Dec. 21, 2001-
By By Neil Drumming
For a few weeks following Sept. 11, I selfishly but guiltlessly thought I might actually get something out of the tragedy. MTV was digging in the crates for inoffensive, optimistic clips andin light of America's new seriousnesssome critics were predicting the passing of frivolous music altogether. For me, that could mean only the beginning of the end for the materialism, violence, and unwarranted misogyny that have been beating rap enthusiasts in the head for so long. Still, with the way the industry works, that change could take a while. It's now mid-December and, as nihilism and petty beefs between artists escalate again, I've decided not to hold my breatheven if Jay-Z was rockin' a Che Guevara Tshirt on MTV Unplugged. Besides, there were hopeful messages around this year before anybody decided that we needed them.
"At seven o'clock, I make my way/Out the door to see what is in store for the day/Without the slightest idea of what I might encounter/Through the rays of the morning sun I found a flower." Accompanied by medieval-sounding flutes and strings, the first few lines (not to mention the title) of Pep Love's "Living Is Beautiful" may seem a little sappy. But it's hard to resist the optimism of even the most saccharine moments on the Oakland, Calif., undergrounder's appropriately titled debut LP, Ascension. When he's not gushing, Pep bursts with an ambitious vocabulary and doubly ambitious ideas: "Infinite amount of choices, limited chances/Don't be timid, intimidated and disadvantaged..../Stand up and fight/We get you hyped/'Cause hiphop is propaganda."
On that note, Pep mounts a platform of empowerment and self-awareness with simple, ethereal melodies and straightforward drum programming. And though certain lines from the stirring title track must be chalked up to eerie coincidence (Ascension was recorded long before Sept. 11), why waste the sentiment? "Exasperation of an entire nation causes inflammation/We're master masons, paper chasin', bricklayin', and playin' the game that we were placed in." Pep Love says rebuild.
Aesop Rock, a favorite among Internet geeks and college kids for his razor-edged voice and verbal avalanches, lacks Pep's pep, but his latest LP, Labor Days, is no less motivational in its own dense, brooding fashion. "All I ever wanted was to pick apart the day, put the pieces back together my way," offers Aesop over the wistful sax of "Daylight."
In other words, Labor Days is a slacker testimonial, an album-length expression of disdain for anything 9-to-5. But from the glass-half-full perspective, Aesop is all about self-determination. "No Regrets," a hopping, piano-driven ditty set in a bohemian alternate universe suspiciously close to Aesop's own Lower East Side apartment, tells the tale of Lucy, an awkward, reclusive young woman who resists the conventions of others and spends her entire life sketching. On her deathbed, she declares, "I knew what I wanted and did it 'til it was done/So I've been the dream that I wanted to be since Day 1." OK, at the end Lucy dies alone with nothing to show but a hospital room filled with doodles, but she's at least happy.
The darkest hiphop album of the year is easily its best. From the distorted, distressing intro"It's a cold world out there, sometimes I think I'm getting a little frosty myself"Cannibal Ox's futuristic first opus, The Cold Vein, plays like the soundtrack to Ground Zero, a comparison all the more striking for reasons of proximity. The Harlem duo envision the city as an "iron galaxy" of misfortune and themselves as "pigeons" struggling to get off the ground: "Let's talk in laymen terms/Rotten apples and big worms/Early birds and poachers/New York is evil at its core, so those that have more than them/Prepare to be victims/Ate up by vultures and politicians in a dog-eat-dog culture."
But just like Labor Days, The Cold Vein is all the more encouraging for its seeming grimness. Like Aesop Rock, Ox's Vast Aire and Vordul Megilah lust for language, and their art slowly becomes their savior. They rise above typical b-boy wordplay on songs such as "Ox Out the Cage": "I grab the mike like Are You Experienced?/But I don't play the guitar, I play my cadence." But Vast and Vordul are at their best when their meteoric metaphors fall to earth, helping them work through confounding relationships ("The F-Word"), inner-city violence ("Vein"), and drug dependency ("Painkillers").
Unlike most of their "reality-rap" counterparts, who merely reflect and revel in their situation, these two recognize how fortunate they are in having the opportunity to express themselves: "ĎAnd let there be light' was understood/When a mike stand descended from up and above into the 'hood." It's not drugs, jewelry, and big cars, but creativity and purpose that elevate them, as Vordul reveals on the triumphant (and hidden) final cut: "We pigeons became phoenix with open minds/To open yours."
That said, it's always seemed a little silly to me to talk about the "best" rapper or the "best" album of the year, and recent events haven't changed that. But nowadays, it's just good to be reminded that there are those who know how to make the best out of a bad situation. CP