(18) Classic Sounds…

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My big sister Veen‘s greatest contribution to my life besides my nephews is the enhancement of my music knowledge. She is single-handedly responsible for me knowing artists, songs and albums by name, as well as learning what a single is, who belonged to what click back in the early 90’s and how to learn song lyrics by not just hearing the radio, but listening to it.

As she got older, she branched out and started her family and the music notes and convo scaled down considerably, but what did happen as an effect of her dating the man who became the father of my 2 nephews and who I just dedicated an R.I.P. post to 2 months ago, was a music matrimony. Her love of R&B and Hip-Hop paired with his being in the business meant a whole compact disc library for young adolescent me to get lost in. Especially in the era of Columbia House CD ordering catalogues and the like. I learned about Prince from them, as well as a slew of all the contemporary urban music. If I’m not mistaken, this is where I first listened to Reasonable Doubt, reading the liner notes of every disc they had. I used to absolutely love going to their place! Not only because it had the most homely and lush decorative touches that I had seen in a small apartment (suede orange walls and deluxe carpeting throughout with a huge tv – before flatscreens took over), but mostly because of the snacks and entertainment. I fashioned my idea of adult apartment living to be like that.

My sister would throw on the cd’s from the Playstation or the Dreamcast (throwback right?) and let the default screen make spacey images on the tv while she cleaned up. One of these cd’s was the debut album of one of the most distinctive female rappers in history and one of the most unique rappers period. I remembered her ironically from watching videos with Veen a year and a half before and seeing her appear on a cut called “Da Ladies In The House” with a then burgeoning Lauryn Hill. Safe to say, I was intrigued.

After being in the habit of reading the liner notes and seeing that her album shared production credits from all the producers I loved and respected at the time from all the albums that I loved and respected, I was more than intrigued. Kollage is an honest attempt at just that; it’s more of a very concise effort to balance out 3 recurring elements than a collage of eclectic sounds, influences or moods. As a listener, you’ll see the pattern easily if you pay attention. The 3 modes are those provided by the 3 main revolving producers here (4 if you separate Gangstarr into the separate production entities of GURU and Premier), and they fluctuate from light and atmospheric experimental sounds to jazzy, funk guitar-laden grooves and the era-appropriate 90’s east coast hardcore sound. Although this is highly due to the chosen production styles of the men behind the boards, this is also a compliment to Bahamadia’s two different tones.

Assuming you know your contemporary Philly music history, then you know about the scene that spawned the famous Black Lily gatherings, shepherded by The Roots and giving rise to spoken word artists and neo-soul trailblazers in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. It would be safe to assume that this has been an aspect of Philly’s music scene for a long time now. It would also be safe to assume that like half of all female rappers, Bahamadia probably started as a poet. This is usually easy to infer from her spoken word cadence that vacillates from stacatto to continuous and overlapping. Something that matches up perfectly with her voice which carries a moistness and quiet matter-of-factness to it. Yet she sounds right at home on the harder tracks and picks up the energy and force to attack the tracks and owns them. It’s on the brightest moments on the album where she finds the happy medium between the super laid-back and the energetic.

Those moments are those like on the intro “Wordplay” and the album’s main singles like “Uknowhowwedu” &  “3 The Hardway”  On the former, Bahamadia makes her intro and thesis statement by giving a synopsis of what to expect from her debut over a minimalist GURU beat that bounces on stuttering drums, and is buffered by horns and dominated by a funky bassline. Like his other contribution to the album, the harder edged “Total Wreck”, it’s clear that GURU was still very much in the vibe of his second Jazzmatazz installment. “Total Wreck” is another stripped down beat – probably the most purely boom-bap on the album, so naturally it sees Bahamadia on her more boisterous kick. In my opinion, neither of these songs are special, but they’re also not wack and don’t serve as agents of interruption to the flow of the LP.

She hits the mark and evokes more response on the other hardcore outing, the Dj Premier produced “Rugged Ruff”. On a signature Premo 90’s beat that sounds like it should have been on one of Gangstarr’s classic albums, Bahamadia makes you wonder why she didn’t just let Premo produce 90% of the album. As a matter of fact, he’s the soundsmith behind all of the best songs on the LP. She enters  like a God-send, taking those who have been listening thus far for a loop by raping Kool G Rap‘s rapid fire non-pause flow with super vocab and lines like “Scriptures glitters like diamonds or sparkle like magnesium/Premium equates the medium which blows me up like helium…pumped up more jams than technotronic/Find it more toxic than hydrocarbon…” 

