Due to the very nature of the genre, hip-hop allows us an incredible intimacy with its purveyors. And there is no one with whom Maine listeners are likely more intimate than Spose, whose voluminous back catalog is unmatched and whose method has always included a heavy dose of the first person.
He’s that kid with the “swagger of a cripple,” who’s made himself a workingman’s hero by always playing the underdog, making boasts of his deficiencies.
We’ve seen him travel from “dating a Kennebunker who gives brilliant fucks” to being a soccer dad with four kids who knows the answer when he asks, “Why Am I So Happy?,” but still spends extra time cleaning up the house in the hopes that date night will go well.
He’s gone from “bank account negative a million bucks” to making indie-folk ditties that feature him driving through the tony suburbs and wondering, “Why Not Me?”
So it is that he can perform psychotherapy on himself with the new double-album “Get Rich or Die Ryan” and his fans are completely invested. Those who understood and appreciated the way Spose was toying with the braggadocio-fueled underpinnings of rap are eagerly ready to delve deeper.
“When I started being more honest, when I started to make songs about mental health and things that everybody is going through, people seemed to like that,” Spose says, sitting in his Sanford studio space, tucked into an old bank building recently occupied by personal injury lawyers. “So for me to always fake it like I’m the ‘King of Maine’? This is just what people are trying to say or feel.”
And there’s no doubt the new crop of 27 songs finds Spose laying himself bare, exploring his relationship with his father and son, his masculinity and the role of white men in America, his need for attention and outside validation, and the big-picture societal drivers that can make people desperate enough to turn against one another.
“What you see is what you get,” he says. “And this has always been the case. What you hear is really who I am. Some of it is exaggerated and over the top and some of it is more theatrical than my real life. … It’s a theatrical representation of my genuine emotions.”
On “Get Rich” and “Die Ryan” (he’s titled the two CDs this way; they come in a classic double jewel case) the costumes he wears for this theatrical presentation are generally those of his favorite alternative radio bands, especially on the rock-oriented disc one, where he found himself writing music with a band for the first time, recording with the star-studded Humans: Dave Gutter (Rustic Overtones, etc.), Kyle Gervais (Grand Hotel, etc.), Derek Gierhan (Lady Lamb, Marie Stella, Cougars Kill Cobras, KGFREEZE, etc.), and Jon Roods (Rustic, Love by Numb3rs, etc.).
It is hard to overstate what a testament to Spose’s talent that lineup is.
“The rock half of this album is way more collaborative than anything I’ve ever done,” Spose says. While traditionally he’d come to the band with parts mapped out in his head or – as is the case with “Sieve” on this album, for example – actually demoed and recorded for them so they could play it “way better,” he says, “on this it was a fusion of different musicians having ideas and bouncing off each other.”
And “rock” is a broad category. “Hey Big Guy” is a crooner, with backing vocals from Amy Allen and Spose assuring us, “it’s OK if you cry.” Whereas “World War Blues” is Lennon mixed with Bowie, spacey and raw and anti-war: “Nicaragua to Afghanistan, get your body on the floor.”
Heck, “Dudes,” an absolutely searing indictment of the male gender, writ large, is sock-hop doo-wop: “I never heard of a girl/ Shooting up a Wal-Mart/ Dropping some racist manifesto online because shit didn’t work out in your 20s … No, that’s just duuuuuudes.”
At one point, he and Jonathan Wyman, who engineered much of the rock portion and mixed both discs, had their heads together while the rest of the band worked something up. “I thought it sounded like Radiohead,” Spose says, “but it was a song that Dave wrote and didn’t make it onto ‘Rooms by the Hour’ that he’s just been sitting on for like 25 years.
“That’s huge. That album is right up there with ‘OK Computer’ on my big albums list.”
He’s talking about “Beautiful Day To Do Nothing at All,” where Gutter opens with washed-out guitar and high-register rock vocals over rapid high hat: “All that I know how to do is go hard as I can.” And then Spose comes in with a verse, speaking to the stress of the grind and how it’s driven by fear of failure and “this chip on my shoulder.”
Talking to Spose for even a minute – and I’ve known him since “I’m Awesome,” even currently edit a monthly column he writes for a different publication – and you quickly realize he doesn’t spend too many days doing nothing at all. He’s always doing something.
He’s written and published a children’s book. Released an album via a video game app he had developed. He even found someone to make short-run action figures of himself for this album’s release. But, of course, it’s never enough.
“Every day I wake up and I don’t have a million followers,” Spose says, “I consider that to be very many haters. Every day there’s not Grammys in here, and the Foo Fighters aren’t having me on their tour, I’m insulted and there’s more work to do.”
He’s laughing, but he’s serious: “When there’s no message from Billy Corgan or Kendrick on my phone, I have work to do.”
And we hear all about it in the heavy-rock “Sieve.”
“I can’t stop feeling like I’m not enough,” he scream-sings (Spose is a world-class rapper; as a singer, he could use some practice at times), “My cup’s a sieve/ I can’t fill it up/ I can’t stop feeling like I fucked it up.”
How does this jibe with the dude always preaching gratitude and celebrating his own fallibility? Is he really constantly wracked by imposter syndrome?
Of course not. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t feel it sometimes, like anyone else.
