Yeezus and Jesus: Part 2

July 14, 2013 § Leave a comment

Before I discuss the two most important religious songs on Yeezus, I do want to address some of the questionable religious lyrics on this album. I’m not going to gloss over them, but I want to point out how even though Kanye seems to be using them as ammunition for jokes or his angry diatribes, it’s worth noting that the vocabulary of Christianity is still very much a part of his lyrics, as it has been since 2004’s The College Dropout. (side note: I’m not trying to turn Kanye into a beacon of religious excellence, but I do want to provide perhaps a more nuanced perspective to how some religious people view him.) Outside of the obvious religious nature of “Jesus Walks,” The College Dropout features an interlude of “I’ll Fly Away” and “Through the Wire” invokes spiritual ideas near its end: “I must got an angel, cause look how death missed his ass…So I turn tragedy to triumph, make music that’s fire, spit my soul through the wire.” Late Registration and Graduation also have a number of songs that reference spiritual concepts: “Diamonds from Sierra Leone,” “Hey Mama,” “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” and “Everything I Am,” to name a few. Religious ideas keep popping up in Kanye’s lyrics, and often in very strange places, as I’ll point out later when I bring up MBDTF, but rarely are they as negative or offensive as some of the references on Yeezus.

I want to tackle these few moments, because while they are certainly offensive, I would hesitate to call them blasphemous or sacrilegious. I’ll start with “I’m In It,” easily my least favorite song on Yeezus and perhaps in Kanye’s entire discography, which contains some questionable comments on religious ideas and figures. In a song that is basically only about sex, it would be hard for these lyrics to carry any kind of beneficial religious significance, and the way Kanye uses them here make that a near impossibility. Let’s just say that invoking God’s name when talking about your girlfriend, ahem, revealing certain portions of her anatomy (“thank God Almighty, they free at last”) may be a fine reaction to have in private, but I’m not sure it should be immortalized in song. I could probably spin this line in a positive light if the rest of the song wasn’t so vulgar/misogynistic, and if the final lines of the song didn’t reference “getting head by the nuns.” Really, “I’m In It” isn’t funny or intelligent, but it is interesting to see a reference to God pop up in a song of this type. Later in the album on “Send It Up,” another track ostensibly about sex, Kanye offers up this line: “Yeezus just rose again.” Now, whether this is merely a sophomoric joke (I’m sure you are smart enough to figure out what that could mean) that ends up treating the resurrection as a comic matter or whether ‘Ye is trying to be Jesus, this line again shows a very important piece of Christian doctrine being employed by Kanye to add further levels of depth to a fairly meaningless song.

Kanye-West-songs-albums

In fact, this particular fragment of a lyric may be operating on multiple levels of meaning. For example, it could be a joke that nonetheless reflects a religious idea to which Kanye still ascribes or gives some credence. Ironically, the song that best demonstrates this idea is “I Am a God,” where, according to certain critics, Kanye suggests that he is a deity. However, a closer listen to this incredibly compelling song reveals something else entirely. First of all, I find it difficult to claim this song as Kanye elevating himself over God, oh, I don’t know, maybe due to lyrics like this: “I am a god, even though I am a man of God, my whole life in the hand of God, y’all better quit playing with God.” Outside of proclaiming himself as a god, this is a shockingly orthodox statement of trust in God, and in the next verse ‘Ye talks about chatting with Jesus. That kind of discussion would not sound out of place in any evangelical church service, which makes this song so bizarre, and why I read this song as more of an indictment on claiming to be a god. I mean, come on, “Hurry up with my damn croissants”? If that’s not a suggestion that the idea of being a god is superficial and absurd, than what is? Also, “I Am a God” is punctuated by violent screams and gasping for breath near its end. If claiming to be a god leads to a nervous breakdown, then take me off the list.

