Ever since Eminem began selling truckloads of records, it was only a matter of time before the music industry began rolling out knockoffs. With Dark Days, Bright Nights, the major-label debut of Georgia redneck rapper Bubba Sparxxx, that day has arrived. The superficial similarities to Eminem are almost too easy to point out. Both grew up in poor white households, both record for the same conglomerate, and both have respected black hip-hop producers lording over them in the studio — in Sparxxx’s case, Missy Elliott’s regular collaborator Timbaland. Even Sparxxx’s real name, Warren Mathis, echoes Marshall Mathers.
Sparxxx, like Eminem, is extremely aware of his lot in life. On ”Take Off,” a now-eerie skit about the anxiety he feels when he climbs aboard a commercial flight, he can’t afford the headphones to watch ”Gladiator.” On the clanking single ”Ugly,” he predicts, with just-the-facts resignation, that he’ll never date a model. Yet from his stage name to the Southern-pride boasts that litter the album, Sparxxx is also geographically conscious. He’s his own man — and a Southern man at that. In ”Well Water,” a polished rap-R&B hybrid, he mentions shuttered factories and unemployment in his home state. On ”Infected,” he asks a woman into whom he wants to ”plant my seed”: ”What, you thought I was from ‘N Sync?/I’m a country motherf–ker who ain’t changed my clothes in six weeks.”
These rhymes are delivered in a thick, drowsy drawl that, to his credit, isn’t as adenoidal as the voices of many of his white hip-hop predecessors. (”Y’all don’t know me at all/I say the same thing but just slower than y’all,” he boasts in ”Bubba Talk.”) And unlike Kid Rock, who integrates dirtbag rock, power ballads, and country blues in his music, Sparxxx’s hip-hop is more ”pure.” In interviews, he talks up OutKast as a major influence, and the duo’s mix of freewheeling R&B and hip-hop beats is clearly felt on ”Dark Days, Bright Nights.” In fact, OutKast producers Organized Noise helmed some of the sharpest cuts, including the Sly Stone-style ”All the Same,” Sparxxx’s we’re-just-one-race-of-goobers statement of purpose.
Given these ingredients, the potential for a unique, powerful hip-hop statement is considerable. Unfortunately, neither Sparxxx nor his collaborators deliver fully on the promise. Like rappers in New York and L.A., Sparxxx is an avid materialist (see references to acquiring Nautica, Ralph Lauren, and Polo on several tracks) and repeatedly reminds us that his goal is to go multiplatinum as fast as possible.
He may see that possibility as his escape from the rural ghetto, but it still seems small-minded. This ethos comes to a head on ”Regardless,” in which he fantasizes about corporate jets, Range Rovers, and writing off business expenses, and informs us he has no desire to be a critics’ darling because those acts don’t move product. (Talk about business savvy!) It’s probably unreasonable to expect the album to be a professorial dissertation on the effects of the socioeconomic climate on the South and its citizens, but ”I don’t do drugs/I hang out with corporate thugs that trade microchips and Oriental rugs” isn’t especially enlightening, either. Elsewhere Sparxxx revels in the usual topics — his appeal to women (”Get Right”), the supposedly skeevy bitches around him (”Betty-Betty”), and getting loaded (numerous tracks) — but with only dollops of the inventive wordplay common to the best rappers.
To accompany Sparxxx, Timbaland creates clattering, inventive constructs out of guitars, strings, and skittery beats (”Bubba Talk,” ”Get Right,” and ”Open Wide”). But ”Ugly” is primarily a rehash of ”Get Ur Freak On,” his Missy Elliott smash. The non-Timbaland tracks are equally hit-or-miss. And at 18 cuts, this is another in a seemingly endless stream of interminable albums that could have benefited from judicious pruning. ”Dark Days, Bright Nights” is like a college course on the cultural influence of hip-hop — how it extends beyond New York and L.A. and skin color, and how it shouldn’t be seen as simply the music of entrepreneurial millionaires running their own multitiered companies. It’s just disappointing that Sparxxx doesn’t teach us any new lessons along the way.