The contrived media beef between 50 Cent and Kanye West in the weeks preceding the September 11th release of their latest CDs (Curtis and Graduation, respectively) accomplished two things. First, it laid bare the crude, cynical marketing strategy behind so much hip-hop animus — Biggie and Tupac died for these sins — even though that revelation ain’t hardly new. It also gassed the flames around the always and forever blazing authenticity bugaboo that rends the American Negro community: intra-racial class warfare. It was the up-by-his-bullet-wounds, ’hood-spawned gangsta versus the middle-class prep-school mama’s boy. Predictable camps fell along predictably defensive (and often offensive) lines of rhetoric; much old-media ink was spilled and blog space allocated toward explaining how this latest manifestation of patented Afro-Am class schisms folded into and stoked anxieties around definitions of “real” black manhood. But like the tabloid feud between Donald Trump and Mark Cuban, this was also and primarily a pissing contest between very rich men. (You almost have to admire the audacity of the two trigger-tempered hip-hop divas for the way they jacked a date swollen with nationalistic emotionalism and overwrought good-versus-evil symbolism, and used it as marketing D-day for their own dick jousting.)
The tough-but-cool Keyshia Cole from down the block (Photo by Jonathan Mannion)What was most interesting about Fiddy and Kanye’s faux contretemps was its subtext, which spun MTV/BET theater from questions at the center of barber-shop shouting matches, academic treatises and dinner-table flare-ups: What do black folks do with power once they actually have it? Is it better to try to work within or outside of “the system,” and exactly what does either tack mean at this point? The transparent paradox of Fifty is that he’s a pure creation and devotee of the American socio-political-cultural-capitalist-consumerist machine, a by-product and protector of the status quo. Kanye, just as materialistic, career driven and hot-headed as his fake-out nemesis, is the guy who wants to amass power in order to change shit up, to push the envelope, to see how far he can go in building his stock portfolio while throwing grenades at the machine. The clash of these titans signified more than maybe even they realized.
If September 11th was the day for the deep-pocketed, well-connected opposing candidates to wallow in their frontrunner status, September 25th was the day that Negro Kucinichs and their allies took to the podium, some looking to break onto the main stage, some painfully unable to do so, some forever exiled to the sidelines, and some settled comfortably in their outsider status. Jill Scott, Meshell NdegeOcello, Rahsaan Patterson, Georgia Anne Muldrow & Dudley Perkins, Chaka Khan, Herbie Hancock, Joni Mitchell, Will.I.Am and Keyshia Cole all released CDs that day. It was the Negro Boho’s Kwanza, Juneteenth and Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday all in one. A lot of backpackers, conscious folk and next-level ninjas bought or downloaded more new music in that one day (and the week that followed) than they’ve paid attention to in years. To break the releases down by category, it was:
The Roots: Chaka Khan, Herbie Hancock, Joni Mitchell — artists whose influence can be traced through so much modern hip-hop, pop and R&B, particularly that which does not find a home on the charts. Chaka’s Funk This (Burgundy Records) teams her with producers Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, and while Chaka’s voice is wonderful and the knob turners are in fine form, the CD itself is uneven. Chaka’s self-penned material is largely ho-hum, but she soars on covers of Prince, Jimi Hendrix and Joni Mitchell.
River: The Joni Letters (Verve), Hancock’s excellent Joni Mitchell-tribute CD, gives a no-holds-barred jazz overhaul to some of the songstress-songwriter’s best and best-known work, with vocals provided by the likes of Tina Turner, Norah Jones, Corrine Bailey Rae, and Joni herself, while Mitchell’s own Shine (Hear Music) finds her playing it safe and familiar production-wise, but pissing vinegar in the social and political observations of her lyrics.
The New Icons: Having been poorly served in the major leagues, Rahsaan Patterson has become a poster boy for the Negro DIY movement. His latest indie release, Wines & Spirits (Artistry Music), finds him exploring the textures of his voice and letting his collaborators get playful in the producer’s booth (in the scratchy, vinyl-static and ‘20s-speakeasy effects on “Delirium.”) The disc’s highlight is the tempo-shifting “Deliver Me,” where the music drops low as he wails the plaintive chorus.
Jill Scott’s divorce marked her third studio release, The Real Thing: Words & Sounds Vol. 3 (Hidden Beach) as her breakup CD, and many of the songs bear that out. The first single, “Hate on Me,” is a blistering reply to “haters” who constantly throw shade at the singer, but like so much of Jill’s post-Vol. 1 work, it falls on the wrong side of the line she straddles between lyric simplicity and banality. Jill, whose near operatic-range voice is one of the best in modern music, is the diva of Big Macs & head-wraps, the coffeehouse-‘hood chick, but her fusion of clichés from both camps rarely results in anything new or genuinely insightful. Though she gets blushingly explicit on some songs (the new disc could well have been called More Songs About Food & Fucking), and there are a handful of real head nodders, there’s very little real poetry in the words of the self-professed poet.
Meshell NdegeOcello’s journey through genre and sound continues on her fantastic new CD, The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams (Decca Label Group), an Afro-punk soul-jazz-rock hybrid whose thematic concerns (social injustice, spiritual struggles and salvation, wounds inflicted by family, lovers and society) are the same ones she’s wrestled throughout her career. Working with folks like Doyle Bramhall II, Pat Metheny, Sy Smith and Oliver Lake, she’s pushed her sound and sometimes elliptical lyrics to a place where she often comes off as a stepdaughter of Sun Ra. Don’t be put off by the gratingly affected Brit-punk accent she uses in the opening lines of the track, “The Sloganeer: Paradise.” What follows is so very real.
Cross-over Babies: Will.I.Am doesn’t suck. He knows and clearly loves hip-hop, and is blessed (or cursed) with a pop sensibility finely tuned to now. But he can pander shamelessly in his desperate quest for pop stardom. His Songs About Girls (Interscope) has dope touches here and there (especially the lovely, vaguely House-scented groove of “Impatient”) but is largely formulaic dreck.
On Keyshia Cole’s Just LikeYou (Geffen), the no-nonsense Oakland native sings her ass off, defying sophomore slump odds and more than living up to the promise of her 2005 debut, The Way it Is. The new album flexes higher production values than her debut (producers include Missy Elliot, Puffy, SoulShock and Karlin), but still evokes the tough-but-cool girl from down the block, singing on her front porch, in her bedroom along to the radio, at the school talent show. She’s been understandably compared to Mary J. Blige (Keyshia’s also a steel-coated black girl with nicks in the armor) but this album could well be her Emancipation. It shares with Mariah’s comeback CD a strong affinity for old-school soul — and it’s one of the best R&B albums of 2007.