God calls him Iron Man. He smacks his money. He will be your Judge Brown. He's so young and he works so hard. He's Sonny Bonoho, and he's the biggest whack job in Seattle hip-hop.
Sonny Bonoho performs Sat., April 10, at Nectar. Doors at 9 p.m.
Weirdness only works when the weirdness comes naturally. That's why it's easy to hate goth kids. And easy to love Bonoho. He makes other MCs' personalities look like sputtering 10-watt light-bulbs, and he does it all via an engaging blend of singing and rapping--and, crucially, without any thespian posturing.Strange: "Is that the word you wanted to refer to me as?" Bonoho says after he's asked if a) he's aware of how he weird comes off on his album and b) where the weirdness comes from. Once it's made clear that we're talking about the same thing, Bonoho offers a surprisingly honest, insightful, and ultimately disturbing account of a fucked up childhood that would make the strongest among us tilt at windmills.
On his second full-length, Phonephreak (dropping Saturday, April 10, during a release show at Nectar and in two to three weeks on iTunes), Bonoho's oddball antics sometimes get him into trouble. This is especially true of the self-produced "Grand Am" (featuring Bizarre of D12 fame) and the Phuture-produced "$mack" (which is partially saved by a memorable hook: "Smack that money like you're clapping your hands"). Both of these cuts suffer from a kind of over-boogie--there's just too much going on. That's what happens when, like Bonoho, you take risks: you sometimes fall flat.
But the other nine tracks (the intro, "Phonephreak," is a skit) stand tall. In fact, they're pretty frickin' great. The beat for "I Kno," produced by J.E.B. (the only local beatsmith other than Bonoho himself featured on the album), rides out like the best of Organized Noize's jams from the '90s. Lyrically, it embodies what Bonho does best: combine heartfelt sincerity with humor.
Since he's a singer-rapper in the vein of Andre 3000 circa The Love Below--he's always having fun--Bonoho is able to get away with saying things that would normally get you laughed off-stage, such as "Everything I said is from the heart/My heart is burning." On paper, the line, off the addictive joint "Helpin Hand," reads like a lyric from a Mylie Cyrus song, but Bonoho makes it feel, well, weirdly appropriate.
OK, so Bonoho's early years sucked. In part because he was born in Laos and didn't speak English very well, Bonoho was subjected to enormous amounts of cruelty and violence by the kids he grew up with in Tacoma, who he says were "pretty much demented." To give just one example: Bonoho says his tormentors would piss in water guns and then "spray that on me during the summer." (He wrote a song for his first album about it, which he sang parts of live over the phone for this writer.)
Thing is, what didn't kill him made him stronger (and, yeah, stranger). Indeed, his childhood struggles with the English language--which landed him in ESL classes--have paid off in ways that are surprising even to him. "I just remember when I was younger, my English was so bad and so choppy. I would never make sense. It would be like...," he says, groping around for an explanation. "I don't know. It would be backwards. If I said black, it would really be white. And now people think it's kinda cool. People really feel my ESL."