A few months ago I found myself rolling my eyes at message board comments that criticized Nas and Damian Marley’s song “Africa Must Wake Up” for its romanticized depiction of the troubled continent and failure to serve as a musical TED Talk1Â teeming with cogent insight and creative solutions to famine and war. For now, let’s put aside the implausibility of any song directly effecting measurable social change. The idea that rap music derives its primary worth from its ability to articulate academically supported geo-political analysis is silly and should probably not be engaged.Â I’m also willing for now to ignore the inability of many commenters to assess Nas’s lyrics inside of the more logical context of rap and reggae’s treatment of Africa as an extended metaphor for past and future utopias. Â I am most peeved by the implicit assumption that the act of awaking to the world’s problems, the unsettling mental and emotional process that precedes any attempt at political action or even coherent ideological formation, is somehow too juvenile of a preoccupation for rap. How can that be close to true if rap is so damned good at capturing these epiphanies?
In addition to awakening a new generation to the futuristic grandeur of Herbie Hancock’s back catalogue, Organized Konfusion’s “Open Your Eyes” is the most sobering moment on their marvelous 1991 self-titled debut album,2 a work occasionally burdened by awkward stabs at post-D.A.I.S.Y. Age eccentricity. Where cuts like “Walk Into The Sun” dimly reflect the mystic neo-afro-egypto space motifs that course through the ’60s and ’70s soul-funk-jazz of their sample sources, “Open Your Eyes” builds on the realist foundation of Melle Mel’s verses from “The Message.” The ominous gospel chorus gives way to Pharohe Monch’s torrential confrontation with the ills of 1991: “There’s just too many rages/ too many infinite screams at night/ we’re living in concrete cages … sometimes it seems like I can’t go on/ I can’t go on.” These are the words of an anxious young man, for certain, but one mining for self-assurance in turbulent times and patiently shaping his world view with every tool at his disposal. He is not returning to a state of naivete.
Christian imagery is modified to account for the incorporation of five percenter and black nationalist ideals into fledgling philosophies of uplift: “but when I envision a black man with thorns in his hands on a crucifix I get strong/ never will I ever let a devil ever deceive me again.” Prince Po refers to specific Biblical passages and even cites troubling statistics to drive home the idea that a massive change awaits us. Whether this change will come in the form of needed reform or catastrophic confrontation is not specified; the intended take-home jewel is to remain conscious and critically observant in a milieu in which such traits are rarely praised outside of the context of street level drug purchases.
A few years later, Â Goodie Mob are even more adept at syncretization;3 the robust preacher’s sensibility that critics sometimes wrongly ascribe to rappers in general is slathered on every second of “Cell Therapy.” While it is easy to dismiss songs like this for their energetic endorsement of the widely read but poorly researched canon of conspiracy books that is frequently cited by ’90s rappers, it is a mistake to characterize Goodie Mob as paranoidÂ millenarianists. Black helicopters andÂ surveillance cameras enhance the song’s gravitas, but the message is pragmatic, even corporeal: remaining poor, uninformed, and powerless results is bad for your physical health too.4 Each verse hints at an organized response but stresses the need for each individual to figure out how to redeem his drug and misinformation-addled brain before any dream of progress can be taken seriously.
Ras Kass in 1996 is even less subtle about the connection between one’s level of consciousness and physical their well-being: the hook for “Ordo Ab Chao” succinctly states ” ‘They don’t feel you’ / But what you don’t know can kill you.’ ” But like Goodie Mob and Organized Konfusion, his concern for the physical deterioration that is the hallmark of impoverished living is secondary to his apprehension at the prospect of losing the liberating capacity for critical thought. The individual’s refusal to see the petty consumer spoils of the Twentieth Century as anything more than distractions from persistent systemic inequality might be his downfall. Ras implicates underclass simpletons — “the average niggas think they Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid/ doing bids with no remorse, it’s almost methodical”— and self-deceiving upwardly mobile middlemen alike in the wickedness of the larger society. He confesses to his own complicity in large scale corruption as a taxpayer and points out the limitations of his attempts to set a righteous example for his troubled collective. Vice, consumption, and even cynical defeatism are the devils that tempt the young mind astray; tactics of resistance are clearly necessary but also hard earned.
Open Mike Eagle makes it perfectly clear that he is rapping live and direct for the year 2010: “I’ve seen the future/ and pretty soon you’ll need a PhD to be an English tutor/ you’re gonna have to put your house up just to lease a scooter.” The 90s nihilistic response to an increasingly intrusive government/military/corporate behemoth has far-reaching consequences. The post-9/11 citizen Â is mired in publicized anonymity, enslaved to impersonal Facebook voyeurism and blundering computerized middle-management. After plans to turn the tables on a pervasive spying, lying social hierarchy are demonstrated to be woefully ineffective,Â it is surmised that the only way out is a helicopter — OME’s version of the Mothership Connection or heavenly chariot. The conspiracy cycles of the past seem quaintly esoteric in comparison to this alarming picture, in which the onslaught of information crushes our ability to concentrate long enough to protest monumental acts of injustice. Willfully disconnecting oneself from the whole spectacle might be the only sensible response.
Lil B usually revels in his unhinged, unpolished, nearly improvisational rhymes, but on “Age Of Information” he uses his freely associative style to express ambivalence towards his participation in the internet rat race. His first verse credits the new age with giving him a platform to spread his loopy ministry but soon turns into a disjointed meditation on the pitfalls of digital connectedness. His second verse has him diving headfirst into the zeitgeist of his own creation; he enacts the overflow of data that troubles him, shifting between tangentially related topics as if scrolling through the results of a hashtag search or items on his Facebook wall. He senses that addiction to convenient impersonal technologies contributes to prejudice and misunderstanding and concludes that the lumbering pace of social progress set against unforeseen leaps in scientific advancement amounts to nothing more than hell on earth.
Atlanta’s L-Dash gets right into the neglected grit of that same hell; Â his immersion in the current epoch leads him to recognize his place in the cyclical violence that stains American history. On “Peaches, Mountains, and Red Clay” he hijacks the instrumental from Raekwon’s “Incarcerated Scarfaces” to remind us that social disorder still has an address in the real world. His narrative unfolds at a pace similar to the one on “Age Of Information” but rather than feeling besieged by hypnotic bits ofÂ decontextualized data in ethereal cyberspace, the listener is knocked over by the brutality of life as perceived by L-Dash in his corner of existence. The ghosts of the past — from the horrors of slavery, the Indian Wars, Jim Crow, and the crack era— clank their chains in the form of perpetuated violence that is clearly linked to economic stratification. Like his predecessors and his contemporaries, L-Dash never completely abandons the cool, tough pose that is the mark of a rapper in any decade, but he takes the time to pepper his verses with moments of civility and clarity. In the mix, but awake to the bigger game.
- From ted.com: “TED is a small nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading. It started out (in 1984) as a conference bringing together people from three worlds:Â Technology, Entertainment, Design.” [↩]
- Organized Konfusion “S/T” [↩]
- Read more on rap and the syncretic process. [↩]
- They expound on this to wonderful effect on the title track from their debut album,Â “Soul Food.” [↩]
- From his debut LPÂ Soul On Ice. [↩]
- From his album Unapologetic Art Rap. [↩]
- From his mixtape/album Blow My Cartridge. [↩]