The album closer, “Bound 2,” takes up some of these themes as well and extends a theme from MBDTF‘s closing track “Lost in the World,” bringing all of what I’ve been discussing into clearer focus. Most evidently, I think that “Bound 2” pulls back the curtain for a moment near its end, allowing Kanye to shed his persona for a moment, much like he did at the close of MBDTF—what’s behind the façade is someone a lot like you and me. Why do I think this is the “real” Kanye? Well, two things: one, “Bound 2” is the only song that sounds like old Kanye, dripping with soulful samples and goofy lyrics; and two, a couple lines in the song seem to be addressing the listener directly. For example, “admitting is the first step, eh, eh, ain’t nobody perfect,” confronts those people who have called Kanye out for his stupid decisions and who would give the same justification for their own poor decisions. Then, one of the final lines, “I’m tired, you’re tired. Jesus wept.” The exhaustion of keeping up this persona has finally caught up with Kanye on this final track, and this line treads similar ground to one from “Lost in the World”: “Let’s break out of this fake-ass party, turn this into a classic night.” This “party” shows up again in “Bound 2” and provides an answer to the reason Kanye invokes the image of Jesus weeping. “I know you’re tired of loving, with nobody to love, so just grab somebody, no leaving this party with nobody to love,” goes “Bound 2,” foregrounding the idea and importance of love. The weeping Jesus is the human Jesus, the one crying out of love for his friends. And this is the Jesus Kanye chooses to leave us with as Yeezus closes.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Biblical story, Jesus weeps and then raises Lazarus from the dead, leaving some puzzled as to why Jesus would be crying when he knew he was about to perform a miracle. Perhaps Kanye’s reason for titling this album Yeezus and concluding it with such an evocative image of Jesus is just as puzzling to some. What’s clear to me, regardless of whether or not this music is edifying or not, is that religious ideas, notably Christian ideas, still float throughout Kanye’s music, even on an album (given its title) that should not be taking religion seriously. Furthermore, one of the final images of Yeezus is not Kanye parading himself as a god, but a picture of Jesus as a human, deeply connected to humanity and sharing in its sufferings out of a deep compassion. We all need more of that kind of compassion, regardless of where or who it comes from, and Kanye is admitting that here. The most startling aspect of this admittance is that I don’t hear it more often.

For my take on Jay Z’s latest, check out my review at the Mockingbird Blog.

Yeezus and Jesus: Part 1

July 9, 2013 § 1 Comment

Six months later, I return. Part 2 should be around next week.

You know, the internet doesn’t really need another review of Kanye West’s new album, Yeezus. If you are looking for a review, go check Pitchfork or PopMatters: they’ve got some solid takes. So, this won’t be a review, although my aim here may be as absurd as actually trying to come to a consensus about this bizarre, disturbed, compelling piece of music from Mr. West. Let’s face it, Kanye titled this album Yeezus and it contains a song titled “I Am a God,” so, whether you like it or not, Kanye has made religion an explicit part of this album. While it may be a fool’s errand, I want to draw attention to Kanye’s use of religious ideas (Christian ideas in particular) on Yeezus and illuminate some of the intriguing religious statements made by ‘Ye. Is Yeezus dark and hellish? Yes. Sacrilegious? Perhaps. Devoid of religious worth? Not at all.

Of course, all of this lyrical/religious analysis needs to be grounded in the music of Yeezus, because the music tells us a lot about how to interpret some of the religious references that Kanye makes. Additionally, Yeezus does not stand on its own, bereft of the context of Kanye’s previous albums, but is deeply connected to both 808s & Heartbreak and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. To be fair, most of the religious references on Yeezus come on a handful of tracks, but the music (outside of “Bound 2”) is consistently dark and industrial, occasionally punctuated with soulful samples and extended musical outros, which bring a glimpse of beauty and hope amidst the dark soundscape. I would posit that the music on Yeezus reveals Kanye’s (or his persona’s) fractured psyche and his attempts to sort through some of life’s spiritual, mental, and physical issues. First, I’m going to look at some of the interesting musical decisions on Yeezus, and then, in part 2, I’ll turn more fully to the lyrics and focus on “I Am a God” and “Bound 2,” the two most spiritually significant songs on the album.

