erasing clouds

So What'cha Want? How About a Better Northern State Follow-Up?

Northern State, All City, reviewed by matthew webber

Northern State has sold out.

Not because All City is the female rap trio's major-label debut. Not because they've enlisted the production talents of Muggs from Cypress Hill, ?uestlove from the Roots, and Pete Rock. Not because they sing a lame, reggae-influenced dance tune with Har Mar Superstar, a chubby, white R&B singer and fringe celebrity about whom nobody other than music journalists seems to care.

They have sold out only to me, because I demanded too much.

Their debut EP, last year's Dying in Stereo, was everything I wanted in a rap album. The beats were old-school basic, with drum machines and pounding bass. The politics were liberal; feminism, equality, and partying ruled. Plus, every time I listened to it, I remembered my summer in New York City and the best job I ever had.

But the real reason I listened to and loaned out Dying more than any other album last year was because of Hesta Prynn, Sprout, and Spero's (formerly Guinea Love) rapid-fire wit. These rappers were boastful, hilarious, and smart. They name-checked books, classic rock lyrics, and the first guy to climb Mount Everest. It was the album I needed to renew my faith in rap.

In many ways, All City is probably a better album than Dying. The production is certainly less sparse, while retaining its DIY urgency. Northern State is still political, which of course is still vital in this divisive election year. Women and men both need to hear more rap songs by women who actually stand up for women's rights and criticize the men who would encroach upon them, and this album is bursting with these types of songs.

But I miss the pop-culture stuff, the what-did-they-just-say? quality of their references. Look, I'm a nerd, and the nerd stuff really speaks to me. Northern State certainly hasn't devolved into gun-toting, ganja-smoking gangstas, but their new songs sound too universal, too major-label. It seems the group is trying to move beyond its core audience of college-educated, liberal, book-reading but rap-loving music critics and appeal to people who just want positivity and maybe a good story from their lyrics, or to people who don't listen to lyrics at all.

The rappers still drop references like Kaz Matsui drops grounders: Chang Kai Shek, Will Ferrell's cowbell skit, and smoking with John Kerry, among them. And they still shout, pass the mic, and harmonize with more energy than most so-called garage bands. And the first three songs are as exciting as anything on Dying.

But unlike their debut, the follow-up doesn't sound like it requires an appendix.

All City is an album I plan on listening to over and over again before I listen to anything on hip-hop radio once. But I plan on listening to Dying more. Or maybe I'll read more books.

Issue 26, September 2004

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