By Melanie Stangl
Photo by Gage Vota
Album art by John Muldoon and Annika Ignozzi
It’s no secret that local hip-hop artists have generated the most widespread buzz about Pittsburgh’s music scene. From powerhouses like Wiz Khalifa, Mac Miller, and Jimmy Wopo, to promising up-and-comers such as Benji. and My Favorite Color, there’s hometown pride to be found in chart-topping hits, worldwide communities of fans, and national press coverage. The loss of two of these great artists too soon has undoubtedly been a tough, tragic blow.
However, there’s still plenty to be excited about. And a major player in that excitement is the innovative, genre-bending, shrewdly honest hip-hop duo BBGuns. Comprised of JP Pitt (real name Justin Pitkavish) and Joel Carter, BBGuns’ second album, Help Yourself, is set to release on local indie label Crafted Sounds on Friday, June 28th. (A release show will follow at Lawrenceville venue Spirit on June 29th.)
And it’s nothing short of incredible.
BBGuns have a standing reputation for incorporating other genres into their eclectic hip-hop sound. But on Help Yourself, they take more chances than ever before. And those risks pay off. Shoegazey pop, indie rock, dance/house, doo-wop, and even snatches of 60’s classic rock and dark electronica all make appearances.
“I think we were just more confident in the ideas that we started on [our first album] Thirst,” says JP. “A style had formed, and we kind of had a loose formula down, and weren’t afraid to find ways to shape that in new combinations.”
It was genuinely fantastic listening to the record for the first time and being surprised by each of these combinations. It’s clear that they’re trusting their instincts, and their instincts are solid f***ing gold. I’m not suggesting this, I’m stating it as fact—Help Yourself is the album of the summer. And, quite possibly, of the year.
The songs run the gamut from danceable bangers (“Valley,” “Backspace,” “One Piece”) to sweet sad laments (“Rose Gold”); from chill driving anthems (“Visions”) to grittier, biting tracks (“Blister,” “Stanley”); and plenty of variations in between. While each song holds its own individually, their order on the album makes for a satisfying journey of peaks and valleys in a front-to-back listen. This is a record you’ll want to throw on in your car for those summer road trips.
“We had a lot more control and influence over the production and engineering than we have in the past,” JP notes. “And I think that makes this record feel like more of our own than anything we have done before.”
Alongside their longtime collaborator Charlie Scott, BBGuns have partnered with producers Height Keech (“Valley,” “Honey,” “Xanadu,” and “Magik”), Logan Sound (“Rose Gold” and “Visions”), Oh85 (with Charlie on “One Piece”), and Nice Rec (with Charlie on “Cell.”) Guest vocalists also make appearances, to great effect. Singer Shay Park lends welcome feminine perspective (and harmonies) to the romantic lament “Rose Gold,” while rappers Hubbs and Moemaw Naedon both lay down venomous, cutting verses in the final track, “Blister.”
(Speaking of appearances, “Valley” and “Backspace” were recently featured on popular YouTuber Liza Koshy’s remake of MTV’s “Silent Library.” The video trended in the top 10 upon its release and now boasts over 2 million views. I wasn’t kidding about Pittsburgh hip-hop attracting buzz.)
What subsequent listens bring, besides sheer enjoyment, is a deeper appreciation for the duo’s lyrics. In terms of both flow and content, they’re in a class of their own. Shorter, catchy hooks are paired with rapid-fire, rhythmically varied, and lyrically dense verses and bridges. The result is earworms with undeniable depth. And JP’s adept versatility in switching between singing and rapping is crucial to this balance.
Their penchant for clever internal rhymes makes their flow even more impressive and immersive. (Such as this line from opening track “Valley:” “Revel in the fact that we rebels of this rap game/pedal to the mat/I ain’t settlin’ for last place.”) I found myself wondering more than once when and how Joel had time to breathe between his lyrical knockout punches. That’s just one of many, many examples.
As for the content, BBGuns blends striking imagery and compelling storytelling with honesty that’s heartbreaking and heartening in turn. They dive deep into anxieties ranging from personal to generational. “Backspace’s” dance/house-inspired 808-drum-machine-led beat is a banger, but it explores a less-fun dichotomy of dissatisfaction with no clear exit plan. JP sings in the chorus, “I need some space to roam/I got no place to go,” and later on “Are you praying for your faith?/I don’t know what I believe.”
Depression, loneliness, heavy drug use, institutional distrust, and struggles to communicate with others are all openly discussed. Still, this tough self-reflection provides them with insight (“Take a chance like there’s no tomorrow/Understand that your time is borrowed”), and even some moments of fun and happiness too (“I’m feelin’ selfish, I think I love myself” in “One Piece.”)