KANYEJESUS-LACHAPELLE

There are two emotions coursing through Yeezus: anger and regret. Opening track, “On Sight,” is a vitriolic blast of electronic blips, distorted drums, and profanity: “How much do I not give a f—? Let me show you right now before you give it up.” The angular electronica is broken up by a brief children’s chorus, a momentary reprieve to the bleak soundscape. Is this Kanye showing how much he doesn’t give a f— or is it something else? Considering moments like this pop up over the course of the album, I would venture they serve a larger purpose that simply messing with listeners. The explosive intro to “Black Skinhead” marks another anger fueled track, as relentless drums, random guitar squeals, and primal background vocals cavort behind Kanye’s screamed lines. “New Slaves,” while being slightly less manic than “Black Skinhead,” still features ominous synths and a barrage of a bridge, which is followed by another strangely melodic outro, featuring Frank Ocean. Contrasting so strongly with the preceding music, the glorious strings and reverb heavy vocals and drums lead to some questions: where is the real Kanye on Yeezus? Is he in the rage or the calm? Do these peaceful moments serve to prevent the anger from overwhelming the entire album? Do they stand as moments of enlightenment on an album that is mired in the dirty realistic crap of life?

For the most part, Yeezus is not a happy album. If ‘Ye isn’t angry, he’s obsessed with his past experiences, and the music slows down, enveloping him in a haze of reflection/regret. Along with this, when the music takes this reflective turn, it develops a feel similar to Kanye’s work on 808s & Heartbreak, relying on auto-tuned vocals and electronic dithering. The connection to 808s is key, as a number of tracks on that album show us a deeply injured and insecure Kanye searching for meaning in life. On Yeezus, the effect is largely the same, breaking up the braggadocio and vulgarity with some honesty and vulnerability. On “Hold My Liquor,” the moody ambiance, supplied by Justin Vernon’s vocals and Chief Keef’s auto-tuned, echoed hook, feeds into Kanye’s narrative of his latest heartbreak. In fact, the triumphantly depressing second half of “Hold My Liquor” would fit in perfectly on 808s, and songs like this on Yeezus let us see behind the egotistical persona that Kanye has cultivated for himself. In the same fashion, the second half of “Guilt Trip,” with its repeated refrain of “if you loved me so much, then why’d you let me go,” drips with regret before ending with delicate strings over a glitched out drum line. This is the kind of album Yeezus is: hate morphs into regret and bitterness, yet juxtaposed against all of these terrible, draining emotions are moments where it seems like beauty and goodness are still trying to break through into the proceedings. Are these moments Kanye screwing with us or are they the things that he can’t escape from? Are these moments grace finding a way through the morass?

The Ones that Got Away: Other Good Music in 2011

January 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

Here are a few other albums that I think deserve your attention from this past year. If you missed my top ten, head over to the Mockingbird Blog to check it out.

Return of 4eva-Big K.R.I.T
Big K.R.I.T. is a rapper’s rapper: he makes his own beats, writes his own songs and releases song-heavy mixtapes for free. The reason Return of 4eva didn’t find a spot on my top ten was due in part to the sprawling nature of the album. With 21 songs on the album, some of them just don’t measure up to the others. K.R.I.T. is at his best when his raps are personal and socially conscious, and those tracks are the ones that carry this mixtape along and make it stand out. One such song is Dreamin’ where K.R.I.T. tells his life story, his smooth flow sliding over a laidback beat, which acts as a counterpart to the personal and relatable final songs of the mixtape Free My Soul and Vent. However, the two best songs on the album find K.R.I.T. commenting on the perception of hip-hop and African Americans. American Rapstar’s chorus is a hard-hitting condemnation of the hip-hop lifestyle and what it engenders, while Another Naïve Individual Glorifying Greed and Encouraging Racism’s (it’s an anagram) quiet piano and shimmering horns mask a potent social commentary about race.

Metals-Feist
The newest album from Canada’s Leslie Feist is beautiful and heart-rending, and would have made my top ten save for a few songs I just really don’t enjoy. However, Metals is home to some of the most beautiful songs I heard this year: Cicadas and Gulls, Graveyard and Bittersweet Melodies. And bittersweet this album is, filled with Feist’s tender voice ruminating on a broken relationship, emotional and fragile. It is a certainly a cathartic piece of art and more than worth your time.

Lasers-Lupe Fiasco
If you know anything about Lasers, you probably know about Lupe’s problems getting this album released and the eventual compromises he had to make with his record label. When Lasers is good, it’s very good; however, when it’s bad, it’s some of the worst music Lupe has ever put his name on. For an artist who thrives on his nerdy persona, slick, over-produced songs like Out of My Head and Break the Chain just don’t work. Fortunately, songs like The Words I Never Said, The Show Goes On and All Black Everything find Lupe at his best and are welcome additions to his best songs.

