erasing clouds

"Try to See Me at Eye-to-Eye Level…": A Look at Four Recent Hip-Hop Releases (Diverse, 5 Family Click, Jay-Z, RZA)

by dave heaton

Personality has been a major part of the hip-hop game since the early days when a MC tried anything he could to impress the block party crowds. These days plenty of the most high-profile MCs have built their careers around audience perceptions of who they are, and so many of the best hip-hop recordings have come from artists who've managed to put who they really are on wax, avoiding the trap of falling too deeply in love with the personas they've created for themselves.

The RZA's Birth of a Prince (Sanctuary), the first album the Wu-Tang mastermind has released under his own moniker, looks on the surface like it's going to be all about him shedding his tough guy/pimp persona (Bobby Digital) and getting down to the real RZA. To a tiny extent it is--songs like "Grits" pay at least lip service to the reality that he grew up poor and hungry, and the album is set up so that as it progresses he progresses, moving from rhymes about cars, sex and guns to meditations about god and infinity. But more than anything it's a muddled album where RZA tries his best to confuse you about who he really is-is he an articulate soul writing out his own cosmology ("A Day to God Is 1,000 Years") or a mush-mouthed, awkward MC who drops messy, obviously unrehearsed rhymes about firing off his guns louder than everybody else? And just as importantly, is he the innovative producer who leads you into new, sonically rich territory (see "The Whistle") or a lazy producer who tosses off completely dull tracks and then sets his best raps against borrowed beats from his protégés? The album's called Birth of a Prince, and in the end he does sound recently born, more like an adolescent who's still searching for his footing than the confident sound master behind some of the most powerful songs in hip-hop's history.

Jay-Z's The Black Album (Roc-A-Fella), hyped by the man himself to be his retirement album, is much like an extended version of that James Brown routine where he puts on his cape and acts like he's leaving, until the crowd cheers loudly enough for him to return. "They say they never really miss you til you dead or you gone/so on that note I'm leaving after this song," are his first words on the album, and on the rest of the album he basically rewords that idea. 'Perhaps if I leave everyone will love me' is the subtext throughout the album; by the fourth track he's already begging for more applause ("Encore"). In its essence the album is part of a huge PR campaign for Jigga (Love the album? Get the cell phone, wear the shoes…), one last push for greatness. He clearly wants to be seen as one of the greatest of all time, and uses The Black Album to go after every demographic within hip-hop and state his case. If he didn't care so much about money he'd make songs like Talib Kweli or Common, he explains in one place, going for the true-school heads in the audience. "I'm like Che Guevara with bling," he claims as well. Nevermind that he represses his social conscience for money, and admits it…just love him. Nevermind that his rhymes have none of the emotional power of the hip-hop legends that Jay-Z wants to place himself next to (Rakim, Kool G Rap…even Nas or Notorious B.I.G. when they're at their best). Of course, what I haven't yet admitted is that he is one of the greatest MCs when it comes to sheer dexterity and confidence on the mic. He's also become a pro at matching his voice to slamming tracks from the best producers around. The Neptunes, 9th Wonder, DJ Quik, Just Blaze and Eminem are all here as producers, but the highlights for me are Kanye West's Max Romeo-sampling "Lucifer," which sounds triumphant and cool, Timberland's thick-as-mud funk track "Dirt Off Your Shoulder," and the gleeful trashiness and "Rock Box" guitars of the Rick Rubin-produced "99 Problems." In these moments everything falls in place and you couldn't care less about Jay-Z's motivations. As always, it's when he sheds the posturing and career-advancing and puts his mind on the music that he really succeeds at greatness.

Hip-hop's a young enough music that few of the legends of the past have gone away completely, though many have sadly yet to gain the money or fame they deserve (one of Jay-Z's more intriguing justifications for playing the big-money game is that he knows all of the old-school pioneers got ripped off, so he wants to correct history by taking everything he can). In his day Kool G Rap crafted some of the rawest, scariest rhymes about life on the streets that you'll hear, especially on the Kool G Rap & DJ Polo albums Road to the Riches and Wanted: Dead or Alive. While he has reached that point in his career where he's respected in underground circles as one of the best, he's yet to become a superstar. So in the underground he remains. Kool G Rap Presents Igloo Entertainment Featuring 5 Family Click's Click of Respect (Blaze the World) shows that he's taken to serving as a mentor for up-and-coming New Yorkers with similarly rough demeanors. Glory Wars, Hammerz, and Ma Barker are his main companions here, and the four do work together in a way that shows they're of like mind (as G Rap himself describes it, "This is straight-up noncommercial get-down…grown-ass man shit") while showing off each member's talents (particularly those of Ma Barker, who sounds both suave and cold-as-ice). If you're looking for real hardcore rap, with that hold-nothing-back-take-no-prisoners attitude and dark view of the world of a Mobb Deep or an M.O.P., here you go. G Rap and gang have that gangster code about honor and unity (essentially: don't snitch on your friends, and take out anyone who tries to take out any member of the family), but none of the attempted glitz and glamour of most would-be thugs in hip-hop. "I was Mama's baby/she taught me to be a young lady/but she never taught me the world was so cold and the people so shady" Ma Barker raps at one point, summing up the album's worldview. It's a cold, cold world, and you do your best to survive but your best isn't always good enough. Click of Respect is a vivid trip through hell on earth, but it's missing much of what made G Rap's earlier albums so legendary…in a word, detail. G Rap's best tracks burn images into your skull, never to be forgotten. He made his legend as a gifted storyteller who took the world around him and translated it into music. Too much of Click of Respect captures the same aura but nowhere near as vividly. It's all generalities about revenge and survival, with few of the details that truly cut things to the bone.

Lately it's the newcomers who've been making the music that hits me the hardest. Diverse's One A.M. (Chocolate Industries), the debut from the Chicago-based MC, represents the whole package, pretty much everything you'd want in an album. An MC who's as agile as they come wraps words around your brain-offering heart, guts and intelligence in his lyrics--while some of today's best beat-masters light a spark under your feet with tracks that are funky and forward-looking. Diverse's rhymes occupy a similar place between vocabulary and introspection as those on Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star, an obvious influence, yet he's his own MC, dropping rhymes quickly enough that it takes a few times through for you to really catch them. His songs are motivational and positive, an attempt to push the world forward, yet they're also grounded in the harshest realities-see the "life in the city" survival tale "Under the Hammer," featuring Jean Grae and a dark rock-jazz soundscape from RJD2. The 5 tracks here created by RJ, including the chaotic party jam "Explosive" (a duet with the always outstanding Lyrics Born) and the laidback cool of "Big Game" (featuring Vast Aire…yes, Diverse has surrounded himself with many of today's best) demonstrate once again his immense talent at using the soul and funk of the past for deeply soulful and funky music that feels like the future. And tracks by Madlib, Prefuse-73, K. Kruz, and Overflo are just as amazing. An instrumental version of this album would knock your head off, but then you'd be missing out on hearing Diverse, one of the most impressive MCs I've heard lately, in terms of wordplay, substance, cadence and just about anything else. One A.M. rocks like a celebration and digs deep like something serious. I hate it when critics throw around statements like "one of the best of the year," but this clearly is, in my mind. It's deep and well-rounded; get up to it, get down to it, cry to it. It feels like real people putting their minds and hearts to work at making music that'll keep you dancing and feeling for years to come; it makes the bluster and personality games surrounding some of the most hyped hip-hop albums seem so irrelevant.

Issue 18, December 2003

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