Stream: Del “Sunny Meadowz”
Del’s 1991 debut album I Wish My Brother George Is Here is remembered for its liberal sampling of happy George Clinton-related music, but beneath the feel-good funk lies a preoccupation with claustrophobia. The characters inhabiting Del’s version of east Oakland inspire him to write humorous songs that could be described as “local color” rap, but his everyman narrator often finds himself exasperated and yearning for the comfort of solitude. On songs like “Sleepin’ On My Couch,” “Hoodz Come In Dozens,” and the “The Wacky World Of Mass Transit” he feels put upon, annoyed, and targeted by his fellow city-dwellers, who view him not as a generous and patient soul worthy of respect but as another sucker to be exploited or a misfit to be bullied.
Prior to Del, other rappers explored feelings like alienation and vulnerability as they relate to city living but typically framed their experiences as battles between the idealized hardened individual and the social and systemic forces trying to contain or destroy him. Melle Mel and Duke Bootee’s incalculably famous and influential ode to urban ruination “The Message” portrays a man on the brink of a nervous breakdown bemoaning his overcrowded, rapidly deteriorating surroundings. One gets the sense, however that the narrator of “The Message” warns the world not to push him because he is poised —perhaps out of desperation, but poised nonetheless— to push back. Del’s narrator inhabits a similar but in a sense more damning predicament because city life has whittled his resolve and pride down to an unidentifiable nub; he isn’t enraged so much as exasperated, and is unsure of his ability to rise above his circumstances.
Q-Tip’s narrator on A Tribe Called Quest’s “Description Of A Fool” sees the “naked” city reality as the perfect education. The weariness one develops after witnessing life in all its splendor and wretchedness publicly unfold on a daily and nightly basis is considered a sign of maturity. The city as described by rappers like Q-Tip and Guru is a sprawling universe teeming with grand possibilities and wondrous sights. Del’s narrator is not nearly as pleased with the Oakland before him; although his tales are rich with detail and characterization, the city never feels large enough to house his restless spirit. Del’s affinity for nerdy and/or bohemian pursuits is not explored with much depth on his debut, but I imagine that these interests were developed in adolescence and may have put him at odds with the “thugs” and “hoods’ he admonishes throughout the album. Unlike the vast and diverse expanse that comprises the New York City of Q-Tip’s imagination, Del’s narrator characterizes Oakland as mostly a shabby, violent ghetto, hardly conducive to a budding artist in search of peace, quiet, and space.
This is of course, a lie; Oakland has provided Del with the formative experiences and lessons that have allowed him to craft an album populated by zany characters dropped into odd scenarios. Not only is Del’s vision of Oakland narrow and stylized — even a city that’s only eighty blocks long is logically more complex than any single observer can comprehend— his depiction of the individual artist’s response to the citys is an exaggerated fantasy. These fantasies are based in some version of reality —it is believable enough that Oakland has problems with crime, transportation, and poverty and that these conditions might grate on the nerves of a sensitive artist— but they are inflated to levels of absurdity or tragedy within the mind of the observing narrator. “Sunny Meadowz” is the therapeutic daydream the narrator conjures when even his normal fantasy life feels too mundane and constricting; it floats in the surrealist ether somewhere between Ghostface’s hallucinatory gangster fable “The Forest” and A Tribe Called Quest’s “I Left My Wallet In El Segundo.”
“Sunny Meadowz” begins with a rebuke of less imaginative rappers, whose inferior rhymes and gold fronts identify them as purveyors of shallow distraction and materialism in a time of political and economic crisis. The realm of “Sunny Meadowz” is partly inspired by the African utopia that rappers invented in the late ’80s. It is a tranquil land full of wild life and covered with lush vegetation, but it lies parallel to the hip hop African imaginary; Del is interested only in Afrocentric ideology for as long as it takes him to return the gold fronts he snatches “back to the caves of the motherland.” In this alternate world, Del’s narrator basks in the warm clime, relaxed enough to let his thoughts wander from braggadocio that affirms the validity of his smoked-out bohemian style (“See my style’s rather passive but I can aggressive / Brothers get done when they try to be impressive”) to a denunciation of Hammer’s inauthentic funk.
In the second verse, the narrator is confident that he has arrived in a world far removed from Oakland’s social disorder. His anxiety has not been totally eliminated, but he’s working on it. He claims the world of “Sunny Meadowz” as the product of his weed-fueled imagination, a place of enlightenment, recreation, and repose. The characters that once disturbed his creative process are exiled from his private Eden. One may suspect a class bias when he describes making “vagrants scatter” or how he proceeds to “throw the thugs out of the pasture” but he is only denying entrance to those who threaten the stability of his paradise. He is willing to teach others how to co-exist and shake off their basest urges in favor of a philosophy that bears no small resemblance to that espoused by De La Soul on “Me, Myself, and I.”
The difference is that by the time Del gets to voice his version of rebellion and nonconformity, it isn’t exactly clear whether spacey “irregular” behavior represents a genuine threat to an established order or just another derivative youthful expression. In a sense, the distinction barely matters to those who crave escapism; judging by the popularity of rappers like Curren$y, Lupe Fiasco, and Lil B’, the nerds and misfits have won their right to rap blissfully and weirdly alongside their more thuggish or conventional peers. —- Thun