New York is home to far too many struggling musicians, but even within that world, far too many of them are white rappers just out of college. And sometimes it seems like they’re concentrated in Brooklyn, though it certainly isn’t hard to find struggling lyricists handing out CDs on the street corners of Midtown. They post flyers, create Facebook events for small-time gigs, and aspire to the fame of an Asher Roth, or Mac Miller, or Sammy Adams… the list goes on. To jump into this legion is risky, unadvisable and even, at the beginning, potentially embarrassing.
That may be why Jared Arnold, 24, a bearded, Jewish, 2010 graduate of Brown, is realistic about just how far he can go in rap. “I really do want to work in music, but I don’t think a rap career is plausible,” he says. Arnold works for a design firm, though most days he’s able to work from home, which feels typical of Brooklyn. But he isn’t ready to completely put rap aside. “I don’t want to admit to myself yet that I’m not going to make this thing happen. When I do pack it in, I’ll just fuckin’ find a wife and go be an adult.”
These days, amateur rappers proliferate and flood social media with their music. They can keep hustling for a while thanks to the Web’s openness, and because sites like Bandcamp, SoundCloud, DatPiff (for rap mixtapes), and even—yes, still—Myspace allow democratization of music creation. Whether you produced your six tracks in a real studio or in your basement, you can put them up instantly for everyone to hear. And that could mean tweets, Facebook shares, and a healthy amount of buzz for everyone from lifelong musicians with a record deal to unsigned teenagers.
Jamrod is better than the work of some teenager in his parents basement, but it’s hardly the work of a serious adult. It is a collection of songs that do not take themselves seriously. You are hearing a young guy clowning around, fucking with you—but skillfully. The album, which Arnold put out in February on Bandcamp and SoundCloud, is his first effort, and it’s clever, catchy, and merits being played on repeat.
“Jamrod” is the name of the full-length album, but Arnold also co-opted it as a second moniker for himself as an artist (his primary artist name, if you go by the album art, is simply Jared). The album opens with Arnold’s college friend Olivia Hoffman asking, “Do you feel like the emphasis should be on the ‘jam,’ or… the ‘rod?’” It was a spontaneous question she asked while they were recording, and he was understandably amused. Not everyone loves the name he’s chosen. “My boss works with musicians, so he’s down with my rapping,” says Arnold. “But he strongly advises me to ditch the name Jamrod. He thinks it’s awful.” Then, after a pause, and a laugh: “Maybe I do too.”
Arnold grew up in Newton, Mass., and started creating beats in college at Brown University, thinking they’d be for someone else’s songs. “Then I realized I didn’t know any famous rappers I could sell the beats to,” he says, “so I just went in.” He had a band at Brown, The Unintentions, which played 60s-style indie rock and recorded an album on which Arnold played some guitar, bass, drums, keys, and even French horn. At the time, he was making all varieties of music, including experimental electronica.
Then, about to graduate and particularly preoccupied with rhyming, he recorded Jamrod (he thinks of it as a mixtape) in 2011. For his next step, it was a no-brainer to move to Brooklyn. He started out in Prospect Heights but now lives in Crown Heights, a perfect home for Arnold; its diversity meshes well with the collaboration he favors in his music.
One of the more noticeable traits throughout Jamrod is consistently hilarious wordplay. On the first track, Arnold comes in saying, “I’m preaching to the choir, they’re singin’ to the preacher. Name’s Jamrod and I’m here to sign t-shirts,” which, though meaningless, is also strangely funny. “You can bitch like the Grinch on Christmas,” he continues before introducing Charlie Garbageman, a friend who guest-raps on the song.
“Double Duchy” is a back-and-forth with guest Prince Charming, and the duo spars well. Jared opens up with a mini-treatise that, to anyone reading this story right now, probably rings all too true: “Life on the Internet is killin’ my intellect, surfin on my phone, standin in the kitchenette. Forget what I read at a speed that’s alarming. Make it all up with the help of Prince Charming.” Once his friend comes in, they begin trading lines rapid-fire, and the chorus is a fun back-and-forth.
Guest-rappers flood the album, in keeping with what’s happening in mainstream rap. (Recall Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and its 22 different guests.) Arnold’s guests are pretty good considering that most are college-aged, unsigned nerds just screwing around. Charlie Garbageman is Olivia Hoffman’s brother, and is still in college at Vassar. Saeid Edward, who raps on the album’s strongest track, “Get In, Get Out,” went to Wesleyan. Vitamin G, Prince Charming and ParmeSean are all Newton pals of Arnold’s, most of them not serious about rapping. Cordial, who guests on “RE: Users,” is a composer in Brooklyn who creates experimental opera pieces. Tim Cronin, who plays trumpet on that track, now performs with various indie rock bands, including Camera Obscura and Los Campesinos. And Bstep, who plays keyboard on “Sunrise,” plays in a Boston-based wedding band.
