Titling their latest album as a sequel to their debut seems like a curious move for Gym Class Heroes. Back in 2005, The Papercut Chronicles was safe hip-hop for the Fueled By Ramen set – the Heroes wove strands of aggro punk and emo into their stylistic tapestry, and the results were more Fall Out Boy than Kanye West. (This, of course, long before Fall Out Boy ironically acquired Kanye’s penchant for hubris, outsized ambition, and Jay-Z cameos.)
They’re a peculiar beast, these Gym Class Heroes. Their kitchen-sink version of hip-hop hinges on the live feel of The Roots, the genre ping-ponging of Outkast, and the emotional availability of Saves the Day; they’ve recorded duets with both Patrick Stump and Busta Rhymes; frontman Travis McCoy lacks the nimble tongue of Black Thought and the chest-thumping bravado of Kanye, but has inherited the former’s reverence for rapping outside of the confines of strict hip-hop and the latter’s slant towards self-examination. In the years since the first Papercut Chronicles, however, their popularity within their small, devoted fanbase seems to have waned: first came mainstream acceptance with Supertramp-swiping single “Cupid’s Chokehold”, then came a broad, album-length bid for pop royalty in 2008’s The Quilt. McCoy’s emergence as a genuine solo star – hinging mostly on his Bruno Mars-assisted “Billionaire” – seemed to be the final nail in the Heroes’ coffin.
The Papercut Chronicles II re-establishes the Gym Class Heroes as a unit, but early fans of the band may not be hip to the pop Frankensteining on display here; the big pop hooks and a-list guest appearances of The Quilt have been dialed back slightly, but not to the ramshackle level of the band’s youth. For those who enjoy a sticky hook while we’re nodding our collective heads, though, The Papercut Chronicles II offers some nice dividends.
First single “Stereo Hearts” sounds pretty rote during its verses, but comes to life with that big, gooey Adam Levine chorus; it’s best to enjoy it now before radio wears out its significant charms, but when it inevitably happens, we can trek on over to the lovely mid-tempo pop of “Ass Back Home” for comfort. “Solo Discotheque” is a bit moodier, painting a picture of a lonely, spurned lover in broad, echo-swathed, Cure-like vocals; “Holy Horseshit, Batman” vividly lays bare McCoy’s reasons for avoiding religion intelligently and respectfully, despite its astoundingly immature title, and benefits from a pitch-perfect chorus assist from Nate Ruess, of the sorely-missed The Format. Petulant ex-dismissal-by-numbers “Nil-Nil-Draw” nicely harnesses rock aggression and pop heartbreak, even as it hits sour notes with its rote (and kinda childish) subject matter; its stuttering, catchy hook assists gamely in this venture.
Sour notes are touched upon, of course – “Martyrial Girls”, despite it’s annoyingly cleverer-than-thou title, often sounds kind of like a dunderheaded teenage garage band jamming on generic Led Zep riffs, “Lazarus, Ze Gitan” is the sort of “hoes in different area codes” reminiscence that we’ve heard a thousand times in hip-hop before, and egregious penultimate track “The Fighter” invites helium-voiced OneRepublic frontman Ryan Tedder by for a sugary, stadium-rocking chorus. Tedder’s pipes are immaculate but, much like Bruno Mars’ performance in Bad Meets Evil’s “Lighters” (which this song shamelessly apes, down to the sustained high notes in both choruses rhyming), the hook is almost too syrupy to bear and torpedoes any momentum the song may have had in its verses.
The Papercut Chronicles II leapfrogs from pleasant pop to noisy rap-rock restlessly, but when it’s on track – as it is in its sterling middle section – it serves as a potent reminder of the potential these guys once showed. Emo-rap may have been where these guys made their name, and it may be where their fans want them to return – but for the stereo heart in the rest of us, it’s edifying to hear reasonably witty raps stringing together big, radio-ready choruses.
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