The guys of Gym Class Heroes are trying to master the ultimate pop trick of being up-to-the-minute hip and transcendent all at once. On their latest album, The Quilt, the alternative pop-rap band also guns for a slicker urban sound. But pegging the music still proves to be a futile exercise.
"We never really gave anybody a definition of the type of music we play," says lead rapper and band focal point Travis McCoy, "so that way we can play whatever we want and still just be Gym Class Heroes."
The band's neon sound, youthful and hip-hop-friendly, clicks well with the multibilled Lil Wayne arena tour, which stops at 1st Mariner Arena tomorrow. Along with urban-pop sensations T-Pain and Keri Hilton, Gym Class Heroes will open for the New Orleans rap superstar.
"There was no way we were gonna turn it down," McCoy says of the tour, which kicked off in Indianapolis in early December. "We've been family ever since. It's a fun tour, everybody hanging out on each other's bus. Wayne has a studio on his bus, and we all fight to get time in there. It's great, man."
The tour has helped to raise the urban profile of the band, which also includes guitarist Disashi Lumumba-Kasongo, bassist Eric Roberts and drummer Matt McGinley. Gym Class Heroes' As Cruel As School Children (2006) went gold thanks largely to the support of MTV. The video channel regularly played clips for the CD's hit singles, "Cupid's Chokehold/Breakfast in America" and "Clothes Off!!" Mainstream pop radio embraced the songs, too.
The cheeky cuts, which interpolated familiar hits by Supertramp and Jermaine Stewart, respectively, were emblematic of the direction of the album. Buoyant pop melodies (sometimes borrowed from old songs) were underscored with hip-hop textures. It was all overlaid with McCoy's knotty rhymes and big, bright hooks exploring MySpace relationships and other trials of contemporary high-school life.
But for The Quilt, the band's second release on Pete Wentz's Atlantic-distributed Decaydence label, Gym Class Heroes ditches the high-school metaphor. Attempting to broaden its appeal beyond its teen base, the quartet centers on patching together different style elements.
"The title came from a poem I wrote six years ago," says McCoy, calling last week from his home in Miami. "Every song has its own identity. Some have polka dots; some have stripes. The band is the stitching that makes it come together."
It's an adequate metaphor. The mixing and matching of styles (prominent doses of '80s new wave and '90s alt-rock) continue. But on The Quilt, the band applies more of an urban gloss. To achieve the amiable sound for mainstream pop and urban stations, McCoy and crew hooked up with some of the hottest names in the genres. Production team Cool & Dre and Rihanna producer The-Dream man the boards on a few tracks. Disparate guests include hip-hop veteran Busta Rhymes and Daryl Hall, half of the '80s pop superduo Hall & Oates.
Why the obvious urban-pop direction this time?
"Honestly, it was just because we could," says McCoy, 27. "There were people we were into like The-Dream. We didn't wanna do anything for name's sake, though. We just clicked. We were in the position and had those people at arm's length."
As was the case with As Cruel As School Children, style always trumps substance on the new album. The limited but charming appeal of the band's musicianship is swept under shiny, overproduced layers. McCoy's transparent raps this time around lack the clever twists heard on the previous CD. Attempts at R&B; also fall flat. Released in September, The Quilt has failed to repeat the commercial success of School Children. It peaked at a disappointing No. 14 on Billboard's pop album charts.
McCoy is nonchalant about the album's tepid reception.
"Me and the group, we're always growing," he says, "and, for better or worse, you'll always hear that in the music."
if you go
See Gym Class Heroes with Lil Wayne at 8 p.m. tomorrow at 1st Mariner Arena, 201 W. Baltimore St. Tickets are $43.75-$83.75 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-7328 or going to ticketmaster.com.