The Whole Love-Wilco
Shortly after arriving in Texas, I went on a Wilco kick and finally listened to some of their older albums like Summerteeth and A Ghost is Born. This minor obsession culminated with my purchase of The Whole Love, which is a perfectly good album, but can’t compare with albums like Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It simply doesn’t have the same consistency as those albums, however it still boasts some fantastic songs like I Might, The Whole Love and the twelve minute album closer One Sunday Morning.

The next three albums definitely would have found a way onto my year-end list had I listened to them in 2011. Alas, I can only give them my stamp of approval now, and hope if you haven’t already checked them out, that you do so ASAP.

Bon Iver-Bon Iver
While I often have no idea what Justin Vernon is singing about, his music conveys emotion with such ease that it is hard to not be swept away. In that manner, Bon Iver reminds me of a Terrence Malick film: poetic, abstract and transcendent. Art like this is not immediately accessible, especially if you’ve never listened to Bon Iver before, but it’s worth the effort to appreciate.

Camp-Childish Gambino
I’ll come right out and say it: this is not an album for those easily offended. Donald Glover, known for his role on NBC’s Community, is also a very good rapper, and Camp showcases those skills much better than previous mixtapes he has released. Musically, the albums stands out, with luxurious soundscapes on the softer songs, and hard-hitting beats that let Glover’s explosive flow stand out. Lyrically, Camp reminds me of Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, as songs like Outside, L.E.S. and That Power are achingly personal, while others (Bonfire, Sunrise) are straight-up battle raps, pointed at Gambino’s haters. Despite some of these ill-advised jabs, Glover often takes aim at important social issues, which makes Camp an engaging, if paradoxical listen.

Helplessness Blues-Fleet Foxes
Helplessness Blues is a big album, asking big questions about life and love, and doing so with such grace that it never feels overblown. The folkish Americana played by the group transitions in between upbeat and slower tempos effortlessly over the course of the album, and often even mid-song, creating a musically well-rounded album. Considering that themes of purpose and growing older carried through the album, Helplessness Blues feels like a coherent work of art, not just a few scattered songs.

Kanye West: Celebrity and Insecurity

November 26, 2011 § Leave a comment

Regardless of what you think about Kanye West, there is no denying his celebrity or his meteoric rise to fame in the past decade. It’s quite possible that, at this point in his career, Kanye is more infamous than anything else, due in large part to certain incidents involving George Bush and Taylor Swift. Some might think he is simply another celebrity with an enormous ego, making vacuous music to garner profit from the masses. However, if we actually consider his music, especially of the past four years, Kanye is quite a complex figure; he is a person with real feelings and real struggles, who, even with all his fame and fortune, seems to be searching for something more in this life.

Beginning with his first album, The College Dropout, Kanye’s music has always been deeply personal, highlighted by songs like “Through the Wire” and “Family Business.” His next two albums, Late Registration and Graduation, would follow in a similar manner, balancing the personal with typical rap braggadocio, always backed by fascinating beats. This pattern is so irrevocably severed, lyrically and musically, by 808s & Heartbreak that it comes as a shock. It is with this album, an intensely personal reaction to a painful break-up, that Kanye begins to reflect on his fame and celebrity, and his vulnerability and honesty are surprising.

The auto-tuned electronica that comprises the majority of 808s & Heartbreak allows us to see a different side of Kanye. The cocky exterior is gone, replaced by a broken human being, questioning his life. “Welcome to Heartbreak” illustrates this with a certain profundity, as Kanye takes a different perspective on his material possessions than normal: “My friend showed me a picture of his kids/ And all I could show him were pictures of my cribs/ He said his daughter got a brand new report card/ And all I got was a brand new sportscar.” This lament is tinged with regret, a common theme throughout an album concerned with lost love.

