As a performing artist, Kid Rock has always been a bit of an anomaly. Mixing genres like they were cocktail ingredients, the end result can be often confusing. His sound is largely a concoction of country, blues and hip-hop. And what do we call it? Rock & roll. Go figure.
At the same time, perhaps unfortunately, Kid Rock’s persona feels also a bit of a caricature, in that it is frequently impossible for some folks to take him too seriously, no matter how seriously he takes himself. Perhaps it’s the genre-dipping, or the cliché persona of the white-trash bad boy, or a combination of the two. Whatever the cause, I almost feel a bit guilty because I feel like I should take him more seriously than I do.
However you view Kid Rock, his new release Rebel Soul appears to be making a solid attempt to clarify who he is as an artist, even ditching producer Rick Rubin to self-produce this record. After a bleak prior effort with his previous album Born Free, Rock has returned to his many-faceted roots and created an album that is at the very least a testament to his diversity and complexity as a performer.
Oh, don’t get me wrong: speaking in terms of genre, this record is all over the board, as usual. You got your rap/hip-hop (“Cucci Galore”, “The Mirror”), your country vibe (“Happy New Year,” “God Save Rock & Roll”—confused, yet?), and your southern rock (“Redneck Paradise”). You can even catch whiffs of lo-fi blues (“3 CATT Boogie”) and Motown in there (“Detroit, Michigan”). In fact, the only thing that feels like a consistent musical thread through the record is Kid Rock’s signature raspy-rock voice—and yet, somehow that seems enough to convince us that he is not a chameleon, that all of these musical styles are actually a part of who he is. Such genre-bending is often ill-advised, but in the case of Kid Rock, it doesn’t feel quite real unless he’s doing it.
Now, as to the caricature part of his persona—unfortunately, Rebel Soul doesn’t do much to eliminate that. The songs themselves are simply too cliché-ridden. Prime examples include: “C’mon, grab your guns, let’s ride / And may your conscience be your guide” (“Let’s Ride”); and “I know you’re thinkin’ I must be crazy / Don’t sweat that small stuff, kiss me baby” (“Happy New Year”). Really? Nothing more imaginative? Kid Rock might be trying to make a case with this record, and maybe not; but if he is, this isn’t helping it any.
The thing is (and herein lies the real paradox)—if you can get past the caricature and the occasional phoned-in lyrics, there is actually a lot of decent music on this record. Honky-tonk tunes like “Redneck Paradise” just beg for line dances to be made for them, and I dare anyone not to physically move to the stomp-clap opening track “Chickens In the Pen.” Lots of songs on this record destined to make it onto party soundtracks—this is music to have a good time to.
And that, perhaps, is the whole point behind Kid Rock the artist, and Rebel Soul in particular. No matter how seriously (or not) you view him as a performer, this music is about having a good time. And chuckling under your breath is part of that good time. Whether you see Kid Rock more as an artist or as a cartoon character—I think he’s accomplished his purpose either way.