New York has generated a wide array of distinctive voices in hip-hop; it’s the hometown of the genre, after all. Many of the artists within the scene often take on each other’s elements, which has given the region its own distinctive sound. Action Bronson is seemingly best known for his sonic similarities to legendary MC and Wu-Tang Clan member Ghostface Killah. The acclaimed rapper, who’s also a chef, returns to deliver his seventh studio album, Only for Dolphins.
Action Bronson (whose name is Arian Asllani) maintains his signature style of rapping about the standard hip-hop themes punctuated with bars about food and delivered with a boisterous attitude. While his music is filled with an infectious bravado, much as on 2018’s White Bronco, more critical listeners will find the dishes he serves may appear appetizing on the outside yet remain half-baked when you begin to cut deeper into them.
Only for Dolphins is no different, with incredible production often carrying scatterbrained verses that struggle to maintain focus. That isn’t to say the album isn’t palatable, but there is a lot of unrealized potential that could be mustered up—like scraping fondue to really help bring out the flavor.
Food puns aside, the album lacks any real sense of cohesive thematic presence in its larger scope despite individual songs at times carrying narratives or structural ideas behind them. In these more sparse moments, the album shines. But it’s yet again dulled by the number of times Action Bronson feels the need to remind listeners about his indulgent lifestyle and how much he enjoys driving around while under the influence.
Opener “Capoeira,” featuring Yung Mehico, begins with dolphin squeaks, clicks and splashing to set the playful motif of the rest of the album. The sounds also close several songs. Transitioning into bombastic horns, Action Bronson raps about getting wasted, dancing around and partying. Following up is the trippy “C12H16N2,” referencing the recreational drug DMT. A heavy bass line is paired with a faint melody of “na-na-nah”—while Bronson narrates an insane drug trip he experienced and even goes on to reference his cameo in Martin Scorcese’s 2019 film, “The Irishman.”
“Latin Grammys” delivers a more ’70s-funk-inspired arrangement with its use of bass and trumpets, where Action Bronson proceeds to rap about his lavish lifestyle. Later tracks “Splash” and “Shredder” sonically and thematically follow a similar path that is tiresome to hear over and over again.
“Sergio,” on the other hand, offers a bit of self-awareness and reflection, where Bronson begins reflecting on his status and wealth in contrast with how most average people are often struggling day to day. It’s punctuated with a sobering refrain: “Feeling good’s the only thing I know.” This kind of introspection and more critical thought would serve Action Bronson so much better, yet he explains on “Marcus Aurelius” how closed off he is to letting people in to seeing the more honest and real version of himself. “Things in my life I can’t discuss/ Because people can’t be trusted,” he raps.
Perhaps this is why many of the songs on Only for Dolphins seem to only depict the action movie fantasy and playboy lifestyle that Bronson would rather present. Songs like “Cliff Hanger” and “Vega” both follow these convoluted anecdotes that don’t seem to go anywhere. They’re about Bronson consuming insane amounts of drugs and alcohol, going on joyrides, fighting with people and hitting on women.
All of it seems to have no real end goal beyond a sort of live-fast-die-young mentality. It’s almost as if the album is meant to be played in the background at a party—in which case it absolutely works.
It’s incredibly pleasing to the ears with the jazz and funk influences that characterize the production throughout. However, this isn’t an album designed for anyone looking for lyrically complex or poetic songwriting. That’s disappointing because it’s clear that Action Bronson is capable of doing exactly that.
Action Bronson fans will likely find a lot to appreciate and even casual listeners will find plenty to enjoy on it. But there’s something to be said about the lackluster writing that drags much of this work down, especially when it’s clear he isn’t trying with it.
Aesop Rock writes songs about esoteric topics using cryptic lyrics to engage his audience, much like his similarly poetic peers MF DOOM and Kool Keith. Lupe Fiasco wrote the concept song “Gotta Eat,” where he describes the drug dealing lifestyle using metaphors for fast food to paint a vivid picture. Action Bronson could absolutely develop some really interesting songs if he were to hunker down and try to experiment with concepts in his writing more like those other guys. To quote closer “Hard Target,” Action Bronson makes a poignant—if meta—observation: “It’s all about the product and not the salesmen.”
Follow editor Tim Hoffman at Twitter.com/hipsterp0tamus.