As I’ve mentioned before, their seamless, experimental blending of genres and pop culture references is emblematic of the sprawling access to music and media of all kinds that streaming services and the Internet have made possible for the first time. But BBGuns also comments on the internet’s downsides. Most notably, the isolating, overstimulating, unhealthy-comparison-driving ubiquity of social media for our generation. “Visions” is entirely about this, and it hits home. In the chorus, JP sings, “And next thing you know, yeah, I’m always alone/But I can always scroll on my own phone/It’s just so enticing to read/the visions from my screen.” Meanwhile, Joel’s verse starts with “I see my reflection in this Black Mirror,” and only gets more real from there: “…For fear of missing out, we steady buzzing round the hive mind/Pourin’ out confessions of transgressions on my timeline/Scream into the void, appease the voice inside of my mind/Thirsty for attention and the mentions quench it just fine/The quest for validation ate my patience and my sanity…” It’s a shrewd breakdown of a problem that we were the first group to grow up with, and having it articulated is both relevant and comforting.
Not only do these musical and lyrical components work individually, they also work together. In “Visions,” whenever JP is pleading for a break from the constant newsfeed chatter with “Just let me sit here in silence, please/I think it’s what I need,” all other sounds in the track briefly cut out, granting his wish. In the chorus of “Cell,” JP laments, “Oh woah, I’m hearin’ voices in the dial tone/Oh woah, they got me wonderin’ if I’m alone/Oh woah, I see you creepin’ out the corner of my eye/Oh woah, I tell myself that I’m fine, yeah I’m alright.” Instrumentally, the subdued, repetitive, half-step back and forth of the synths in the beat emphasize this feeling of being trapped, as do those despondent “oh woah” moans. It evokes a cage, sonically. And the effect-heavy, hazy female vocal clusters featured in “Honey” both reflect the dreamy quality of being as high as the song describes (“I gotta wake and bake just to face the day”), and soften it to something prettier than the pain this intoxication is pursued to escape. (“My mom’s disappointed, it’s poignant/’Cause I don’t give a f**k about myself/What’s the point then?”)
(Side note—“Honey” has BBGuns flirting with shoegaze, with those layered female vocal clusters at the instrumental forefront. It’s an incredibly cool crossover—the unexpected feminine touch really works. It reminded me of one of my other favorite Pittsburgh acts, Sad Girls Aquatics Club, with whom a collaboration should absolutely happen.)
I could go on, but this is a novel already, so I’ll try to keep it brief. Don’t sleep on the slow-swinging, doo-wop-influenced “Magik” or the darker, heavier “Stanley,” a couple of my personal favorites. Both make excellent use of evocative percussion and judiciously-applied autotune. (And unless I’m wildly off-base, with a recurring chorus line of “There’s a hole in me” and thematic parallels of isolation and frustration, “Stanley” appears to be a reference to Stanley Yelnats, the protagonist of the popular Louis Sachar novel Holes.) “Blister” is also a standout, with high pulsing minor-chord-heavy synth riffs providing an excellent frame for the record’s sharp-edged diss track. Guest artists Hubbs and Moemaw Naedon are scathing in the best way.
But what’s JP’s favorite song? He opts for the only one I haven’t talked about yet, “Xanadu.” Its happy high energy takes a surprising twist into “Dear Prudence” territory, in an interlude that I definitely didn’t see coming. Still, it’s a perfect example of BBGuns’ willingness to experiment, and their keen sense of which experiments work. “I’m really pleased with how the acoustic section turned out,” he says, “and it really disarms you on the first listen. It’s quite a contrast of chaos with that moment of stillness.”
And as for the story behind the album title? “We wanted to play on the concept of self-care, and self-help books,” he continues. “The phrase ‘Help Yourself’ most often implies food, but with any vice there’s always a fine line between self-care, self-indulgence, and abuse.”
Those themes and struggles are prevalent throughout the album. But initially, I had a slightly different interpretation. While their previous record also grappled with similar issues, its title, Thirst, and its subject matter leaned more toward seeking external validation—connection, sex, intimacy, romance. Help Yourself, meanwhile, is more self-reliant, more internal. This album has JP and Joel exploring, acknowledging, starting to work through their own issues—while in the process, helping listeners do the same. It demonstrates personal growth alongside musical growth. And that makes it a sophomore album in the true, best sense of the word.
In “Rose Gold,” Joel confesses, “I don’t really know/where I’m s’posed to go/I just hope I get there.” It’s a resonant, confessional line, one out of many. But with regards to BBGuns’ artistry and musical prowess, it doesn’t totally apply. They do know where they’re supposed to go, and they’ve gotten there. Help Yourself is a masterpiece.
Help Yourself is out on Crafted Sounds (and all major streaming/download platforms) this Friday, June 28th. The release show is happening Saturday June 29th at Spirit in Lawrenceville, and in JP’s words, it’s “gonna rip; a lot of amazing people are involved.” The packed lineup of openers includes Mars Jackson, Silver Car Crash, Swampwalk, and their longstanding producer Charlie Scott. Live art demonstrations by Xiola Jensen, John Muldoon, and Zachary Rutter will accompany the music. Tickets for this 21+ show will be $10 at the door. Check out the event page for more details. Keep up with BBGuns on Facebook and Bandcamp if you don’t already, and get a taste of the album with the music video for opening track “Valley” below.