This month Travis Barker released a solo album, Give The Drummer Some, that marks the Blink 182 drummer's official debut as a hip-hop artist, featuring platinum rappers like Lil Wayne and Snoop Dogg over his own live drumming and programmed beats. It's tempting to regard the album as a vanity project for a rock star trying to infiltrate a completely different genre from the one that made him famous, not unlike Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee's oft-mocked late-90s project Methods of Mayhem. But Barker's paid his dues as a hip-hop producer to the point that it's almost as much a part of his identity as Blink; his first beat on a major hip hop album, T.I.'s King, was released almost exactly five years ago.
In a constantly cross-pollinated music world where famous rappers are just as eager to align themselves with pop and rock stars, Barker's become well accepted as the token white boy in countless rap videos, standing out even more with his conspicuous tattoos and mohawk, as far back as Diddy's "Bad Boy 4 LIfe" in 2001. He also frequently adds live drums to hip hop hits for official remixes, and has performed on TV and onstage with more rappers in the past few years than probably any drummer besides ?uestlove of The Roots.
Give The Drummer Some does at times trade on the culture clash of Barker making hip hop, often to the album’s detriment. "Carry It" features members of the Wu Tang Clan rhyming over riffs by Tom Morello of Rage Against The Machine, a good idea on paper that in practice sounds like a bad mashup. "Saturday Night" reunites Barker's regrettable rap/rock band The Transplants with Tim Armstrong of Rancid, and several songs cram showboating percussion solos and rapid-fire drum fills between verses. But for the most part, it feels like any other hip-hop compilation helmed by a single producer, with a varied but cohesive production aesthetic. The album is a stylistic hodgepodge simply because Barker is an omnivorous hip-hop fanatic. Rap is so divided into different subgenres and sounds and cultures that it’s hard to imagine anyone will be equally interested in the song with Cypress Hill, the song with Rick Ross, the song with the Cool Kids, and the song with Tech N9ne.
Barker isn't the only pop-punk star who's been branching out into other genres with his solo career. Patrick Stump, lead singer and guitarist of the platinum emo rockers Fall Out Boy, started working on his own album shortly after the band went on hiatus in 2009. And the title of his debut full-length, Soul Punk, due out later this year, is a loud and clear statement of purpose that he's mixing the music that made him famous with the R&B and pop that's always been a clear influence on his melodic vocal style.
After Soul Punk's release date was pushed back, Stump decided to preview the album with a self-released digital EP of outtakes called Truant Wave, released in February. And those six songs offer an intriguing look at the many sounds the versatile singer and multi-instrumentalist is capable of, from an R&B sound dominated by synths and drum machines on "Porcelain" and the Michael Jackson-aping "Cute Girls" to the funky "As Long As I Know I'm Getting Paid" and the pop/rock of "Big Hype."
Given Interscope's delay of Soul Punk, and the muted public response to the lead single "Spotlight (New Regrets)," one wonders what commercial potential Stump's solo career has. Over the course of the band's three major label albums, Fall Out Boy broke through big on rock radio, crossed over to top 40, and then quickly lost support of rock stations and pop radio as well. Stump's new sound is even less rock than the band's slicker later material, but his humble persona and earnest songs might not be a perfect fit for a pop landscape ruled by big, obnoxious personalities like Ke$ha and Katy Perry.
At the height of Fall Out Boy's popularity, Stump was already branching out, often producing for hip-hop acts like Lupe Fiasco and Tyga, and even singing hooks on a couple of hits by the Gym Class Heroes. But Stump never quite became one of rap's token soulful white boys, getting props from rappers and featured on their singles as often as, say, John Mayer or Maroon 5's Adam Levine or Coldplay's Chris Martin. When Gym Class Heroes rapper Travie McCoy went solo last year with the hit "Billionaire," it wasn't Stump but the newly ubiquitous pop hitmaker Bruno Mars singing the hook.
It's tempting to think that Stump could become a pop radio fixture like Bruno Mars—his voice has a similar light, smooth texture and ability to emote with classic R&B phrasing, and as a songwriter he's not afraid of bold melodies or big emotions. But he's also kind of a nerdy everyman, and in Fall Out Boy bassist and lyricist Pete Wentz was often considered the band's photogenic breakout star. Stump could score a fluke hit, or he could be destined for a much more cultish career.
Barker recently reunited with Blink 182, who are working on a new album, and nobody really expects a drummer to make a hit rap record. But with Stump, the stakes are higher and the possibilities wider, partly because he has such unique potential, and such a keen understanding of pop music history. But what they both share is that, like most musicians and music fans, they listen to many different genres of music. And where an underground rocker might only cover a hop-hop or R&B song, or rave about it on their blog, Barker and Stump are famous enough to rub shoulders with some of the urban stars they listen to, and make their own big budget attempts at making that kind of music. White musicians have been paying homage to (or straight up ripping off) black music for decades, but the way it happens continues to change shape and take on new shades of meaning and context. Maybe Barker and Stump are going about it in a way that’s rash or tacky, or perhaps it’s brave and uninhibited, but either way, it’s interesting.
The most daring track on the Truant Wave EP is "Big Hype," an interesting choice to close a release that ostensibly exists to built anticipation for Stump's album, because the lyrics cast such a cynical eye on the kind of grand expectations that tend to lead to letdowns, particularly in the music industry. Stump is justifiably wary of the kind of hype and backlash that led to Fall Out Boy's speedy rise and fall. But I hope he’ll have the drive, or the luck, to start over with something that could be bigger and better, or at the very least much more ambitiously diverse and unpredictable.