He says he remembers reading an interview with Billy Corgan from the ’90s in Rolling Stone where they asked him about “Zero,” which explores miserable feelings of emptiness. “Do you really always feel like that?,” they ask him.
“And he was like, ‘Of course not!,’” Spose recounts. “Once I read that quote, that’s when I knew I could make something like ‘Sieve.’” He’d already explored the idea of getting to the mountaintop and still not feeling satisfied on the 2018 concept album “We All Got Lost,” but here he’s moved from the third-person separation he had there and turned the spotlight on his own vulnerability and insecurity.
“A lot of the ‘gratitude’ stuff is really just preaching to myself,” he says. Which you can hear him explore in “Hypocrite,” a bouncy rave-up dance track on the hip-hop-fueled second disc.
Many of the rap tunes are in the bombastic tradition, leaving the self-examination behind and seeing Spose don the Peter Sparker-type personas that are variously fun and silly and absurd. Here, though, he burns through every criticism you could possibly levy against him: If he loves Wells so much, why’d he move to Sanford? And everybody’s parents got divorced or free lunch or food stamps – “and you’re still whining about your life?”
“Parasite,” a team-up with the smooth-voiced Bensbeendead, is even more searing, as he speaks to his own insecurities like a co-dependent partner, admitting to everything from comparing his streaming numbers with other rappers to not wanting to take his shirt off at the beach. It’s hard not to relate.
If this is all sounding a bit navel-gazing, though, don’t despair. Even the self-effacing stuff has plenty of smart and funny turns of phrase paired with high-level production from the likes of Teddy Roxpin, Mike Be, Jxck, and God.Damn.Chan. Although “Metal Band,” a team-up with Vermonter Jarv, might be the most pure-play fun and features Spose’s own production. See if you can get through it without laughing.
And “Hotline” is straight bop-style jazz. It might be the trippiest thing Spose has ever done: “Welcome to America/ Our specials today include the apocalypse/ For $9.99 a month.”
The project is ultimately expansive enough that we are allowed to see all of Spose’s many facets: the entrepreneur, the attention whore, the intellectual, the class clown, the nerd, the loving dad, and the little kid who still lives inside him and doesn’t trust a soul not to eventually fuck him over.
“You’re born as a boy in America,” he says, “and you think you’re the stronger sex, from the best country in the world, and slowly you realize you’re none of that. It’s coming to grips, seeing behind the curtain, and what does it mean when you’re not special and good?”
Well, if you’re Spose, your specialness and goodness shine through regardless.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at [email protected].
Falling into hip-hop
This fall, because of pandemic projects finally coming to light or collaborations newly inspired, has seen a slew of interesting hip-hop from across Maine. Here’s a quick overview of other works to check out:
• Family Banned Records, “Bohemian Rap CD” — A compilation record of sorts, this has a “Side A” of Myles Bullen features and a “Side B” of pieces fronted by Unique Unknown. It’s a yin and yang thing, for sure. Bullen is a lilting and subdued presence, paired particularly nicely with Sarah Violette on “Only Do What I Want,” where his drawn-out and languid delivery is matched by Violette’s crisp and aggressive clipped phrasing. Unknown is more aggressive and desperate, moving from suave R&B in “True Romance” to Singles-style grunge in “This Is Not That Song,” with Soul or Power. Look for another volume of work from Family Banned soon, featuring Dead Flow It Society.
• First Passionate Frisbee Club, “Onomatopoeia” — A brand-new project from the Ruby Yacht collective, this features Devin Bailey (aka Pink Navel) teaming with Mike Taylor (not the Mike Taylor who played keys with Rustic Overtones for a while and was in Sly-Chi) to make simple Casio-driven tunes that initial returns seem to indicate are incredibly endearing. It’s a mix of absurdism and childlike wonder, two minutes of stuff you definitely haven’t heard before. Keep an ear out.
• Moon Shine, “Aspirations 2” — Filled with auto-tune and acoustic guitar riffs joined by snare beats, this is right on the contemporary wave and slots easily into top-40 playlists. Shine taps into themes of cash and influence and rising up from underdog status that never go out of hip-hop style — “Used to walk and get liquor from the store, now I’m fly, drive a Lincoln and a Ford/ Focusing on these metaphors/ Pain and hunger made me want more” — but finds some time to offer social commentary and a glimpse into his life as a Somali immigrant who landed in Portland’s Riverton Park and grabbed onto poetry as a lifeline in school.
• Brzowski and C$Burns, “The Beauty of Pure Concrete” — The initial single off the upcoming (Nov. 11) EP “Seditious Acts,” this is the Marxist-communist industrial hip-hop you need to get you through the post-truth era. Every bar is another bungee cord tethering you to a reality that seems increasingly slippery. It is brutalist, gritty, heavy, and incredibly pointed: “Shadow puppetry illuminated by a bonfire of the humanities.” Just start unpacking.
• Rhyme Inc., “Incorporated Rhyme Schemes” — This team-up between Maine rap vets Dynamo-P and ARMZ is chock full of brief and satisfying rap-duo tracks. Like watching a game of tennis in slow motion, the two trade verses amongst old-school scratching and crabbing and plenty of rave-up beats. With tons of great references to Dre, Wu, De La, and Tribe, this is a record by and for rap fans and a hell of a lot of fun.
— Sam Pfeifle