The Poet-influenced mode is more dominant on this album however, providing all of the sleepy moments on the album when coupled with lackluster production. The experimental and spacey but dark “Innovation” produced by the Beatminerz seems to be the weaker of the twins from the two beats that they provide. Bahamadia sounds like spoken word legend Jessica Care-Moore or like Lauryn Hill after hiatus as she basically talks(not raps) off beat in a choppy style. It’s on the 2 efforts by N.O. Joe however, where the album has it’s saccharin heights. It gets downright cheesy on the requisite album love song “I Confess”. It sounds like something from a smooth jazz radio station with it’s horrible interpolation of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” and doesn’t sound quite sexy coming from Bahamadia, although I do remember hearing it get a good amount of play on Philly radio. The other sapfest is on the album’s closing track “Biggest Part Of Me”, with yet another singing chorus which seems to be what everyone believed was necessary for a smooth or heartfelt song back then. Although the overall feel is corny, this is a great moment in Hip-Hop where you get the rare perspective of parenthood, especially from a mother’s angle. And what Bahamadia says in this song is actually really dope. It’s her testament to her children that’s forever cemented in audio history. It’s these 2 tracks produced by N.O. Joe that sound like they could have worked so much better if they were produced by The Roots because they incorporate similar elements in instrumentation. Ironically, it’s on the only song that features The Roots and is produced by them that her poet style doesn’t seem so snoozy.  On “Da Jawn” (which is Philly slang for everything practically – like “Joint” in New York slang) Black Thought and Malik B.‘s flows bolster the otherwise weak Roots offering and make Bahamadia’s mellow delivery seem right in pocket. The track where she shines the most in her poet syle tho, is the other Beatminerz contribution “Spontaneity”. Using the same sample they used for Heltah Skeltah‘s “Lefluar Leflah Eshkoshka”, the production duo strike gold this time around with the hypnotic and chimey track that allows Bahamadia to capitalize on her quiet storm by explaining her quirky style and whispering the hook. 

As a member of the Gangstarr foundation, Bahamadia had one of the most important co-signs of the 90’s. The extended embrace from The Roots added to that and made her one of the most significant female entrances into the game ever. More significantly, years later, she is the only major female rapper (sorry, QueenPen doesn’t count – even tho she has bigger hits), let alone rapper in general, who I have heard blatantly admit to bisexuality in song. It was on a mixtape by Outcasted female spitters Lady Luck, Babs and the Lady of Rage that featured Bahamadia on a track rhyming “last decade had a harem of dime women friends/bi on the sly/done a guy every now and then”. That’s balls. And maybe she’s at that point in her life where she no longer cares what people think. Maybe that’s also why this has been her only real full length album and has been followed by a few sporadic EP’s and side projects. Her signature beehive afro helped that heavily backed introduction with a style that was as unique as her rap presence, and tho she’s switched it up over the years and become rather obscure, her mark was definitely made. Call her sleepy if you want. But don’t sleep.

With that, I’m sure it’s become quite obvious after reading this review that my favorite tracks on this album are “Rugged Ruff”, “Spontaneity” and the singles “3 The Hardway”, and the super Dope ode to Philly hip-hop “Uknowhowwedu” . But the crown jewel of this whole album is “True Honey Buns”, a tale where she cleverly and slickly describes how going out with a friend who becomes loose in the midst of male attention speaks volumes to the challenges facing the female agenda collectively. Complex simplicity. You almost feel like you’re out at the club with them. 

And with that, this album gets 12 Candles out of a possible

4812 or 16.

4(Classic Just because where it stands in Hip-Hop, whether it be the time of it’s release, it’s influence, or the popularity of it’s singles overall)

8(Classic because it was solid for it’s time, but may be a little dated or less than amazing by today’s standards)

12(Classic as a complete release and probably celebrated widely on the surface, but possibly lacking one key element – be it one song that doesn’t fit, a wack guest appearance, lyrics, lack of depth or beats)

16(Classic all around)

(It’s more like a 10)

