The members of Northern State could be my friends. From what their music tells me, Hesta Prynn, Spero and Sprout have a lot of heart. Not only are they well-read and fiercely political, they also appreciate the finer things in life like Friday fish fry and margaritas. Unfortunately, the same way I wouldn’t be able to take my friends seriously as rappers, I can’t take Northern State seriously. I do have to hand it to them-their rhymes are witty, they have interesting beats on their side and they can certainly flow better than most people I’ve seen pick up a hip hop karaoke mic, but with these three ladies, what you hear is what you get. “Can I Keep This Pen?” is talent show rap and though it’s clear that making this record did require talent, there just isn’t any mystery involved. No matter how awesome your friends are, you can only hear the same stories so many times before they start to bore you.
The three voices can be incongruent at times. Hesta and Spero take the brassy route, which can get overbearing at times, while Sprout’s almost robotic monotone can either lull you to sleep or be impossibly captivating. When their songs stray from the hyper, earnest party formula, the timbre doesn’t always match the mood. For example, on “Iluvitwhenya” which comes off like a sex jam written by Dr. Seuss, it sounds like they never decided whether to use their bedroom or barroom voices and as a result the energy is all over the place. “Away Away” steers into Luscious Jackson territory and features Olivia Newton John-style breathiness on the verses, but a grating, nasally scream-along chorus.
Actually, a lot of Can I Keep This Pen? shows the group dipping heavily into genres other than hip hop, and if their attempts at rocking out are not totally successful, they definitely make the trip more engrossing. These tracks reveal some strong influences-Elastica (“Better Already”), Madonna circa 2000 (“Cowboy Man”), Le Tigre (“Away Away”), Zero 7 (“Run Off the Road” & “Fall Apart”)-but they lack the je ne sais quoi that made the originators influential in the first place.
Northern State succeed the most when they pick something specific and run with it. “Things I’ll Do” cleverly nails the feeling of being broke and finds the ladies scrambling around to think up “a million ways to make a buck.” “Sucka Mofo,” unsurprisingly produced by Ad Rock, is Northern State’s “Egg Man,” in which the trio feverishly bitches about the various and sundry sucka mofos in their lives.
On “Cold War,” a gawky electro-punk throwdown, Northern State wonder, “Whatever happened to fuck the police?” It’s a great sentiment, but I doubt these three have ever so much as hopped a turnstile. They sound too, well, nice, and who wants to listen to nice rappers anymore?