In 2011, the Midwest took over Mohawk for one night at SXSW. It’s tough competition down there, but when you have Gayngs spearheaded by Justin Vernon and Ryan Olson doing a (at the time) rare performance outside of the Twin Cities, there was no excuse not to be there. Stefon Alexander was part of the supergroup on stage, belting out crooning notes over “No Sweat.” The spotlight on the rapper turned backroom soul singer brought cheers and slow, suggestive dancing from floor to patio. Had you showed up late, those who had been there may have mentioned the opening songs, or perhaps the frenetic dual-drumming in the dark wall of sound of Marijuana Deathsquads (Stef and Ryan are also in this group). But other enthusiastic comments may have carried tales of Stef aka P.O.S‘ song just moments before. No one really knew what the song was, since it wasn’t available or streaming. We just knew it was debuting hard and only described as “dance rap,” something unexpected from a rapper who came from punk (he previously collaborated with the Bouncing Souls‘ Greg Attonito). What people experienced was something that would not be released until this day…1 1/2 years after this happened:
“Get Down,” featuring fellow Doomtree emcee Mike Mictlan, has been the epitome of a banger since. It drives people to Doomtree concerts, raving over the chance to experience it. The fact that it took so long to be released created buzz alone, leaving people to subpar live YouTube videos until Pitchfork unleashed the Andrew Dawson-produced monster. Not only does it deliver P.O.S’ best produced song to date, Mictlan holds his ground, leaving an impressive feature on an album bursting at the seams with talent.
P.O.S is known for pushing the limits since Ipecac Neat and its off-kilter, disorienting rhymes, through Audition, which featured The Hold Steady‘s Craig Finn delivering practically spoken word choruses, and into Never Better. We Don’t Even Live Here is the culmination up to today, the best kind of polished hardcore-influenced beats and rapid-fire delivery coming straight out of a creatively frenzied, but calculated, mind. Opener “Bumper,” inspired by experience at televised award shows, sums where P.O.S is placed in rap and hip-hop at large. “I take my time with it. I take forever. … Pushing my own limits.I make it better. No one touching my future. Ain’t no one fucked with my old shit yet.” With Ryan Olson in his arsenal out the gates, it’s clear the bar has been pushed farther.
Five out of the eleven tracks have features. Before going to those, how’s the rest hold up? “Lock-Picks, Knives, Bricks, and Bats” is a battle cry that ride the same rails as “Never Better” with flashes of “Get Smokes.” “But so happy to be alive that Death thinks I would ruin the vibe. I’m not invited. I’m not crying, calling out crimes…” Given all the building and fighting it takes to get heard, get noticed, especially coming from the Land of 10,000 Lakes, Stef has done the work to merit without sounding premature, as some boastful rappers with backers may attempt to attest. “We can take all the pressure. And we ain’t even looking at y’all.” The skill behind P.O.S is that he can envision an all-encompassing album, with “Fuck Your Stuff” stripped down to the rapcore (with the luxury car burning in the background) while harvesting the seeds of that dance rap mix everyone will try hard with “(Weird Friends) We Don’t Even Live Here” worked over by Boys Noize. It’s a brash, bold range to try and harness. Seeing how We Don’t Even Live Here manages to sound more cohesive while being more ambitious than Never Better or Audition, Stef’s hit the sweet spot alone in addition to getting some help from his friends.
Features can feel forced or pasted on with the elegance of your kid nephew with scissors, construction paper and glue-which is far from the case here. Aside from the aforementioned “Get Down,” Doomtree countrymen Sims and Isaac Gale (who has directed many of the collective’s videos and is in Marijuana Deathsquads) are all over the punching piano of “They Can’t Come” and ivory freneticism of “Piano Hits.” The former has swagger while the latter is a straight up high-speed getaway. The two left to mention, Minneapolis’ freshly adopted son Astronautalis and Eau Claire’s leading candidate for future bronze town statue Justin Vernon, contribute the catchiest tracks. The piano ascension into “We’re the best in the world…” is one of the few moments that may hold a candle to Vernon’s raps on “How We Land.”
Yes, Justin Vernon raps.
And it isn’t as chopped as on “Monster,” but a full on contribution that P.O.S sets up with easily one of his best choruses of his discography. Kanye West seems to have tepidly tested the waters, while P.O.S graciously lets his fellow Gayngs counterpart take the song over. The auto-tune is there, yes, but doesn’t feel out of place given Ryan Olson’s touch on “Bumper” and the slugging “Fuck Your Stuff” just before.
While Stef declares, “We don’t want any of your stuff,” denouncing vain attempts at soul-searching in store aisles, We Don’t Even Live Here sounds best when others come in to touch up his work, adding fresh elements and production that go beyond the years of experience that Doomtree has bestowed him with. It’s his Declaration of Independence without being overtly political to opulently oozing levels; P.O.S is a force in and of himself, and his friends have his back along the way.