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(12) Classic Sounds…

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The Hip-Hop purists (and no, I’m not one of those), well at least the 90’s-centric ones, all may seem to be in agreement that his best album is Resurrection, and the neo-purists rave about Like Water For Chocolate. I challenge both notions with the assertion and dissection of the sinfully overlooked third album as the best. With a long running track record of each album coming in 2 year intervals, One Day It’ll All Make Sense rests smack dab in the middle of both critical darlings mentioned above. Due to its positioning before the first of his dramatic transformations, and the place where Com was as an artist, this album delivers the most balance of his whole career. Resurrection exhibited the height of his sophomoric wit and slippery early 90’s flow and showed the first glimmerings of potential for depth and introspection. Like Water found us with a new, calm voiced – almost monotone, veggie eating Com who wanted to light incense and rhyme over hipster grooves while contemplating on the nuances and ironies of life. This album was the meeting of both of those sensibilities; The Epilogue of one, the Prelude to another, without giving way to one side more than the other. It’s quite a linear transition. A natural artistic growth that unfortunately has brought him to a point that has stained everyone’s mind with only the image of him from the Like Water album on (mostly because that album spawned his very first and biggest radio hit, “The Light”), and pigeonholed him as the poster-boy and go-to-guy for conscious, heartfelt and poetic rap. This is something that he helped foster by his choices, but also something that he’s been trying so hard to shake because no artist likes to be boxed in. So consequently, One Day It’ll All Make Sense is the first album without the word Sense in the moniker, but also the last album where we see Common for what he really has always been; just a regular dude finding his way….A real man, a Chicago-ass nigga from the burbs and the hood who rapped his ass off and wanted you to know it! One of the most prolific and creative rappers of all time who survived the changes of the 90’s without smash hits and wanted to show you just how much he loved his city and wordplay. This album is where he tagged his name all over the shit and did it the most honestly and effortlessly.

Never really the one to be  accused of chasing the commercial wave, Com seemed to always accept his place as a non-mainstream fixture in Hip-Hop as long as it was known that he’s a fixture. So he’s never given the appearance that he makes albums with concern over what’s going to be the single. When listening to Resurrection, I don’t think anyone can tell you what the possible singles could have been. Even the famed “I Used To Love H.E.R.” is not a conventional single. It’s an A&R’s nightmare, even for a 1994/95 recording. That album felt like he got all of the stuff that he had on his mind at the time out in the open unabashedly. Maybe it was the youth in him, or the progression from his concern with being a style-over-substance entertainer that was evident on his first album, but it was certainly not with any commercial vision. With an open-book quality in his music and in his approach to it, getting all of the stuff that he has on his mind at the time out is pretty much the feel of all of his albums dating from Resurrection, but on One Day it becomes apparent that he learned the value of a little mass appeal along the way. And by little, I mean little. Common is an organic emcee. He’s not going to jump on a Timbaland track just because that’s what you’re supposed to do. He’s going to reach a broader audience on his own terms, when he feels it won’t hurt the process of his growth or the feel of his project. So there may be a track with a more uptempo pace and a choppy hook, or a track with Mary J. Blige or a nice, easy to rock to sample, but that’s the extent of Com’s reaching. He knows his fan base and he knows what would look just ridiculous on him.

So here, he met the masses halfway…His first single off of this album, and interestingly, the closing song (which is rare for lead singles to be placed sequentially) is “Reminding Me Of Sef” – a reflective single that borrows from a 70’s soul groove and features Chantay Savage on the chorus singing an interpolation of another old-school song, but a popular one. But ahh…Here it goes…Com plays it his way. He gave you all of those oh-so predictable and crucial elements to a hit Hip-Hop song in 1997, but he still gives the industry a slap in the face. When I saw this video debut on Rap City and Yo!MtvRaps, I was surprised myself that this was the first song to set the stage for the release of the album. Whether having Chantay Savage, a fellow Chicagoan, but D-list R&B singer (with the only claim to fame being a neo-soul remake of Gloria Gaynor‘s Disco classic “I Will Survive”) featured was a deliberate choice to middle finger the industry and keep it Chi instead of commissioning whoever was the it girl in R&B at the moment ( I’m guessing Mya??) or if her presence was a reflection of Com’s limited pull in the game and the wackness of his label, Relativity not being able to afford someone bigger like Monica or Brandy, is a good question. But even if he did go big with the guest feature, it doesn’t change the fact that Com slaps the biz in the face again by turning a sample that most rappers would have turned into the girl single into a platform to reminisce on his carefree days as a youth on Chicago’s Southside, and eulogize over a fallen homey. It’s quite autobiographical and potent in a way that makes the listener vicariously nostalgic. He takes advantage of the feel of the soul sample so well that he paints the picture vividly and relatable for a listener who has never even been to the midwest or lived through the 70’s and 80’s. It’s a great pairing, and Savage’s singing conjures up the emotions that are both triumphant and lamenting at the same time. Her voice adds power to the mellow of it all. 

