Every time I listen to a Secret Agent 23 Skidoo album the same question runs through my mind:
Why isn't anyone else doing this?
Not the kids' hip-hop thing -- there are a number of artists mixing beats and rhymes and some of them are pretty good.
No, I'm talking about something a little more specific, namely hip-hop for kids who have kindergarten in their rearview mirror.
There is nobody making music for your favorite 8-year-old except for the Asheville, NC rapper.
Luckily for us, Skidoo is really good. And on Make Believers, he elevates his game a little more, turning in his most adventurous and, yes, imaginative album. He's always rapped about adventures and the power of imagination, but on the new album, drives the point home repeatedly -- if you have the courage to stand up for yourself and believe in your schemes, your life will be much more interesting. It might not be easy -- and Skidoo is upfront about that -- but the alternative is much sadder. He's much more interested in the daydreamers -- on "Space Cadet" Skidoo's daughter who performs as MC Fireworks trades off a series of crazy questions with her dad -- to him and his wife (Bootysattva, who sings the hook) she's their "little space cadet / and [they] wouldn't have it any other way."
If Skidoo just rapped his rhymes over plain beats, it would still be good, but his secret weapon has always been a musical community of dozens lending support. "Brainstorm" features furious guitar work and a propulsive beat and the soulful "Rocketfuel" ("Treat your heart / Like a piece of art / And it'll be the spark / That lets you see in the dark") features organ and cello. He and Lunch Money's Molly Ledford co-write the gentle "Snowforts and Sandcastles." And "Hot Sauce" (all about trying things that are hard) features some Latin sounds.
The 41-minute album is most appropriate for kids ages... you know, I'd like to propose a new subgenre of kids music. A lot of kids music targets kids ages 4 through 8, with some focus on younger kids and virtually no focus on kids older than 8. Independent artists in the genre have virtually ceded that ground to the artists getting airplay on Radio Disney and not necessarily recorded with 9-year-olds specifically (or at least exclusively) in mind. Meanwhile, when it comes to books, there's a whole burgeoning genre of young-adult fiction, not to mention chapter books which have always been popular. So I'm going to coin the term "middle-grade music," based on "middle-grade fiction," which tends to cover the age range of 8 to 12 -- yes, tweens. Certainly kids that age will want to listen to Selena Gomez or Beyonce or whatever artist they covered on Glee this week, and sometimes the lyrical themes of those songs will resonate with the tween crowd. But I think skilled songwriters can address the rest of the life experiences of that age group. There is plenty of room to join in.
All of which is to say that Make Believers is a great album for the slightly-older kid in your life. Secret Agent 23 Skidoo is a trailblazer in kids music in more ways than one, and while I hope he gets more competition over time, if we just had him making his music for this particular audience, I guess I'd be cool with that. Highly recommended.