Taken as a whole, the ten different people that give vocals to Jamrod are like an Odd Future-style crew of suburban nerds. (Mike D, Ad-Rock, and the late MCA are clear influences on Arnold as well.) But the gang could also be viewed as something like a rap incarnation of The Decemberists. Much like the Portland band’s tales of mariners and chimneysweepers, many of the tracks on Jamrod tell a story or have an absurd premise. “CIT” sounds like what you’d get if Wet Hot American Summer were made into a rap song. It begins with a sample from “Don’t Drag No More,” a 1964 Susan Lynne song: “I begged him not to drag no more, but he sped off in a roar. I knew he’d head for Dead Man’s Curve, just to prove he had the nerve.” It’s the track on which Jared’s funny rhymes shine best, with lines like “I was a counselor-in-training, a promising career. I’m wishin’ my apprenticeship could last the whole year” and, “Yo rich girl, I miss you, physically and fiscally, but you didn’t listen when I asked you not to tickle me.” Jared acknowledges that it’s the song most lifted from his real-life experience, since he spent a summer as a Counselor-in-Training not too long ago. The chorus goes, “I’m down to earth, I’m cool with the junior counselors. And I’m in every mirror I see. Shit, I’m just a CIT.”
“Droidz II Men” is another concept track about guys seeking out robotic women, backed with synth tones reminiscent of The Flaming Lips. In the chorus, Jared’s friend Olivia keeps interrupting to speak a tech term or product in a sexy drawl, like “Goooogle Plus,” before Jared croons, “How the droids became men…” The track also features what is easily the funniest guest verse on the album, from Boss Frog, with whom Arnold has played a few shows as part of Blue Belt, a Brooklyn artist collective:
“If man is a droid then no droid is an island. I been across the world from England to Ireland. Scottish cyber-lassies tickle my kilt, and the East Coast droids all dress to kill. And the pretty Southern droids all speak with a lilt, but I wish they all could be California droids. The robot hotties love robo pilates, robot hottie doctors study ethno-technologies. Robo co-eds, and robo gender studies. Can I pull up to your fenders, honeys?”
In an era with young white rappers flooding the market, each desperate to brand himself (see The Awl’s fabulous summation of Mac Miller, Hoodie Allen, and other “frat rap”), Arnold’s lazy apathy and self-deprecating humor sets him apart, though it may not be brash enough to catapult him to recognition. On “Get In, Get Out,” he says, “Oh you rap? I guess so, darling.” He explains: “People always say, ‘Oh reallllly, you… rap?’ like, you know, who doesn’t.” He also teases his family with the line: “Jared Arnold, formerly Aronowitz, Jews flip names like Clonazepam to Klonopin.”
The raunchy humor, the Jewish references, and the general intellect revealed in the rhymes will remind some listeners of MC Paul Barman, whose best-known track is probably “Cock Mobster,” on which he offends a plethora of female actresses and celebrities. Arnold is aware of the connection, and had hoped that getting in touch with Barman might help give him a leg up: “I sent MC Barman an email saying, ‘Hey man, uh, we’re kind of similar, you’re cool, give this a listen.’ He never wrote back.”
There’s no simple diviner for musical success—the question, for young artists like Arnold, is when to throw in the towel. For now, he’s playing occasional shows with Blue Belt and others, and he’s begun making videos for the tracks on Jamrod. The first, “Prism,” went up recently on Vimeo and was filmed by Ben Bernstein (aka Cordial, who rapped on “RE: Users” and has recently shot videos for groups like Craig Mitchell & Motor City) across the street from Arnold’s old apartment.
If the auteur behind “Jamrod” provides a useful window into the struggle of any young rapper in New York, it’s only because he’s so bare and honest about his prospects. But his tempered expectations and Laissez-Faire attitude belie a real talent.
Arnold is childishly unpretentious: his new focus, he says, is to write rap songs that truly distill one topic, such as, for example, food photography. “Where I am right now,” he allows, “the idea of making money from rapping is seriously ridiculous.” Maybe it’s only as ridiculous as the idea of a 24-year-old Brown graduate throwing a rap mixtape online that turns out to be excellent.