If this was the lead single, and this was an example of him meeting the industry and the masses halfway while maintaining integrity, then he only met them a third of the way when he made “Retrospect For Life”. Another sample – this time from a lesser-known Stevie Wonder classic, is a super melancholy track that actually boosted the recognition of the original Stevie song afterwards. This is largely due to the appearance of the then, infallible Lauryn Hill, and her tear-jerking rendition of the hook. I’m almost moved to take back my earlier comments about Common’s pull and his label being wack and unable to foot the bill for big features when I consider all of the guests that were present on this album. But then, I have to remember that while they have moved on to be titans, icons and legends in our minds now, all of these guests, from Erykah Badu, Cee-Lo, The Roots, Canibus and even Lauryn were JUST becoming who we know them as now. This was 1997/98. Cee-Lo wasn’t a Gnarls Barkley pop-darling with Grammies yet. He was still the fat singing one from Goodie Mob, struggling to go gold. Erykah was still wearing the Headwrap and putting out singles from her first album, The Roots weren’t household names yet because their biggest single “I got you” was 2 years away, and Canibus and Lauryn’s solo debuts had not dropped yet. Canibus was still just the hottest mixtape commodity and Lauryn was a star, but not a superstar yet. Safe to say, Lauryn and Q-Tip were probably the most expensive features on this album then. And due to Tip’s minimal presence and the whole reinstated Native Tongues connection, much like De La‘s appearance, I’m sure the charge was skimmed down considerably, if not done for the love. But getting back to the song…This was the second single, A profound and instantly classic tome on the strain and reality of child-bearing, the state of modern Black male-female relationships and most notably and importantly, abortion. As 2 new parents, the connection between Lauryn and Com on this song just seemed meant to be. It made sense to both of their fanbases. It made sense in Life. The beat went perfect with Common’s tone, and in the era of slam poetry’s rise to popularity, it read like something straight off of Def Poets. His words are indelible. This is one of those hip-hop classics that carved itself as the 1 for this topic. Much like Method Man set the standard for Hip-Hop love songs with “All I Need”. Almost every woman references this song for deep hip-hop. With lines like “there’s too many Black women who can say that they’re mothers but not wives”, what you get here is a Common that wasn’t present on the previous 2 albums. It’s a maturity that made you feel like you grew with him if you were a day-1 fan. It became his first true radio hit with regular airplay, although it’s so atypical in sound and subject matter. This was groundbreaking in itself that Common defied the norm and won, even if the win was mild and didn’t translate to sales. It speaks to the power of words. It also speaks to the incredible amount of respect that Lauryn garnered from her fellow artist community. Once again, where alot of rappers may have taken the opportunity to have her featured on a song to make a smash hit love song or something, based off the few who have gotten her on record- mainly Nas and Common, most rappers feel compelled to ask her to be on songs with substance. And this is one of several moments on the album where Com’s newfound love of such substantial fare gets brandished almost to a point where he seems like an adolescent who just finished puberty and wants to bone. He approached his more topical songs with full speed, going all the way to church and wanting to share his enlightenment eagerly with his audience. This was the dawn of the metamorphosis of Mr. Lynn into the Common that everyone thinks of now; soft-spoken, contemplative, philosophical and conscious. Ironically, there’s only 2 songs on this album like that – Retrospect being one, but they were soooo heavy and drenched in tone that they leave that much of an impact. I’m not sure if it’s all for the best.

The other of those 2 would be “G.O.D. (Gaining One’s Definition)” featuring Cee-Lo. This is what I mean when I said Com takes you all the way to Church with it. Yeah, the song is about looking into spirituality and defining yourself by what works for you and the moral codes that appear universal, but he takes it a step further with a dreary piano that feels like sunday morning. Cee-Lo’s southern church-boy crooning adds to that feel. On one hand, it’s mission accomplished because a feel is established, on the other hand, it’s very Spike Lee “message!” in your face with the blatant overdoing of a point that you probably could’ve gotten on your own over any beat just by listening to the verses. This was still a signifier of Common’s newness to sharing depth with his listeners. It almost sounded like he had spent the previous year speaking to spiritual advisers and having deep convos with his friends and he came to the studio saying ‘yeah man, I wanna put all these new thoughts into a deep song’. Similar to how you can tell when Erykah’s influence had taken over between Like Water and his experimental Electric Circus phases. It’s just an annoying thing, not anything that ruins the album per se. It’s slow, and it definitely augments the flow of things a little, but “G.O.D.” is still one of the deepest and lyrical hip-hop joints from the 90’s. There’s something to be appreciated by the naiveté that comes with being deliberate with a topic. It wasn’t sneaky or metaphoric. Com said, ‘hey I’m gonna make a song about religion, and here it go…’

Speaking of Erykah tho,

on “All Night Long”, the bubbling chemistry is there. You can tell Com moved on from the midwest hoodrats that he would often lambast on his prior albums and set his sights on the more coffee-shop variety. Over this beat that sounded like something straight from a jam session, Com describes his ideal mate. It’s neo-soul matrimony. 

