When Family Force 5 released their debut album BUSINESS UP FRONT / PARTY IN THE BACK in 2005, they were something of an enigma. Even before then, when they were performing under the monicker The Phamily, the band was hard to pin down. As self-stylized “crunk-rock”, the group prided themselves in crafting an album that was almost entirely impossible to predict: rock ‘n’ roll, hip-hop, pop, punk and every other genre imaginable were all shuffled together into a single, tongue-in-cheek odyssey beyond the limitations and borders of genre semantics.
And then they released their sophomore effort, DANCE OR DIE. As a conceptual science-fiction album, the band’s second offering stripped away almost everything that made them what they were. Despite their efforts to retain a diverse songwriting approach, DANCE OR DIE essentially crafted a singular, unified sound for the band that stuck around for the entire course of the album. Now, that isn’t to say that this is a bad thing; if anything, there are many that would probably prefer unity to diversity nearing the point of musical schizophrenia. But, alas, it was the end of what made the band so uniquely special.
Or, so it seemed. The crunk-rock band has now returned with their uninspired but wildly-appropriately-titled III. Released independently, the album is something of a return to form for the group, if not necessarily a return to sound. Clocking in at an extremely brisk 32-minutes, the LP returns the band to what they do best: skewering genres into a diverse, amorphous, gelatinous mass that somehow manages to hold together over a length of ten tracks. And what’s so frustratingly daring about the release is that it walks a tightrope so fine between satire and earnestness that many will dismiss it without thinking twice.
And one hell of a tightrope it is. With BUSINESS UP FRONT, the band’s accomplishments were obvious: the melding of genres, instrumentation and lyrical play were in direct juxtaposition to one another. Songs like the classic “Kountry Gentleman” and “Earthquake” played so obviously to the satirical nature of low-brow genre conventions mixed with traditional rock music that it was impossible to mistake the band’s silliness for foolishness or worse, a lack of talent. But the overall feel of III is not the same as their laughably ludicrous debut. Gone are the juxtaposed genres conventions. Gone is the glaringly obvious hilarity of their lyrical content.
Instead, what we’re left with is something else entirely. III is not a mash-up on a song-to-song basis; III is a mash-up on an album-wide basis. And in that way, III is something of an album-oriented release: an LP whose strength lies in its context amidst not only the rest of the tracks on the album, but the rest of the tracks in the group’s catalogue. The low-key stomp of rave-esque track “Tank Top” would not be a tenth as effective as it is if it were not immediately followed by the beautifully polished ode to ’90s boy-band pop, “Not Alone”. The juxtaposition between genres now takes place on a song-to-song basis, rather than on a verse-to-verse basis. This is a band that does every genre, and does every genre well: from hardened hip-hop to soaring pop, back through dub-step and out again through punk-rock, the band has no boundaries. No limitations. They don’t need them.
And what truly separates III from BUSINESS UP FRONT, despite their similar “everything-but-the-kitchen-sink-if-the-kitchen-sink-was-a-metaphor-for-genres” approach is that this new release shifts the genre focus completely. If BUSINESS UP FRONT was a tongue-in-cheek roasting of the rock genre, then III does the same for pop, R&B and hip-hop. These are, not coincidentally, the main genres that the band chose to adopt for their signature sound in their sophomore release; in other words, III is the philosophical follow-up to BUSINESS UP FRONT filtered through the tangential DANCE OR DIE.
One can see the entire spectrum of mainstream, popular music on display on III: old-school instructional-dance tracks from the ’90s with “Wobble”, Bruno Mars’ silky-smooth R&B with “You Got It” and even a touch of dub-step and the club scene with “Dang Girl”. And yes, the rock scene even makes a noteworthy appearance on throwback tracks “Paycheck”, “Love Gone Wrong” and what may be the best track the band has written in many years, album opener “Can You Feel It”.
III is not the sound of Family Force 5 completely abandoning their roots, throwing in the towel and going mainstream. III is the sound of Family Force 5 coming to terms with what philosophically makes the band tick and then filtering it through a variety of genres. Because, let’s face it; rock ‘n’ roll has never been enough for this group of musicians. They want it all, and III is the album where they finally take it. Just because they actually play their instruments doesn’t mean they can’t write a glaringly gangster hip-hop track.
Get on outta here.