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When Jason Feathers, the long-rumoured side project of indie-folk deity Justin Vernon and Astronautalis, Minnesota's answer to alt. rap royalty Aesop Rock (though most people would peg Atmosphere,) the internet went wild with speculation. Only hours later, De Oro, the fruits of their collaborative later went live via Pitchfork.

Vernon and Astronautalis, along with Bon Iver drummer S. Carey and Ryan Olson of Gayngs and Polica have obviously been reading the Gorillaz/Captain Murphy/Major Lazer playbook, because the liner notes and the accompanying press release say nothing of any of them. Instead, Astronautalis is credited as Creflo, "a red-chased god-bassed Southern rapper in a fancy white suit," Vernon "a guitar-crooning lost cowboy," and Carey a "drummer-hype-piano-man." Two more characters, a ghost called Opacity and the elusive bassist ________ round out the cast of musical outlaws.

Jason Feathers refers to the character Cheflo's pseudonym, a character-in-character attempting to reignite a failed hip-hop career. But this rambling pretense is secondary and completely superfluous to the badassery that it announces.

It'd be easy to write off De Oro as parody. Less serious than the satirical heartbreak of Serengeti's Kenny Dennis LP, but more straight-laced than the average Das Racist album, tracks like 'Leave Your Stain' and 'Courtyard Marriott' could just as easily be throwaways from The Lonely Island if they weren't played with such a straight-face. The entire packaging of the album, complete with pretense-laden announce communique and photos of the artists involved dressed like pulpy gangsters is seeping through with shades of other side-projects masquerading as fictional bands.

Jason Feathers, however, is still a Justin Vernon side-project. When he isn't smoking spliffs with Kanye on some Hawaiian island, or laying down samples for two of the most ball-crushingly perfect hip-hop albums of all time, he's writing tracks that make white Wisconsinites like me sob into our Green Bay Packer-branded pillow cases and get us laid whenever we break them out as cover songs at open mic nights. The man can do no wrong musically, and De Oro continues his tradition of spitting molten gold on the tape.

I'd like to think the characters in front of the musicians behind Jason Feathers are members of an otherworldly dimension, not unlike the Malkovichverse of Being John Malkovich, where the world is overrun with Justin Vernons. They're slinging coffee in coffee shops, they're cutting logs in Alaska, they're wearing luchador masks and laundering money in hotel rooms. And when you exist in this Vernonverse, what do you do except become a pulpy indie-rock rapper with a grill and an eye patch? It makes perfect sense.

Lana Del Rey said something earlier this year about how everyone's favourite artists are the ones who died young. I'd say that everyone's favourite artists are the ones who admire Kanye West. Stop and think about the number of times My Dark Twisted Fantasy or Yeezus have come up organically in a music interview you've read this decade. Just take a moment. Justin Vernon is the man who Kanye West trusts to carry his albums, having co-written tracks on both of West's magnum opuses and making for some of the most worthy True Detective: Season 2 photo ops.

Sure, Astronautalis is very much present on De Oro doing his best impersonation of Tyler the Creator's Wolf Haley character, but this is Vernon's world. Anyone who's wished that the Bon Iver hooks from 'Hold My Liquor' and 'I Am a God' filled larger audio spaces will be pleased to find how heavy De Oro shines a spotlight shines on them. And unlike the sleepy drone of 'The Woods/Still', these samples bump and groove in all their extended glory. 

'Leave Your Stain' is a messy and shambling opening track. On the surface, it's the worst kind of auto-tune drivel. And yet, S. Carey's expert drumming and radio-friendly production salvage it, turning it into a subversive critique on hip-hop culture that shits all over Lorde's 'Royals'.
 It's hard for a group of Caucasian men to pull off the cheesier shades of hip-hop. While neither Astronautalis nor Vernon own it as much as rap game cheez whiz Riff Raff, they can still sell a line like "I want to meet your boyfriend/I wanna know his name/If you stay/I'm gonna make it rain." There's bravado in it, a self-knowing tongue that's shoved so far into the track's cheek that it might as well be two primary school children making out for the first time. And that's important. 

While the project probably won't escape criticism of cultural appropriation from social justice bloggers that's plagued Lorde and Iggy Azalea--I mean look at the grills on that cover--there's a self-aware light-heartedness to the tracks. Should anyone take a project that features lyrics like "Diamonds on my sack/Diamonds on my sack/I do not give any fucks," seriously, or try to oppose it?

'Courtyard Marriott', the album's pièce de résistance, is a cheeseball rap anthem that perfectly encapsulates the entire aesthetic of Jason Feathers. For a moment, you'd be forgiven for confusing the track with an unreleased Kanye West track.

Sexy, hilarious, and smooth, the track celebrates middle-American mediocrity, making reference to meals at Golden Corral, plastic fiddles, wolf and sheep. By the end it's hard to tell whether it's a commentary on the seedy spaces that middle-class Americans inhabit (seriously, have you ever been to a Golden Corral?) or some sort of religious lampoon. But it doesn't matter, the track is provocative and makes a parking lot at a Marriott and chain-restaurant buffet table seem like the fucking Catalina Wine Mixer. 

In contrast, 'Cyclone', another standout track, seethes, opening with a powerful Vernon condemnation, before shuffling into a short-lived yet wall of cacophony before abruptly being snuffed out without a trace of irony (or a single bar of hip-hop lyricism.) It's a perplexing shift but a breathtaking moment on an album filled with oddities.

If there's any fault in De Oro, it's that the album sets and alters expectations so quickly that it's jarring. Influences and homage blaze fast at such a high speed it's hard to get a lock on exactly what sort of tone the artists involved were going for. 'Courtyard Marriott' is followed by the mostly serious 'Canary in a Gold Mine' and the experimental 'Hot Forever'. The album tries to cover so much ground in nine tracks without having the precision or organisational control that Kanye West's magnum opuses benefit from. And it's questionable as to whether the whole thing will stand the test of time or just mark the time between official Bon Iver releases.
However, De Oro succeeds in its most difficult goal. By the end, I had bought into the gooey, pulpy, universe that the album exists in. I was perplexed and intrigued by Cheflo and his hip-hop outlaws, by their mediocre middle-American spaghetti western gangster lifestyles. And I was hankering for more of it. De Oro sold me on the impossibly gaudy premise of Jason Feathers, a conceit so cheesy you could put pepperoni and oregano on top and have a pizza. And that's damn impressive.

You can stream it over at Pitchfork.

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