Welcome back to the latest edition of Flashback Friday Flop, a weekly feature in which I examine a hip-hop album from years ago that was considered a flop, either critically or commercially or both, when it was released and see if it has gotten better – or worse – over time.
This week: Asher Roth’s Asleep in the Bread Aisle (2009)
Asher Roth was supposed to be next.
Once Eminem tore down the (largely invisible) walls that divided hip-hop not just between white and black, but also the city and the suburbs, Roth was supposed to be the leader of the next generation of cats with skills and a playful side, beginning with his appearance as one of the members of the XXL Freshmen Class of 2009. His lead single, “I Love College,” was meant to be his version of “My Name Is,” a catchy, fun song that would make him immensely popular and lead fans to his debut where they would see that he had more skills to offer.
Only it didn’t work out that way.
There are a variety of reasons for this. Asher Roth, like most artists of any color, is not on par with Eminem. And the fact that he was so clearly aping Em’s approach to his career rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. (I was one of these people – I destroyed Asher Roth any chance I got back in the old XXL days.) There was also the fact that even as late as 2009, the music industry, still baffled by piracy, online file sharing, streaming, and everything else, continued to operate on its outdated business model, focusing on physical album sales and using old, tired ways of marketing while Roth’s fans were mostly online. As a result, Roth’s debut, Asleep in the Bread Aisle, sold only 65,000 copies – and was also met with mixed reviews – and he was immediately branded a failure. Add in the fact that two months earlier, Drake’s So Far Gone mixtape had been released and hip-hop had found its next big crossover star, and it was obvious that Asher Roth’s window had closed.
After his album flopped, Roth retreated to the underground. In the years since, he has regrouped, changing labels and releasing a second album as well as several mixtapes, but never regaining his original buzz.
Let’s see how Asleep in the Bread Aisle sounds today.
The album kicks off with some pounding boom bap beats on “Lark on My Go-Kart” and while Roth’s flow and cadence are on point, the lyrics are nonsensical nursery rhymes, even referencing Miss Muffet and Teddy Ruxpin, and never for a greater purpose beyond simple rhymes.
Which could be fine.
If Asher Roth were at all self-aware and content to be known as just a harmless, fun rapper who makes catchy yet disposable songs like “Lark on My Go-Kart” and “I Love College,” it’d be far easier to like him. He would be like the slapstick comedy of hip-hop – hoping to entertain and be successful, but never expecting to win critical praise. But underneath the shallow rhymes and silly references, he insists that he’s actually a dope emcee with deep thoughts that deserves to be taken seriously. It’s a fine line to walk and he fails miserably, largely because he never shows any of these so-called skills.
The Eminem comparisons are undeniable, not because they’re the same race, but because Roth sounds so much like early Shady. Have you ever clicked on a YouTube video of an artist you like only to realize that it’s actually someone else doing an impression of that artist? That’s what a lot of this album sounds like. Asher Roth sounds like someone trying to sound like Eminem. Maybe it’s intentional or maybe it’s just a product of Em’s influence – every artist that has changed the game has spawned imitators and clones – but the similarities are undeniable and oftentimes distracting. It wouldn’t be difficult to convince people that several songs, most notably “Bad Day,” were tracks that didn’t make the cut on The Slim Shady LP.
Roth knows this, though whether he is aware of it himself or had to be told it is uncertain, and addresses it on the album’s most noteworthy track, “As I Em.” He delicately tries to distance himself from Slim Shady without having it be seen as a diss while sounding exactly like Eminem. It makes for a weird listening experience. The most clever thing about this song is the title.
In fact, the issue of “As I Em” is the issue of the entire album: Asher Roth wants to be seen as a unique talent that deserves to be taken seriously, but he doesn’t want to upset anyone along the way. That’s impossible. Forget great – even good art makes people react. It makes them think and feel and, often, that feeling is uncomfortable or at least unsettled. But Roth just wants to be praised and paid without plumbing the depths of his soul or stepping on anyone’s toes.
It’s clear that this was an album that was meant to crossover. The problem is that in its attempts to appeal to everyone, it managed to appeal to almost no one.
Previously in Flashback Friday Flop:
Tha Doggfather | Blood in My Eye | The Best of Both Worlds | Can-I-Bus | Beats, Rhymes and Life | Encore | Immobilarity | 14 Shots to the Dome | Forever | Christmas on Death Row | Double Up | The New Danger | A Better Tomorrow | Back from Hell | For All Seasons | Welcome to: Our House | Blood Money | Til the Casket Drops | Yeezus | Nastradamus | Blunted on Reality | Money, Power & Respect
Christopher Pierznik is the author of eight books, all of which can be purchased in paperback and Kindle. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Medium, and many more. Subscribe to his monthly reading review newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.