The song I find the most interesting on this album is “Pinocchio Story,” a live freestyle from Toyko, Japan. Kanye repeatedly mentions his desire to be a real boy, wondering if he has missed out on “real life.” Once again, he sings about the inability of his possessions to bring him contentment, “There is no clothes that I could buy/ That could turn back the time/ There is no vacation spot I could fly/ That could bring back a piece of real life/ Real life, what does it feel like?” For a hip-hop artist who constantly references his style and material wealth, this is an incredibly candid statement. However, with his next album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye, perhaps in an attempt to drown his sorrows and inner demons, dove headfirst into the deep end of celebrity.

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is opulent, reveling in its luxury and gigantic production budget. Filled with A-list guest spots, it nonetheless remains Kanye’s show, magnifying his ego and celebrity even as it delves into some of his deepest struggles. Contradictory and profane as it is, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy reveals the insecurity that still remains in its creator. Pop culture and designer style references abound, the possessions that Kanye hides behind. However, on songs like “Gorgeous” and “Power” he takes aim at those who have made fun of him in the media, offering a harsh defense of himself and his actions. In fact, it seems as if Kanye can’t take a joke, as he directs profanity laced rants at those who “tried to black ball” him, South Park writers and the cast of SNL.

Indeed, the end of “Power” hints at suicide, with its coda, “Now this’ll be a beautiful death/ I’m jumping out the window/ Letting everything go.” Clearly, all of the “power” that Kanye possesses cannot banish his problems. It’s very easy to lose these moments of honesty amidst the sheer force of ego that Kanye normally exudes, but they are there to be seen. “Monster” is a hard hitting track with multiple guest stars, where Kanye assumes the title of “motherf—ing monster” as a badge of honor, turning the insult back around on those who have talked about him behind his back.

Kanye’s sensitivity seems to be a recurring theme, as “Runaway” and its chorus evidence: “Let’s have a toast for the douchebags/ Let’s have a toast for the assholes/ Let’s have a toast for the scumbags/ Every one of them that I know.” Given the multiple times this is repeated and the many different names Kanye gives these people, there seems to be quite a few of them. In many ways, this album is a send-off to the haters, but the vitriolic language disguises something that hearkens back to 808s and that will come into focus on this year’s collaborative album with Jay-Z, Watch the Throne.

The last song of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, excluding the bizarre outro, offers a note of transition to Watch the Throne. In “Lost in the World,” Kanye raps, “Lost in this plastic life/ Let’s break out of this fake-ass party/ Turn this into a classic night/ If we die in each other’s arms, still get laid in that afterlife,” which is followed by a woman’s voice singing very clearly, “Run from the lights/ Run from the night/ Run for your life.” So, we come full circle, and Kanye is still looking for love, even though he knows that his life and all the parties can’t offer him the validation he seeks. He knows he has to run, break free, but he is trapped by other’s opinions of him.

Watch the Throne is much less of a personal opus for Kanye, and he seems to be having fun making music with Jay-Z, but issues of insecurity still surface. Now to be sure, Jay-Z has his share of songs where he is dissing others, but they don’t carry the same emotion as Kanye’s. Even on a peaceful, uplifting track like “Made in America” Kanye can’t resist mentioning his haters, “South Park had ‘em all laughing/ Now my n—— designing and we all swaggin’/ Ignore the critics just to say we did it/ This ain’t no fashion show, motherf——, we live it.” In an insightful review of the album, Calum Marsh point out that this is “the second time that Ye’s indignantly referred to that good-natured South Park ribbing from, what, two years ago?” Marsh goes on to mention how this shows how even a little joke can have unexpected outcomes in celebrities.

Marsh is right, of course, but Kanye’s reaction reveals more than just injured pride; we see ourselves mirrored in his reactions, as we all search for acceptance and love. None of us want to be judged, why should Kanye be an exception? The words he spits on “New Day” are poignant and resonate with me, even though I am a poor, white guy, who can’t even imagine the life that Kanye leads. Speaking to a future son, he raps, “See, I want him to have an easy life, not like Yeezy life/ Just want him to be someone people like/ Don’t want him to be hated, all the time judged.” These few lines speak volumes.

Positive Hip Hop: Lupe Fiasco

March 31, 2011 § Leave a comment

When Lupe Fiasco dropped his  first record, Food and Liquor, he made a big impression upon mainstream hip hop. It wasn’t just the way he rapped, his smooth flow traipsing across chill, laid-back production, but what he had to say that really put his name on the map. Make no mistake about it, Lupe has skills and uses them abundantly at times, but he has carved out a niche for himself in the mainstream by commenting on real issues with a ferocious intensity that is balanced by his nerdy personality.

