Ten years ago to this day, I put Never Better on for the first time. It seems incredible to say it now but my first reaction was actually slight disappointment.
P.O.S had changed his sound, something he would do repeatedly throughout his career, moving away from the raw, punk-infused skittering energy of Ipecac Neat and Audition.
At the time, I’d never really heard anyone trying to do what P.O.S had done on those two albums and was irritated that he’d apparently drifted away from that. Where was the soft creepiness of ‘The Kill In Me’ or the soulful catchiness of ‘Bleeding Hearts Club’? It wasn’t that I disliked Never Better from that first listen, it just seemed a slightly safer, more mainstream offering compared to the previous two.
I could not have been more wrong. Every time I’ve put on Never Better in the last decade, I end up shaking my head at how utterly, incomprehensibly wrong I was. Never Better is one of the great underground classics of hip-hop – a tag that seems almost quaint now as the boundaries between the two blur into nothingness – and sits comfortably in my top ten albums of all time.
The album has the force of a juggernaut from the off and doesn’t relent for a single moment over the course of 53 minutes. The production has the momentum of a wrecking ball and, in the hands of a lesser rapper, would have been almost overpowering. But P.O.S is on fire throughout. He manages to combine nods to the hip-hop greats (They out for Presidents to represent them / You really think a President will represent you?), with shots at Pfizer and Wal-Mart (show a little respect you Pfizer babies / Look at how they hate, pilled out, bounce they liver off they top eight), and deep cine-literate cuts about Blade Runner and The Big Lebowski (You’re outta your element Donnie / Double, double eat up, ride, The Dude Abides), all the while making it appear effortless. And that’s just the opening track.
From there, each track flows into the next with consummate ease, hitting all the hip-hop album staples. There’s the posse cut, the screed against the justice system, the storytelling song, and, of course, the hidden track at the end. The album was incredibly well received at the time, although there were some critics who suggested that songs like ‘Savion Glover’ and ‘Get Smokes’ fail to live up to the standards set elsewhere. This seems to me to miss how deliberate the track listing feels and how both tracks contribute to the album as a whole.
Revisiting it for the tenth anniversary, one of the things that stands out the most is how, lyrically, the album barely seems to have aged. The urgency and sense of frustration feels as relevant today as it did then, mainly because his targets aren’t contemporary politicians but the apathy of his audience, particularly on the savage ‘Savion Glover’ (And saying fuck Bush gave that douche a splash too much credit / But smoking on Kush makes cats so apathetic). And while the production maybe feels a little more dated – it’s hard to imagine the same beats being used in 2019 – the harder punk sounds still feel vital and energising at each listen.
Despite being someone who grew up on punk rather than hip-hop, at every turn on Never Better, Stef underlines just how aware he is of the history he is tapping into with homages and tributes scattered throughout. And, for all my initial misgivings, the blend of punk and rap here is far superior to Audition. Going back, Audition sounds like the result of two sounds being mixed together while Never Better is its own beast. It’s a more mature effort – the type of album that comes about when an artist is at the peak of his powers and is able to translate the album of his imagination onto wax.
To me, it remains P.O.S’ masterpiece. When we asked him, Stef actually said Chill, Dummy is the closest he’s come, saying it’s the ‘actual connection of bat to the ball’ but for my money, the sheer ferocity of Never Better has yet to be topped. Perhaps it’s because of all the dick-punching energy he had when making the record, but after ten years in which hip-hop has changed in ways we never would have predicted, Never Better remains an absolute classic – a tightly controlled maelstrom of pure genius that stands with the very best Rhymesayers has ever produced.
P.O.S – Never Better (10 Year Anniversary Edition) is available now from Rhymesayers Entertainment