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.

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