Retrospective Review: Buck 65's 'Talkin' Honkey Blues'

The album didn’t make Buck 65 the greatest rapper in the world but for a moment it brought hope to middle-of-nowhere kids with weird and wild dreams and it brought him into the world.

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Jul 16 2014, 7:12pm

Buck 65, a white boy who grew up in the middle of the woods of Nova Scotia, moved to Halifax in the early 90s with dreams of becoming the best rapper in the world. He independently released his first album, Chin Music, the same year Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) was released. It was still recent, since "Let Your Backbone Slide" was the first Canadian hip-hop single to get serious radio play. The rap world was about to be overcome by a media-enflamed American East vs. West rap war that would culminate in the deaths of 2Pac and Notorious B.I.G. The odds were against the recognition of Buck 65 in every way. His ambition and focus, though, came from the kind of dreaming that only comes from growing up in the middle of nowhere and finding the world wrapped in a Public Enemy cassette.

Every album by Mount Uniake-born Buck 65 before Talkin' Honky Blues plays like the bedroom darknesses of a man alone and deep into William Blake, Americana, New York hip-hop and mysticism. Often, each of these albums gets it wrong. He reaches too high, too far beyond his own means, coming off as something he isn’t. Buck 65’s early releases, despite their flaws, always have at least one song that hints at great, latent talent. As with any artist starting out his influences are obvious and copied and it takes time and work and ability to move beyond that into something new. Those glimmerings of something new come together quite nicely in Talkin’ Honky Blues.

The album is loaded with banjo, pedal steel, electric guitar, electronic string sections and turntable scratches that fit together so tightly they sound like they were made by an old-hand, forgotten Motown session band from somewhere in the multiverse. The lyrics are playful and silly at times, pensive and sensitive in others, regretful and sad and uplifting. There’s a strong sense of being alone and romanticising imaginary bands of outsiders. The album plays like a Swordfishtrombones-era Tom Waits album at times, "Protest" contains a hook that sounds like something Kanye West could have created and "Wicked and Weird" pays homage to Johnny Cash but is uniquely it’s own (and has somehow become on of Buck 65’s most popular songs to date).

Talkin’ Honky Blues was a watershed album for Buck 65, coming after a positive media mention from Radiohead and a music deal with major label Warner Music. It stands not only as a culmination of his best work to that date but a career high as well and a movement into the opening of endless possibility. He went on to live and work in New York and Paris and he recorded with Tortoise for his follow up, Secret House Against the World. From Talkin’ Honky Blues, Buck 65 went on to conquer France, he hosted the Junos with Pamela Anderson and danced with Feist in her first video from Let It Die, "One Evening". Talkin’ Honky Blues didn’t make Buck 65 the greatest rapper in the world but for a moment it brought hope to middle-of-nowhere kids with weird and wild dreams and it brought him into the world.

Brad Casey is a writer living in Toronto.