Buddy Is a Master of Mellow on Debut Album ‘Harlan & Alondra’

Rappers typically devote great energy to devising monikers that convey how hard, cool, rich, or otherwise incredible they are. Compton’s Simmie Sims III has taken a decidedly different approach, choosing to go by the relatively friendly and unassuming alias “Buddy.” It’s an apt name too, consistent with the casual confidence that characterizes his distinctive style. Buddy commanded the attention of Pharrell Williams as a teenager, and went on to quickly make a name for himself under William’s direction, with his 2014 debut mixtape “Idle Time” featuring such illustrious guests as Kendrick Lamar, Miley Cyrus, and Robin Thicke. “Harlan & Alondra” is his first actual album, and a promising next step.

From its first moments, this is a distinctively West Coast hip-hop album. Opener “Real Life Shit” immediately sets a light, rather frivolous mood that belies the gravity of its title. Live drums stumble around in  a careless groove, with outrageously funky synth bass snippets dropped here and there, and Buddy rapping with an easy, breezy flow, and singing choruses of “La da da’s.” “Shameless” continues the feeling, with the repeated titular word mimicking the sound of shakers that keep rhythm underneath. Needless to say, the rap game is hardly known for subtlety, and to be “shameless” is the norm. As expected, Buddy affirms, “I’m tryna get rich,” puts a slight spin on the typical take, asserting, “I don’t wanna be famous.” This is worlds away from Kanye. Guapdad 4000 drops a verse and sounds like Snoop Dogg on Xanax, almost too laid back to get the words out. The listless, muttered flow sounds just right in the context, even if slightly comical.

“Black” is a sharp standout. The beat is minimal, hard-hitting and infectious with snapping handclaps and skittering, syncopated hi-hats. Buddy must repeat the word “black” at least fifty times by the song’s end, and the relentless repetition of the single syllable is a bit like the nonsensical “Brrr-ah-da-da-da” tomfoolery that rappers often engage in, lampooned famously by English comedian Big Shaq. The fact that the sound being repeated is, in this case, the word “black” adds plenty weight, expressing an unapologetic embrace of blackness. What makes it unique is the youthful levity that it assumes from Buddy’s delivery. While numerous other artists could make this a militantly somber affair, Buddy renders it with a characteristically playful, light-hearted cool. The swag with which he delivers the line, “I feel like Trayvon with his black hoodie on” makes it the perfect example of turning something on its face and owning it. Another notable line is “I’m about to get me that black Tesla,” as Buddy’s choice of car makes him stand out among his peers, with their usual foreigns. A$AP Ferg makes an appearance, with his low register flow serving as a nice counterpoint to Buddy’s.

Ty Dolla $ign stops by on “Hey Up There” for his usual muttering, gargling, Auto-tune shtick. It’s a really tired parlor trick at this point, but it’s a catchy tune, and some extra star power. Buddy reiterates, “Tryna be rich, I don’t wanna be famous,” although he seems to contradict it on the next track, a brief ‘70s funk soul interlude with a mellifluous walking bass line and the lyrics, “everyone wants to be (legend)… Hmm, my turn.” Of course, Buddy might desire to be legendary only in terms of wealth rather than fame. This is more than understable, considering that he’s literally “straight outta Compton.” With this in mind, it’s remarkable how estranged this album’s sound is from that of, say, legendary Compton dwellers NWA. Buddy doesn’t shy away from exploring the hardships of hood life, but he does it with a notable easiness of manner, never wallowing into overbearing self-pity or despair. “Trouble On Central” is an extraordinarily catchy tune, with a chorus beginning, “I wish I had a girl by my side / Wish I had a brand new ride,” and continuing in a litany of “I wish” sentiments until culminating in the line, “And I wish I wasn’t stuck on Central.”   

“The Blue” is almost a caricature of the West Coast sound, with its deliciously tacky drum machine sounds and subdued funk stylings. Fittingly, none other than Snoop Dogg makes an appearance, and it sounds exactly meant to be. Buddy’s silly falsetto yelps of “Call ya mama, call ya daddy” recall some of Andre 3000’s stylings from Outkast’s “Stankonia” era. In fact, Buddy seems to channel this particular energy and aesthetic at moments throughout the album. The vibes keep coming, with a few spacious Slum Village-style jam. “Speechless” is rather ironically titled, as it’s likely to leave some listeners as such, with its cringe-inducing gratuitousness of imagery. On the other hand, it shows Buddy in top form, rapping with the whimsical cadences and turns of tune that give him so much personality. This continues into “Young,” which features vaguely gospel-tinged choruses, and the age twenty-five Buddy expressing some rather premature nostalgia.

“Trippin’” is another mellow tune, at one point featuring the rather hilarious line, “Listen to Grateful Dead and I’m trippin’ balls,” delivered with absolute, deadpan sincerity. Khalid contributes a hook, one that seems to have been written with as little effort as humanly possible. Still, his knack for melody and sonorous voice make it an invaluable contribution. “Find Me 2” is one of the most exciting moments of the record, and owes its impact primarily to the drums. Instead of merely riding a basic beat, as is the norm, Buddy engages with sputtering rhythms that shift and skip in tandem with his spit syllables, occasionally trailing off in dubbed-out echoes. Finally, the record comes to closure with the short, sweet, and simple “Shine,” which finds Buddy ending on an ever-positive note, declaring, “I can’t help but shine.”

On the whole, “Harlan & Alondra” can come across as slightly underwhelming, hardly the stuff to inspire revelations. Yet, it’s a thoroughly consistent hip-hop album, and, in that sense, it seems all it purports to be. Any fans of the classic West Coast sound will surely find plenty to enjoy. What really sets the album apart is how comfortably understated and charmingly optimistic it is. There’s a certain unfastidious aplomb that makes Buddy uniquely agreeable, and makes for an enjoyable listen at large.

Harlan & Alondra” is available July 20 on Apple Music.