Critics like Tricia Rose have long argued that many common tropes and metaphor systems that show up in rap lyrics are derived from similar ones occurring in a broader Afro-diasporic continuum of oral traditions. The tendency of rappers to occasionally pen descriptions of a brighter future is thus unsurprising, but these Utopian visions are worth noting, if not always as tenable policy recommendations than as imaginative poetic expressions. Rap has given us a glimpse into a variety of future scenarios, from space-age revivals of mythologized African/Egypto-Nubian past of incalculable splendor (X-Clan “Earthbound”) to vignettes of accelerated if somewhat debauched urban renewal (AZ “Sugar Hill”) to surrealist trips to alternate dimensions (Del “Sunny Meadowz”) to more pragmatic sketches of a linked destiny of communal uplift (Ill Biskits, “A Better Day”).
And then there’s GP Wu‘s “Black On Black Crime.” Followers of my series of lyric analyses have figured out by now that I am quite partial to songs that are resistant to neat categorization. GP Wu’s “Black On Black Crime” is a remarkable song before we even delve into its lyrics. Despite sounding similar to many a ’90s “Wu-banga,” the song resonates as a haunting, profound piece of music, and not just because of RNS‘ incredible beat or Pop Da Brown Hornet’s rugged flow. The future depicted in “Black On Black Crime” is simply more urgently needed and more attainable then other visions, and the song’s narrative rightfully resists the myopic self-aggrandizing one often encounters in songs of this ilk.
Rather than the juvenile and practically licentious world view that oozes from both Nas’ and Kurtis Blow’s respective renditions of “If I Ruled The World,” we are presented with an outlook that is decidedly mature. Rapper Pop Da Brown Hornet begins the song with the poignant observation that cyclical violence and mass incarceration creates a dehumanized Black underclass that wages a war against itself without any long term gains (“I’m no sure no more / Constant war, what’s it all for? / Everybody out here poor”). Though this is certainly not the first song to expose such truths, it is probably the first Utopian-leaning song to focus first and foremost on the metaphysical pitfalls of the street life while noting the complicity of the average street dweller in seemingly static power relationships (“Overseer got you exactly where he want you / In the projects doing fucked up things / Like selling crack”).
Where Nas of the late ’90s tends to describe social mobility as a mostly cosmetic reinvention of pseudo-Mafioso aspirations towards glitz and glamor, Pop Da Brown Hornet privileges pragmatic collective moral progress (“The only way we gonna get there is together”). The foreseeable agenda is not any deeper than an immediate ceasefire, and Pop names himself as an integral participant in the process (“I’m down for whatever”). This is markedly different from Nas’ “ghetto monk” pretensions or even Biggie’s sense of himself in “Juicy” as the atomistic breakout star obligated to share copious riches with his friends. Pop’s future includes material wealth but it isn’t attained by translating criminal realities into voyeuristic entertainment – it is the inevitable result of every individual in the collective making the simple decision not to slash the next man’s throat over cash.
When Pop does veer into surreal territory, he conjures images of a tranquil, grateful, satisfied clan admiring the snowy Alaskan landscape. It is an odd and unexpected image, for certain, but also a compelling one because of it grander implications – Black self-determination, an unapologetic pursuit of transcendent experiences, something new and more substantive than cliched dreams of lounging velour-draped in a rented mansion. The “buttermilk fantasy” future that is constructed must continue to serve as a reminder not to slip back into the behaviors of contrasting hard times – this is a more realistic program for change than even Big Daddy Kane’s “I’ll Take You There,” which places most if not all of the onus of improvement on the direction of a patriarch figure. And who doesn’t welcome an impassioned yet logically persuasive plea for change these days?