Often, if you aren’t expecting it, Lupe’s commentary on social and political issues comes out of nowhere. His first two singles from Food and Liquor, Kick, Push and I Gotcha, were breezy and uplifting, showing off Lupe’s love for skateboarding and video games and his propensity for story-telling. The third single, Daydreamin’, is a completely different story, a hard-hitting satirical look at the current state of hip-hop as opposed to the actuality of the streets. Lupe strikes this balance between light-hearted storytelling and songs dealing with political and social issues on all his albums, but probably manages to do it the best on his debut.

American Terrorist, a song from Food and Liquor, is one of Lupe’s most politically-charged songs as he suggests that perhaps the true “terrorists” are the Americans who keep getting richer and richer while ignoring the poverty around them. Continuing in this theme is Words I Never Said, from Lupe’s newest album Lasers, a song that calls out everyone as Lupe lampoons the news media, the school system and those not practicing their religion seriously. He raps in the first verse, “Your child’s future was the first to go with budget cuts/If you think that hurts, then wait here comes the uppercut/The school was garbage in the first place, that’s on the up and up/Keep you at the bottom but tease you with the uppercrust.” This is only the start of the many issues Lupe addresses in this fascinating, polemical song.

While Lupe does often comment on political issues, that’s not all he focuses on. Being a committed Muslim, Lupe also spits about religion, doing so in a clever, thoughtful way. Also, like most conscious emcees, Lupe focuses on the state of the hip-hop scene, commenting on its shallowness and lack of deep conversation on important topics. Dumb It Down, from his second album The Cool, features Lupe spitting some rather complex verses, while a guest chorus encourages him to “dumb it down” because “he is going over other people’s heads.” I love satire, so this song is an absolute gem, as Lupe carries on what he began with Daydreamin’.

Another song off of The Cool which I find interesting is Little Weapon, a song that deals with children perpetuating violence from a variety of perspectives, drawing special attention to the plight of child soldiers in Africa. Some of the lyrics are particularly devastating: “Now here comes the march of the boy brigade…/The struggle’s little recruits/Cute, smile-less, heartless, violent/Childhood destroyed, devoid of all childish ways/Can’t write they own names/Or read the words thats on they own graves.” The lyrics help create a picture that hopefully creates awareness of the many horrible abuses of human life that were and still are occurring in Africa.

Lupe Fiasco is a complex rapper, going from up-beat positive songs like one of his new singles The Show Goes On to emotionally taxing, contemplative tunes like Hip Hop Just Saved My Life. In this way there is a little bit of everything in his music, a recipe that makes for a great all-around artist. A mainstream artist with independent tendencies in his music and socially conscious lyrics, Lupe Fiasco stands out as an impressive emcee who I hope continues to make music for a long time.

Positive Hip Hop: Shad

March 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

In my last post, I hit on Common Market, an independent hip hop group from Seattle. For this entry we’re going to head North to the fine country of Canada. Yes, you heard me correctly: Canada. For those who don’t know Canada has risen to hip hop fame throughout the 2000s although you may not have heard of all the artists (or knew that they were from Canada) that have sparked this revolution. You’ve probably heard of Drake and k-Os (we’ll be returning to him later) who have broken into the mainstream and created a stir, but the artist I’ll be focusing on in this post is Shad. Shad is a hip hop artist who, once again, I heard about through Relevant Magazine and who I finally started listening to thanks to Grooveshark.

Shad’s first album entitled When This is Over is both contemplative and fun, boasting tracks that occasionally tie both silliness and deep issues together in a captivating manner. This mix of humor and introspection is welcome, especially in the way that Shad manages to combine the two. His humor is never vulgar or sexual, and instead is self-deprecating and relies on clever twists of phrases to encourage laughter. The one song that best illustrates how Shad manages to tie together both the humorous and the serious is probably Out of Love. Out of Love tackles the way men and women perceive and use each other for their own gains and his own personal longing for a relationship of his own. He raps: “Why’s this pseudo-pimp pressed against your pink dress?/When he drinks Ex does his stink breath impress/Cause he has no genuine interest, the only thing’s sex/Not your heart, soul or IQ…I’m a guy too/And so I’m qualified to say/That what a lot of guys display are just some hollow lies devised to get play.” Later in the song, adding a touch of humor, he raps, “I want a Claire Huxtable y’all/Cause if I had a Claire Huxtable I’d tell her shyly/I’m like the letter Q, nowhere without you beside me.

