In theory, at least, Hot Karl seems fascinating and idiosyncratic, a dorky, white, bespectacled, suburban California rapper who writes multiple songs about David Lynch movies, owns a gallery, and lists Terry Zwigoff, Larry David, and David Lee Roth among his influences. So why does The Great Escape, Karl's debut album, feel so familiar? As its title attests, Hot Karl's debut aspires to break out of the role-playing and posturing that dominates underground hip-hop as well as the mainstream. But in his bid to come off as authentic, he just embodies another familiar rap archetype: the über-ironic, self-deprecating white rapper as borderline novelty act. No white rapper wants to come off as a 2005 version of Snow, so Caucasian rhyme-slingers like Karl pre-empt withering criticism by turning themselves into prefabricated jokes, walking repositories of second-rate, second-hand shtick.
Hot Karl comes off as compelling on paper in another sense, too. He seems to have devoted as much time to his album's hyper-chatty, voluminous liner notes and surprisingly clever, industry-mocking skits (featuring Black Sheep's old A&R man, no less!) as he did the actual songs themselves. The Great Escape at least gets off to a promising start, with a cheeky Sex Packets-like skit/song hybrid in which Karl and a disreputable record executiveare there any other kind?played by 3rd Bass' MC Serch engage in a frantic tug of war for Karl's artistic soul, with Karl at one point calling Serch "2000's Jerry Heller." Alas, the rest of the album suggests that Karl's creative soul might not be worth the hassle.
On "Home Sweet Home," Karl uses his upper-middle-class pedigree to peddle the same old clichés about the hypocrisy and spiritual emptiness of the suburbs, positing, as so many have before, that behind white picket fences lurk many a dark secret. Meanwhile, the pointless retrofest "Kerk Gybson" simply reinforces how rappers need to stop trying to pass off random strings of Reagan-era pop-culture references as songs. Hot Karl finally lets the shtick drop on "I've Heard," waxing poignantly autobiographical over 9th Wonder's elegant strings and a gutbucket sampled soul wail. In his liner notes, Karl concedes that 9th Wonder sold him the track even though he doesn't like Karl's rapping, a painful admission that lends the song's unflinching self-doubt a weird tension. Elsewhere, Karl is just a victim of his own cheesy persona.