"Remember sixth grade?/Pencil fights and thumb wars and/Bikes? Yeah, well, I still do that shit."
That line, from "Sarah Silverman" off of P.O.S.' 2004 debut, Ipecac Neat, keeps running through my head as I sit in Stef Alexander's makeshift home studio. I'm watching a few of the six videos Alexander and a devoted crew of friends made over six days, and the very room I'm sitting in figures prominently in one of the clips.
As clever and professional as these videos look—and they really do look stupendous—it's clear that Alexander is having fun: He's a little kid trapped in the body of a grown-up trapped in the body of a skater, a punk, a rapper. At this point in his career, the lines have blurred so much it's best to put aside reducing P.O.S. and his body of work to its constituent parts; his new record, Never Better, is the work, ultimately, of a musician, of a human being.
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As the tiny cars zoom around on the screen, "Optimist (We Are Not for Them)" makes its case for being the heart of P.O.S.' new record. The line that particularly sticks out comes early: "Never better than the work/Than the toil and the reap." It's a creed, an echo of the Protestant ethic viewed through the lens of a strident individualism that demands you make decisions for yourself alone. As the chorus affirms, "We make our own, and if they don't feel it/Then we are not for them (and that's cool)."
Lazerbeak and P.O.S. split production duties on the album roughly 40/60 (with a couple of tracks by Paper Tiger and MK Larada), and the outline for the creative process was simple: "Brand-new," says Alexander. "I wanted it to be brand-new. And that's what I set out to do: Make beats, and if they didn't feel like totally new shit, then scrap the beat."
Although the most obviously adventurous tracks are "Purexed," with its majestic, hyper-rush of a chorus, and the title cut, built around an apocalyptic piano dirge, the sonically challenging nature of the album is best expressed in "Out of Category," where the kick drum pushes speakers to crack and break, occasionally crossing paths with a digital hi-hat so sharp it nails you in the ear like an ice pick. This is music-making that has more in common with the sound-as-physical-presence of electronic artists like Autechre than traditional hip-hop.
The conceptual nature of "Out of Category" is no accident. While most rappers are content to get a beat they like and do their thing, Alexander's songs often come from ideas more than hooks. That sense of play, of making up a game to break the rules, of reveling at the borders between things that adults hold apart—that is what most defines Never Better and not some prefabricated notion of combining rap and punk. More fundamental to P.O.S.' music than the DIY ethic of hardcore or the limber wordplay of hip-hop are the words made famous by Frank Sinatra: "For it's hard, you will find, to be narrow of mind/If you're young at heart."