Although Shad’s more humorous tracks are quite enjoyable on a variety of levels, his slower, more contemplative tracks are where his thoughts come through loud and clear. He often touches on issues related to racism, poverty and religion. Shad is a Christian, and this comes through more in his overall approach to his music than in his actual lyrical content, and when he comments on his faith it is in a authentic, often critical way. On When This is Over one of the best tracks is I’ll Never Understand, a slow burning rumination on some of life’s hard questions. Touching on social-economic and racial issues he raps, “The fact that to this day nobody cares/for the innocent/Victims of a full-fledged holocaust/because folks only holler if the cost of dollars lost is high/So regardless of the number of lives/When poor blacks die/they always turn a blind eye.”  And while the music on When This is Over would be improved over Shad’s next few albums, his lyrics and message would stay at the same level of quality.

Shad’s next album The Old Prince mines the same territory as When This is Over, continuing to provide a mix of humor and social consciousness in his lyrics.  The album’s most humorous song is probably The Old Prince Still Lives at Home, where Shad regales us with tales of still living at home, without any money, trying to make it big and be successful. As someone who loves self-deprecating humor, this track is a gold mine. But it’s not all fun and games on this album, and Brother (Watching) is one of the album’s hardest hitters as Shad examines the state of today’s black youth and the way that others oppress and shape the way that young African-Americans view themselves. He spits this in the second verse:

Even with this music we so limited-it’s rap or produce/and that narrow conception of what’s black isn’t true/Of course, still we feel forced to adapt to this view/like there’s something that you’re having to prove/Now add that to the slew/of justification that the capitalists use/for the new blaxploitation/Many actions excused/in the name of getting cash/That’s adversely impacting our youth/With mental slavery, the shackles is loose/And it’s hard to cut chains when they attached at the roots.

I would love to quote the whole song, as Shad offers up some practical advice and optimism at the end of the track, leaving us challenged instead of just depressed. But what he is saying in the portion I excerpted is definitely true, and I know for sure that these issues are not things I think of consistently, so getting to hear about them is very important. What is equally important is that Shad speaks to these issues without falling into desperation or becoming simply another mudslinger,  refusing to launch attacks against specific politic parties or figures.  He touches on political ideologies and the media, but these things are entities, not people and he deftly examines the issues that are present.

On the album’s final track, Get Up, Shad once again touches on issues of the media, activism, politics and change, speaking to the brokenness and fragmentation that is beneath it all. “We can’t help but fell detached from this/Capitalist confusin’ communion of corporate sponsors and advocates/Where every actor is an activist/but a movie cast won’t fix these broken homes full of fractured kids…some kind of miraculous world change can happen quick/but these problems don’t take seconds to solve/And getting mad ain’t the same thing as getting involved/We need to get up.” Shad is both hopeful and realistic, striving to produce change that is founded in reality, not a flash in the pan activism.

Shad’s newest album, TSOL, is fantastic, my favorite of his three released so far and has many more songs worthy of discussion. Keep Shining is an ode to women, full of respect and encouragement for the many downtrodden women of this earth, Rose Garden is a upbeat meditation on persevering through life’s trials and A Good Name finds Shad rapping about the importance of having a legacy. The one song I want to highlight from TSOL is At The Same Time, a sobering track about the many things in life that make us laugh and cry at the same time. The first verse is especially thought-provoking especially for anyone who shares in Shad’s Christianity: “I never laughed and cried at the same time/Until I heard a church pray for the death of Obama/and wondered if the knew they share that prayer with Osama/Blasphemy and karma, the comedy of drama…/Until I imagined, they were suddenly aware of it/but wondered who’s the heretic, and is the true terrorist American or Arabic?” The rest of the song is equally thought-provoking, but this verse in particular always gets me when I hear it. There are just song things in life that provoke both laughter and tears, and Shad demonstrates some that some of these situations are capable of provoking a surprising amount of thought.

