Rabid Child Images

Kanye West had interrupting Taylor Swift at the VMAs. Mad Rad had a fight with a bouncer at Neumos. Like Kanye—and don't worry, we won't take this comparison so far that it becomes grossly unfair—Mad Rad spent much of 2010 recalibrating their brand and rebuilding their hype game even as they went to work in the studio, and they too cap the year with an album that aims, however obliquely, for redemption. Let's have a toast to the douchebags.

Kanye came back from his gaffe with the recently released My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, an absolute mountain of an album—hiphop, pop, or otherwise—that finds new depths by doubling down on the auteur's favorite subject: himself. Mad Rad's new sophomore album, The Youth Die Young, feels like a more intentional and drastic reboot—from much-hyped party rappers (remember "third wave"?) to banned "bad boys" to, well, what exactly? The partying and the recklessness are still here—from the would-be cred-establishing (and Clipse-refuting?) boast in "Caveman" ("I don't need keys to let us in/See what I did to your bouncer's chin") to the equally aggro and entry-obsessed sex rap of "I Want Your Blood." But there are also heavy-handed attempts at sober reflection, angst, and "Epiphany." If White Gold was the party, Youth is the morning after. Mad Rad haven't become the good guys, but they've started to take stock of themselves as bad guys. But the results of this soul searching are disappointingly shallow on several levels.

As rappers, they still get by more on posture and attitude than on content or wordplay. Youth offers no gut-busting punch lines, no mind-blowing metaphors, and only a few truly impressive tongue-twisting runs ("The Machine" has a verse that almost echoes the double-time cadences of OutKast's "B.O.B.," right down to pivoting on the word "cancer"). Mad Rad's newfound wisdom is by turns platitudinous ("You only live once") and insular ("I love my friends"—well, yeah, who doesn't love their own friends?).

The standout here is P Smoov, who remains the group's most charismatic and credible rapper, and whose always promising productions are the most exciting thing about Youth. Smoov's sonic world is icy cold and hermetic—"Stuck in space and dead as Neptune"—dominated by synthesizers and drum machines, with only a little room provided by live percussion, guitars, and cello. One wonders if Smoov's productions might breathe a little better if he allowed in the occasional sample.

Mostly, though, the album sags under the weight of these guys trying hard to sound "meaningful" even if they don't really have much to say. This manifests in some weird choices, like Buffalo Madonna's gothic moaning and faux-British-accented soliloquies (which, again to his credit, Smoov treats adeptly).

Because they're also playing this week, I've been thinking about Les Savy Fav in relation to Mad Rad, and what you might call the limit of gimmicks: Both bands have crazy live shows, but only the former records albums that I routinely put on for pleasure. If there's a lesson to Youth, it may be not that ours die young but that rehabilitation, like controversy or hype, can take you only so far before the music speaks for itself. recommended