Lies, Relatives and Revolutions: Nas, Talib Kweli and Sage Francis

This essay was posted on Rhapsody.com’s Music Stuff Place blog on May 25. I wrote it for my Rap Is Not Pop column.

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Rap Is Not Pop: Lies, Relatives And Revolutions

Do rappers even rap anymore? When B.o.B’s The Adventures of Bobby Ray debuted at the top of the Billboard charts, it not only divided critics and fans, but led to feverish claims that major labels don’t support straight-up lyricism anymore, at least not without an equal helping of slumming pop vocalists and Auto-Tuned crooning to make it palatable for the American Idol generation. The forthcoming arrival of Drake’s Thank Me Later – which will probably follow Bobby Ray as the second number one hip-hop albums of 2010 – hasn’t dissuaded those concerns, not when the Toronto artist spends his time wooing teenage girls with R&B hooks. Drake doesn’t even rap on his latest single, “Find Your Love.”

Judging from these and other recent albums like Kid Cudi’s Man on the Moon: End of Day, the vaunted new generation of MCs tends to treat rhyming as just another element in a pop-oriented package. However, Sage Francis’s Li(f)e, Talib Kweli & DJ Hi-Tek’s Revolutions Per Minute, and Nas & Damian Marley’s Distant Relatives prove that rap – or at least music where rapping, not singalong hooks, is the primary focus – can still yield critical and commercial rewards.

Not coincidentally, all three came of age during previous generations. Nas emerged in the “fast rap” era at the start of the 90s. Talib Kweli came of age during the underground renaissance of the mid-90s, and Sage Francis debuted when that renaissance yielded a groundswell of indie artists at the start of the century. Kweli and Nas’ new albums will most likely appear near the top of the charts, disproving industry cynics that claim mainstream listeners – or, more pointedly, teenage girls – don’t buy traditional hip-hop albums anymore.

Distant Relatives isn’t a conventional record. It may be the first major full-length collaboration between a rapper and a reggae artist, and the duo commune on nation-building, from nurturing “Leaders” to vowing that “Strong Will Continue.” Nas’ pointed observations of politics, spirituality, and life are his sharpest since 2006’s Hip Hop is Dead. And when Marley sings and chats in a thick patois on “Tribes at War,” he’s not just spitting hooks for the radio: “Everyone deserves to earn/ Every child deserves to learn/ Each and every one deserve a turn/ Like a flame deserves to burn.”

Mostly produced by Marley and his brother Stephen, Distant Relatives has a reflective, urban Adult Alternative sound, save for a handful of cuts like “As We Enter,” where Nas and Marley trade verses like microphones over an uptempo organ riff. It seems intended for aging B-boys, but assuming that would dismiss young audiences who are just as supportive of topical and so-called “conscious” music. The same could be said of Revolutions Per Minute by Talib Kweli & DJ Hi-Tek a.k.a. Reflection Eternal. It’s surprising how well the two complement each other in spite of not working together since 2000’s Train of Thought. Hi-Tek taps into a cool, soulful vibe that he mostly eschewed over the previous decade and his solo, street-rap oriented Hi-Teknology series. And Kweli uses each track to explore concepts, often jumping between standard battle lines and socio-political themes on the same song. On “In This World,” for example, he asks, “When it comes to rapping, who the baddest dude?” Then, on the next stanza, he addresses the world’s current economic malaise. “This a recession/ What recession, dog?/ We been stressin’.”

Hip-hop is at its best when artists shift from the personal to the universal, whether the former is promoted with braggadocio or the latter is just sloganeering and metaphors. Francis is the least known of this trio, although he records for a major-indie (Anti- Records, a division of Epitaph) and packs nightclubs around the country. He’s often accused of preaching to the converted, and appealing to a white, left-leaning crowd of backpackers. But Li(f)e is not only an argument against conformity and groupthink, but an exercise in self-analysis over wry, sympathetic arrangements performed by post-rock band Califone (and written by the late Sparklehorse, Chris Walla of Death Cab for Cutie, and others). On “I Was Zero” he admits, “I’m debating the value of a caste system/ Cashback rewards and wars funded by my tax income/ If I’m a part of the problem, then pardon me/ There’s always been a difference between what I am and what I ought to be.” Maybe Francis’ critics don’t like the journey he makes before reaching his conclusions. Or maybe they don’t like the conclusions.

Francis, Kweli, and Nas often get accused of the same things – bad beats, corny punch lines, and nonsensical verses. But the problem may be that we’ve grown used to formulaic rap, the kind that comes with a promise to buy us diamonds and rings, make love to us on satin sheets, and is frequently interrupted by a Trey Songz chorus. These artists’ albums require more imagination than that, and offer torrents of words that, like a good book full of uneven chapters, don’t always add up to hip-hop quotables. The major question of 2010 is whether a mainstream audience can appreciate such complexity anymore.

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