian French-handled hook to the forefront of the mix in a day-long hum-inducing effort, as the drums ricochet off the slick, impenetrable bassline. Hoodie’s rap verses are nothing profound, but they add detail to the straightforward ‘my ex-interest is playing games and now I’m not interested’ narrative, and perfectly compliment the intoxicating laid-back summer vibe of the single.
Hell of a Time is somehow an even more radio-ready cut, so much so that one becomes accustomed to its simple-but-effective melody before the first hook even comes to an end. The Americana-tinged guitar licks soundtrack Hoodie as he reflects on a fling-gone-by with a relatable lethargy that only comes with 10 years of writing and releasing tales of love and loss in pop song form. And with that experience, Hoodie has truly become the master of the memorable melody - the difference here is that Allen is focussed on the story of the tune at hand from start to finish, making for a front-to-back listen which rewards and justifies every buttery refrain.
“I think the album will beat those,” Allen responded as I expressed my fondness for Come Around and Hell of a Time. Okay, I’ll stop flexing now, but I have to admit 60 Seconds (feat. gianni & kyle) is an expertly formulated blend of R&B and hip-hop. Whatever USA sees instance after instance of Hoodie finding ways to keep the pop rap blueprint as fresh as possible, and the mix of three distinct vocalists on 60 Seconds keeps the track engaging and stimulating throughout. Hoodie’s dreamy romanticism fits snugly between the soulful hook handled by Gianni and the grittier second verse from Kyle, and the vivid personalities of each performer have such fluid chemistry with one another. But coming from an artist who managed to make a banger out of a collaboration with State Champs, it isn’t really a surprise at this point.
"Allen is focussed on the story of the tune at hand from start to finish, making for a front-to-back listen which rewards and justifies every buttery refrain."
Even when one tries their hardest to fault Whatever USA, it makes for an unfruitful venture. You Should Let Me Know begins with Allen trying his hand at acoustic pop, a typically cringeworthy genre aside from some exceptional cases, but the track only serves to show off Hoodie’s skills as a vocalist which seem to dramatically improve with each release. His traditional guns-blazing, unapologetic frat-rap delivery has gradually become sensitised, resulting in this track becoming much more palatable to the casual mainstream. Allen even has the gall to throw in a dope saxophone sample behind the hook, which draws out the loneliness in the lyrics and calls back to the illustrious jazz legacy of his hometown. IDK Why features a bit of an eye-roll moment with the line “The ice on my wrist perma, it ain’t a rental”, but it’s made up for by Hoodie’s veteran handle on the hook and the Drake-esque vocal samples woven into the beat. Hoodie clearly has a more refined approach to making music on Whatever USA, and it makes each sweet moment impossible to take a distaste to.
It is true that it's difficult for an artist to slip up when the sonic surface on which they choose to design their music is so tried-and-true, but that cannot take away from how well crafted the songs on Whatever USA are. Twenty minutes before release, Hoodie Allen posted a notes screenshot to his Twitter account with the words “Every song feels like exactly who I am at this moment in time,” and it’s undeniable how the combination of catchy hooks, retro-meets-contemporary beats and trademark pop culture references comes together into a fully-realised portrait of who Hoodie Allen has become. It’s more likely to leave you sitting directionless under a road sign than to reinvent the wheel, but whatever - at least you’ll be having fun.