Review Summary: The Papercut Chronicles II is a strange, confused mess with a lot of ambitions, a lot of mistakes, and a lot of potential.
Gym Class Heroes hold a strange place in the musical landscape. They're not quite rock, despite being a full band with plenty of rap-rock elements; they're a bit too edgy and alternative to be a pop act, despite having released multiple of Top 40 hits and worked with plenty of pop figures; they're not quite in the hip hop world either, despite being undeniably rap-centric. It's no surprise, then, that The Papercut Chronicles II is an album that sounds out of place nearly all the time, with its many different styles and leanings all at odds with each other.
Featuring contributions from Adam Levine from Maroon 5, Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic fame, dance-pop singer Neon Hitch, and (oddly enough) synth-y art pop artist Oh Land, the album attempts to tackle straightforward rap rock, pop rap, emo-rap, and offbeat alternative hip hop all in less than 45 minutes. While ambitious, The Papercut Chronicles II lacks cohesion and ends up feeling out-of-place with itself, and despite having a few standout tracks, most of the songs here don't hold up well enough upon closer examination to give the album much staying power.
Highlights of the album include the sultry and eclectic Solo Discotheque (Whiskey Bitness), featuring several turntablism-bridges, a guitar solo at the climax of the song, and cryptic lyrics personifying music as some weird drug-dealing ghost girlfriend, the poppy rap-rock thump of Lazarus, Ze Gitan, a song detailing frontman Travie McCoy's search for the right city to live in through personifying a number of different cities and states as girls (Gym Class Heroes have a strange thing for personifying things as girlfriends), and the album closer Kid Nothing and the Never-Ending Naked Nightmare, an impressively ahead-of-the-curve track blending experimental hip hop, harsh vocals, and emo-style lyrics a number of years before the Soundcloud emo-rap scene blew up.
On the other hand, the big stumbles here are the Heroes' attempt at a religion-bashing edgy-kid anthem in Holy Horse***, Batman!!, punctuated with clumsy lyrics and a weak autotune-slathered sing-along chorus, and the obligatory "severely broken relationship" every white (or in Travie's case, half-white) rapper has to release at some point in Nil-Nil-Draw's driving rap-rock, featuring some seriously wack lyrics and another weak chorus.
The other tracks on the album fall somewhere between these two extremes. The anthemic rap-rock of Matyrial Girl$ and mega-earworm Ass Back Home's pop-rap work a lot better than they maybe should, but Life Goes On, Stereo Hearts, and The Fighter are all too glossy and faux-uplifting to work as much more than the soundtrack to some sort of inspirational-video.
The interesting thing about The Papercut Chronicles II is that despite being undeniably a pop-rap album, it's far from generic or derivative outside of a few clear Top 40-aimed tracks. Gym Class Heroes clearly have their own unique style and don't shy away from experimental production choices (see the near-industrial distorted beats on Kid Nothing and the geometric guitar riffs on the verses Matyrial Girl$) or strange genre-blends. The lyrics aren't too overly poppy for the most part either, featuring diverse vocabulary even in the song titles (who the *** says discotheque or gitan anymore" Nobody, that's who.) and occasionally brilliant (if usually corny) poetic lines, such as "And everybody's hip like Replacements" in Matyrial Girl$ and "Nightmares are putting fires out with gasoline" in Life Goes On.
Unfortunately, the uniqueness of the music itself is hampered by way too much polish and a heaping of lines plenty stupid enough to make you forget the good ones (see: "So does God have a favorite brand" And for that matter, is he even a man" And will I go to hell for even saying that"" on Hoiy Horse***, Batman!! and "That's when you press on, Lee Nails" from The Fighter among many, many other). In the end, what was a really promising album ends up falling flat too much of the time to make it an essential listen.
I'm gonna come clean and say that this used to be one of my favourite albums when I was in middle school, and it's not hard to see why; The Papercut Chronicles II is a unique-sounding album with plenty of catchy choruses and relatable lyrics about finding your place, persisting through tough times, and feeling like an outsider, all perfect for someone starting to go through puberty. Looking back, I really do see elements of a great album all over this, and I feel like the Gym Class Heroes had the potential to be a much more influential and defining rap band if they had stuck around longer and put out something less glossy and flawed.
Unfortunately we're 7 years down the line and we haven't heard any new material from the band, so I don't think we're likely to get that great album I was hoping for, and rap has largely shed the elements that made Gym Class Heroes unique - emo rap got popular without bringing along the rock elements that helped define it, experimental hip hop has gone largely electronic, alternative hip hop has eschewed a more organic, oldschool hip-hop style, and rap rock has become even less present among popular music than it was in 2011. So therefore I say Rest In Peace to what could have been in the Gym Class Heroes had gotten the chance to reach their full potential. Music has moved on, perhaps for the better, and we can only imagine what might have happened in another timeline.