Buddy Gets Therapeutic On His Lavish New Album, ‘Don’t Forget To Breathe’

Buddy Gets Therapeutic On His Lavish New Album, ‘Don’t Forget To Breathe’

Buddy/Merle Cooper

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For all the various permutations hip-hop artists can display, rarely has one demonstrated such tongue-in-cheek self-awareness as Buddy does on “Buddy A Fool,” the fifth track from his newly released third studio album, Don’t Forget To Breathe. Over an airy but propulsive beat by Axl Folie and Royce Millennium, Buddy lists off a variety of the quirky behaviors that make Buddy, Buddy. “That n**** Buddy is nice / I seen him out the other night / He asked if he could borrow a light / That ni**** Buddy be high / I texted but he didn’t reply / I heard he got a DUI.” (I can’t speak to all of it, but a great deal is one-hundred percent accurate, as I learned while working on this piece.)

Buddy has always been unusual among rappers. Unlike many, he’s been performing since before he was a teen thanks to his attendance of Amazing Grace Conservatory. When he was just 15, he was signed to Pharrell Williams’ now-defunct I Am Other label. When that fell through, he landed at RCA, where he dropped a string of spacey, jazz-inflected meditations on his unusual upbringing including the collaborative EPs Ocean & Montana and Magnolia before dropping his official debut Harlan & Alondra nearly 10 years after his first record deal.

Although it’s now considered an absolute classic in some circles, the album’s lukewarm commercial performance curtailed RCA’s support for its 2022 follow-up Superghetto, and Buddy left the label, opting to remain independent and release Don’t Forget To Breathe through the Bay Area-based independent label EMPIRE. As it turns out, this was the best decision he could have made. For the first time, Buddy is allowed to just be Buddy on one of his albums, without the pressure to concede to commercial demands or industry expectations. Pardon me, I’m about to get expansive.

The recording industry, like the world around it, tends to look to categorize artists based on their circumstances and its preconceived notions of people from those circumstances. TL;DR: The music business doesn’t know what to do with Black folks who don’t fit the stereotype. Buddy, a rapper from Compton, doesn’t rap much about gangbanging and selling drugs, ergo, he doesn’t fit in with the expectations of a rapper from Compton. Even Kendrick Lamar, our erstwhile neighbor, digresses into tales of the trauma wrought by the effects of white flight and decades of divestment in the once flourishing community.

And while Buddy, like many of us, is scarred by his experiences, he unpacks his hangups in a more relaxed atmosphere, under a haze of THC-laced smoke — it’s more dream therapy than Kenny’s scream therapy. On “Free My Mind,” the album’s disarmingly mellow intro, Buddy details some of the bruises he’s collected since his last dispatch. “I was super ghetto at first / Redefined myself, left the label, bettered my worth / I could sign myself / Still go through real life shit / My daddy almost died, house exploded right before that Portugal trip.” His discursive musings range from the surreal (“How’d I lose that Rolex Presidential?) to the mundane malaise of everyday life (“Still stuck, only difference is I ain’t on Central”).

Relationship troubles? Just like anyone, Buddy would rather leave those later, pleading with his lady on “Talk About It” to save it for the morning when he’s in a better mood. When he feels like showboating, he calls up rising Long Beach native Huey Briss to trade boastful verse on “Got Me Started.” And his aspirations shine on “All The Way,” where he recounts the grind and vows to make it worth it for his mom. The honesty and vulnerability that Buddy displays here have always hummed through the vibey tunes he released in the past, but here, Buddy’s looser, more relaxed, unconstrained by any remits to recoup.

Accordingly, the music is also 100 percent reflective of his eclectic, soulful tastes. Chunky bass lines buzz under warm piano chords, jazzy drum rolls, and alluring brass. As much as Don’t Forget To Breathe sounds like a weed-enhanced therapy session, its instrumentation sounds like a jazz troupe’s late-night jam session, a laid-back, anything-goes musical conversation between players who like each other as much as they like showing off for each other. Meanwhile, the final song is the most upbeat; “You 2 Thank” adopts an of-the-moment afrobeats rhythm, giving Buddy a celebratory canvas to delight in stepping into his next phase, lighter, freer, more grounded than ever. The pressure is gone and he’s breathing free.

Don’t Forget To Breathe is out now via EMPIRE. Get more info here.

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