Shad’s music and lyrics combine to make an interesting blend of humor, self-introspection and social consciousness, that manages to do all three of these things without being vulgar, but still retaining a sense of realism. Within this realism Shad manages to hold on to an optimistic viewpoint, something that is a struggle for me to do. In a world that seems to be making me more cynical, Shad still manages to find the good, and that is what positive hip hop is all about.

Positive Hip Hop: Common Market

February 15, 2011 § 2 Comments

Seattle is a city most well known for coffee, rain and grunge rock. Recently, however, they have experienced a boom in independent hip hop as artists like The Blue Scholars have been steadily producing high quality hip hop, musically and lyrically. My personal favorite group from Seattle is Common Market. I was turned on to Common Market by Relevant magazine, and I picked up their second full album Tobacco Road. I was met by a plethora of chill beats produced by Dj Sabzi and perfectly strung together words spit by the immense talent of RA Scion.

The first thing you’ll notice about Common Market is the intelligence that they bring to hip hop. Scion’s lyrics are a melting pot of story and biography, and his raps are an adventurous romp through an array of expertly delivered vocabulary words that make up a truly unique hip hop experience. Both members of Common Market are Baha’i, a faith that values nonviolence and peaceful treatment of others, and this spiritual and political bent shows through in their lyrics. We’re going to take a look at some of their music to highlight their positive contributions to hip hop.

Their first album Common Market is packed full of songs that are full of a driving energy with real hope behind it that seems to suggest that we can band together to make things better. On Every Last One Scion spits:

It’s our intent to re-implement modesty/Demandin’ self-respect be the market’s hottest commodity/Regulate the wealth and decimate extreme poverty/and educate kids with every dollar from the lottery/We ’bout to change the mentality/of old world savagery into a new reality/One where teachers and lawyers will change salaries/and liquor stores are razed to make way for art galleries…

This is not your average radio hip hop. This is two dudes, passionate about changing the way we think about the world and encouraging us to think about how we can actually make a change. Later on in the album on Love One, over a soulful beat from Sabzi, Scion raps about the women in his life: his mom, sister, wife and daughter. It’s a beautiful song that celebrates everything good about femininity and shows that Common Market’s approach to women is not formed by the prevailing view of the hip hop genre.

After their first album, filled with many more songs like those I highlighted above, Common Market released an EP before dropping Tobacco Road. Tobacco Road is a stunning album, dripping with soul, Scion’s lyrics perfectly complemented by Sabzi’s production. The album bursts out of the doors with Trouble Is, but it is the second song Gol’Dust that captures my attention immediately. The song is a exemplary look at greed and the many ways it influences our daily lives. My favorite lines come at the end of the song: “And what’s a legacy worth next to mined metal, yo/Measure me first–depression, it’s better we work/For change, not for pennies, if anything the commodity traded is us for flakes of gold dust.

Tobacco Road is an album concerned with the way in which we work, the affects of industrialization and, ultimately, the way we live our lives. Nina Sing touches on poverty and societal inequality in work and economic conditions. The final verse is a perfect example: “Seein’ fam fallin’ through the cracks in the variance/Famished on a barren land of AIDS and malaria/One percent could fix it with a tenth of their inheritance/Freedom buried in the treasure chest of the nefarious.” Regardless of whether or not you agree with their conclusions, there is no doubt that Common Market is exploring important territory with a level of maturity and verbosity that should be respected. The album concludes with the title track, an homage to Tobacco Road in Kentucky, which also offers up a introspective look on growing up and leaving home. “Mindful of the nights in that state, who they say life is what you make it/When really life is what makes you…The schools failed me, thank God the farm taught me/The value of a calloused hand, how to work and plow this land/How even a modest crop will make your pop the proudest man.”

Common Market is a independent hip hop group that is not afraid to tackle big issues and they do it in an intellectual, effective way. Their songs are loaded with words and ideas that are available for anyone who is willing to listen. Positive and socially conscious, Common Market is making great music with a worthwhile message.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with hip-hop at Losing Sight of Land.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 292 other followers