Over the last decade and a half, the Kansas City rapper Mac Lethal has become a personality locally and beyond. He has a huge YouTube presence. He’s published a novel based on his Tumblr. He’s performed on "Ellen." He hosts an MTV show where he asks trivia questions to drunk people ("Binge Thinking," described in the opening credits as “the best pub crawl game show on TV”).
His name has been built in large part on his hyperspeed, tongue-twisting rapping skills. His YouTube videos have titles like “White Kid Raps Fast!” In those videos, some of which have gone viral, he raps while cooking pancakes, raps while microwaving popcorn, raps over a Mozart record (in apparent response to a teacher asking him to make more family friendly videos). His persona is a mix of those record-breaking technical skills, lovable nerdiness, smart-ass humor, hip-hop fandom, love for Kansas City and optimism/cynicism/realism about life and its struggles.
That’s where Congratulations comes in. The cover art on Mac's new album portrays a woman receiving a bouquet of flowers with a human skull hidden in it. Besides the obvious (death), that skull references life’s gotcha! moments of pain and hardship.
The songs on Congratulations keep returning to big occasions — graduating, starting a job, getting married, having kids — to flip the script and reveal each one's darker side, which all of us will experience and need to come to terms with. Growing up, aging, and realizing your own mortality are the omnipresent themes.
“Every single grown adult that I’ve met gets a broken heart when they wonder where the time went,” he raps on “The Watchmaker Theory,” detailing the way time flies and brings regrets. He answers Drake's triumphant "Started from the bottom/now we're here" with a cynical reversal: “Started at the bottom and you’ll stay at the fucking bottom until your heart is in decay.”
The music stays straight-forward and minimalist enough to keep the focus on the pointed things Mac Lethal has to say in songs touching on wage slavery, domestic strife, the normalcy of dysfunctional families, the joys and tedium of child-rearing, the pleasures of coffee and marijuana, trying to clearly see the future — and the harsh end to which we’re all headed.
Yes, death is always there: In the daily-life-focused “Til the Casket Drops,” in his hopes for reincarnation on “Circle,” and in “Angel of Death” (featuring another nimble Kansas Citian, Tech N9ne), where his mother's death hangs over every moment of his day.
The general sense of doom and gloom on Congratulations feels incredibly of-the-moment, either because of the universality of the songs’ concerns or because of the apocalyptic air of our current political times. Here’s 2016 in a nutshell, as Mac Lethal sees it: “The whole damn world is burning but you’d never know because you’re too busy staring at your phones.”