Real Live, Danny Brown, Rakim & Slee’Stackz: City Ruins

Real Live’s The Turnaround: A Long Awaited Drama is an album that flew under the radar of most heads at the time but is now occasionally praised for its vision and sound. ((I wrote a review for The Turnaround a while back that I think does a decent job describing their sound.)) Producer Larry-O’s beats are neither overproduced nor undercooked. They are loud, vibrant, and layered, but they breathe in the right spots. They are coated with exactly the right amount of sheen but never sound sparse or slick like so many other beats from the same time. K-Def’s work on Turnaround may not be the highlight of his discography ((This distinction belongs either to his work on the Lords Of The Underground debut album Here Come The Lords or Tragedy The Intelligent Hoodlum’s sophomore album Saga Of A Hoodlum.)) but it serves as a bridge between the Marley Marl/Pete Rock school of production from which he was mentored and the lush, soul-infused early 00’s sound of Kanye West and Just Blaze.

Larry-O’s rhyming is either excluded from discussion about the group’s merits or dismissed as unworthy of K-Def’s craftsmanship, but I beg to differ: his meditation on inner-city blues in “Ain’t No Love” is not the work of a merely adequate rapper.

Download- Real Live “Ain’t No Love”

If the success of the song is partly the result of careful vocal coaching and expert producing,  then Larry-O should not be disparaged for performing well as a team player. He possesses a husky foghorn of a voice that projects above and around K-Def’s dense, heaving funk while displaying a mixture of conviction, sadness, and dread reminiscent of early Wu-Tang material. He borrows from technically superior influences but does not overexert himself. In his hands, the cascading headlines of Kool G. Rap’s “The Streets Of New York” or the surreal slang torrents of Raekwon become empathetic observations tinged with dramatic flair: “Cops raid blocks like scenes from Red Dawn/ The American Dream in the ghetto is long gone.” Perhaps out of necessity, Larry-O plays his position as a prudent narrator; the grandeur and chaos of K-Def’s blaxploitation inspired soundtrack evokes the complexity and danger of city life.

Download – Danny Brown “Nowhere 2 Go”

Larry-O trudges through a decaying city to come to terms with his own ruination at the hands of an illusory drug trade that has left him mired not only in poverty, but also complicity. In 2010, Detroit native Danny Brown is less concerned with  pondering the moral dilemma of the come-up than with expressing his deep-seated ambivalence for his home city, which on “Nowhere 2 Go” ((From Danny Brown’s debut album The Hybrid.))  functions as both the locus classicus of his rap career and the economic and cultural vacuum he wants to leave behind.  His conflict is audible and legible. He discusses Detroit as if he is scribbling notes for the outline of an autobiography and he has not yet arrived at a neatly conclusive summary of his feelings. Social disorder is the one defining constant of Detroit, but to illustrate the extent to which this disorder warps individual trajectories and scars psyches he covers a range of topics from nearly as many perspectives.

In Danny Brown’s narrative, chronology is  irrelevant; the passage of time is perpetually cruel to Detroit and her inhabitants. In the hook we hear references to the city’s past splendor and prestige but such an epoch is too distant to save the city from being “nowhere to go” as well as having “nowhere to go” within its limits. The sentiment on display is not nihilism, but rather wariness, or even weariness. One gets the sense that Danny Brown intends to communicate the idea that there’s nowhere to go but up, but knows all too well that such mobility is not easily obtained. Nor is it ever complete: one might find a way out of poverty but remain haunted with unpleasant memories of distressed communities and dead or imprisoned friends, in essence stuck, with nowhere to go. Though dreary, this outlook proves to be artistically liberating, as it allows his narrator to abandon any loyalty to time or place and let his lyrics scurry between shifting perspectives as freely as his famously  idiosyncratic voice. ((Rapper Despot describes Danny Brown as sounding “like all of the Outsidaz rolled into one” and that is the most accurate description possible.)) There is no happy ending to pin down, no happy home to return to, but the child of the city prevails because he was never too keen on fairy tales.

Download – Rakim “Waiting For The World To End”

Danny Brown’s narrator finds it liberating to briefly assume different stances, from sitting upright like a crown prince to muse on his successes that are the outgrowth of ambitions he developed in poverty, to wallowing in the despair of a city that seems to eat its young. He allows his voice and his words to very briefly describe particular joys and sorrows and then moves on to the next idea. On “Waiting For The World To End” ((From Rakim’s album The Master.)) Rakim’s exploration of individual and community ruination is a far different creature, which is not surprising given the aesthetic and ideological gulf that separates the two rappers: ((To say nothing of the fact that “Waiting For The World To End” was recorded in 1999.)) Rakim is famously monotone and in the late 90s grew into a measured elder statesman style of rapping. He is also renowned in part for his 5%er inspired vision of the ghetto as a cosmic training ground for a glorious future; his rendition of city ills are sometimes impressionistic to a fault. On “Waiting For The World To End” he revisits his blighted hyper-segregated  hometown of Wyandanche, Long Island to investigate the state of mind assumed by youths who never found a way out.

He quickly discovers that they are ensnared in the same web of defeatist, fatalist thinking that results from substandard housing and inadequate education. Like Danny Brown and Larry-O he expresses a sense of disappointment and resignation at the impossibility of reversing the fortunes of the collective; this being Rakim, however, means that he will cling to his belief that uplifting words will incite a small but resourceful cadre of principled youth to break the mind-forged manacles of ghetto life. While Rakim should be applauded for his acutely sensitive examination of the thought process that informs poor decision making, he assumes that such patterns can be unlearned as quickly as an alternative plan can be announced and condensed into song.

Download – Slee’stackz “Ruination” (Spearhead X remix)

That is a beautiful notion and perhaps one that a career musician should take seriously, but another beautiful notion is that rapping, if performed skillfully and non-judgmentally, can repeatedly spotlight persistent ills without repelling its listeners. The elder statesman might have better served his constituency by hearing them out, starting with the Spearhead X remix of Slee’stackz “Ruination.” ((From their 1996 “Ruination/Crystal Clear” 12″ VLS.)) It is a plea for cooler heads to prevail by a group of Long Island transplants to Atlanta who find their new environs to be plagued by the same senseless violence they thought they had escaped. It does not equivocate, it does not demonize, it does not idealize. It simply reports. — Thun

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