Ugly Duckling
Combo Meal

Penalty Recordings

f there’s one thing that the Manchester United/Exeter shenanigans of the previous week have reminded us of, it’s that everybody loves an underdog. You want to believe that a bunch of non-leaguers can topple the richest club in the world, that the nerd will get the girl in the end, and that three out of shape white guys who look like they spend their evenings searching for Ween merchandise on eBay can put out a great hip-hop album. And sometimes the underdog comes through.

The point here is that you are going to have to learn to love Ugly Duckling. It’s as simple as that. Yes, they are smarmy, they’re not as clever as they think they are, they hanker for a hip-hop past that never existed outside of Arrested Development’s Christmas cards, they make music for second year university students that find Jurassic 5 too experimental, and when they heard De La Soul Is Dead, they went into the denial stage of grief which they’ve never recovered from. But, you know… fun. Remember it? Where else are you getting this from nowadays? The Beasties are an embarrassment, Edan’s a non-entity, and Northern State have ovaries. No, you’re going to have to learn to love Ugly Duckling. Thankfully, with Combo Meal, they’ve made it easy for you to do so.

Considering Combo Meal is set entirely in the cutthroat world of fast food franchising, it makes a perfect sense that it should be brought to us in the spirit of capitalism. Ugly Duckling’s previous studio album, Taste the Secret, had a limited release in the UK something like 18 months after it made its first appearance stateside, and as such those who thrilled to their previous effort, Journey to Anywhere, were either unaware of its existence, or had already been put off purchase by those “£18.99 IMPORT” stickers that HMV had plonked on it back in the summer of 2003. So Penalty Recordings have taken Taste the Secret, added on a bonus disc in the shape of The Leftovers EP, and served up the value-for-money Combo Meal. Twisty fries 20p extra.

So what we have here is the usual UD style: tight beats, playground rhymes, and lots of random scratches on the sort of 70s funk records that form the reading list on most “Underground DJ 101” university courses. And the point is that it works. They are enjoyable, they are fast food rap, not in the way that they’re disposable, but in the way that you can go into any fast food restaurant in the world and you know you’ll be getting the same thing. Is it wrong to be scared of change if what you have at the moment isn’t broken?

Call them Bob the Builder though, because when stuff is broken they do fix it. Ever thrown a brick at your stereo watching rappers trying to reel off entertaining skits? UD have the answer: set your entire inter-track banter around the world of Meatshake, a restaurant chain serving solely meat based products, and their rivalry with The Veggie Hut, serving entirely, yep, vegetable based products. Hilarity does ensue.

Of course, the battle UD fight every day isn’t protein vs. vitamins, but rather themselves against any rapper selling more than 50,000. “Opening Act,” “Dumb It Down,” “Mr Tough Guy,” “La Revolucion,” “Potty Mouth,” and “Celebrity” all deal with their traditional blinged-out strawman, and whilst it’s tempting to tar them with the brush of people stuck in an argument most of us stopped caring about in 1999 (plus it’s also worth asking how a band so committed against gunshots, misogyny, and violence in music can justify basing their third biggest hit around an Eazy-E sample), rap works best when it does have a strawman to treat with equal measures fear and revulsion. UD certainly can’t tackle whitey, and, looking at them, their only real enemy is their metabolisms, so why not pour vitriol on jigginess? Why not claim that the era they’re harking back to isn’t ‘87 but ‘97, when there was still a case for the underground a) existing and b) fighting the bingo-clinked rappers on their own terms?

There is a case for loving this album though. There’s a case for laughing at the skits like a lunatic (particularly “The Drive-Thru,” possibly marking the first use of “granola” as an insult in hip-hop), there’s a case for tracks like “Pass It On” and “Daisy” making you dance like a drunken web-designer, and there’s a case for just ignoring any dumb prejudices you may have against UD (possibly as a result of the dumb prejudices they themselves hold), and enjoying yourself. Besides, the Stylus Magazine style sheet actually dictates any album that contains the line “He needs to get back on Friendster” as an insult has to get a minimum of an A-.

Reviewed by: Dom Passantino

Reviewed on: 2005-01-27

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