But let’s focus on that irony that I mentioned earlier that makes this album a classic in the first place. Simply because this album is not about 2 prolific songs and a slew of guest appearances, it’s about the fact that Com is a beast and here he made it clear. The majority of songs on this album are songs where Com just lets loose and shows off his lyrical dexterity. Com is not often credited with crafting a rhyme style, but if Hip-Hop was a university, he’d definitely be a professor of 2 classes. In a way, he should be given the trophy for helping to pioneer emo-rap, along with Ghostface and a few others, but he should also be given his props for mastering wordplay. Com plays with synonyms and double entendres like none other, he was making pop culture references for punch lines before it became standard and reverses phrases and sentences til it’s Shakespearian. For examples of each, take on “Real Nigga Quotes” where he lays in “it’s gon’ be some drama – you try to Sit-Com down, this ain’t comedy!”, or on “Food For Funk” where he states “I got my mind made up like Foxy Brown’s Face”. Or on “Making A Name For Ourselves” where he rips “I make my Living off of Singles like Latifah/in-between sheets like Reefer/with, blunted senses/you couldn’t make a statement if you were from a sentence/I’m cold with numb intentions”.

Whoever accused Com of selling out at any point hasn’t paid attention. He’s always been a spitter. He’s always loved pussy but respected real women. He’s always incorporated jazz and funk into his music and that’s never changed. The defining factor on this album however, is that this is where you’ll hear the most boom-bap beats of his whole catalogue paired with dope verses. On the subsequent albums, you won’t hear anything like the attacking horns heard on “Real nigga Quotes” (you won’t even get titles like that from Com anymore), or the stutter of “1,2 many” or the rumbling of “Making A Name For Ourselves”. The samples were well-chosen here. There’s a menace to the funky “Gettin Down At The Amphitheater” that doesn’t compromise Com’s sense of hardcore, nor De La Soul’s presence on there. And with the scratches and old school bells, it feels like these guys were on the set of Krush Groove, battling.   The same can be said of “Making A Name…” Where most rappers may have felt the need to rap Canibus-esque and step their game up with him on the track, Com just seems to be comfortable being himself. And while he ups the aggression, he doesn’t change his flow or cadence to match up with the Canadian/east coaster who had other rappers on their toes back in the late 90’s. Most albums that are dominated by braggadocio tracks seemed drowned and tiring, but the sounds of every track where Common spits Southside Bravado are so different and varying from each other that it just makes it feel alive. It also helps that the placement of those songs is so good that just when you need to hear Com spit after a more mellow song, there you have it! Besides double albums and Raekwon‘s Only Built for Cuban Linx, It’s truly one of the few rap albums with more than 14 tracks that’s easy to listen to because of its variety and it’s sequencing.

Something that seems to get lost in the timestream is also the dopeness of Com’s storytelling. The lack of recognition of that seems to have shied Com away from doing it as much these days, but he’s really creative with it… Almost on a Nas level when he goes in on linear, continuous narratives. The one featured on this album is a 3 part tale entitled “Stolen Moments…” It’s simply art at it’s finest. You realize what rap is about when it’s used for this kind of thing. Complete with a skit to set things off that dramatizes the scenario, Com dedicates a long verse to each scene as he arrives home from a trip to find that his place has been robbed over a beat that lends itself to mystery. The beat switches to something more looming and creeping as he moves to the next phase, which is deducing who could be responsible and he’s angered by the fact that he lost a prized Donny Hathaway tape (yeah, I said tape). The last movement sees the pace pick up over a midtempo sample that plays like 70’s Blaxploitaion film chase music. It’s just dope to hear the story unravel and see how Com brings everything full circle with the tape and the skit and the pondering.

I’m not even sure if Common himself knew what he wanted to accomplish with this album besides just sharing his new wisdom and showing off the full extent of his skills. The opening track perhaps sums it up best when he says he wants to ‘open his mental window, hoping you climb in’ and comments how he’s been “doin’ it for a while”. But even more so, the theme of the album is set from the following track, “Invocation” where the jazzy beat is balanced with hard scratches and even harder lyrics by Com that straddle between bragging and life lessons. That there is what this album is about. It was sincere. It was against the tide of Hip-hop in it’s lost era post- Biggie and 2Pac, but it was undeniably Hip-Hop. With the exception of his zeal to be deep on those few tracks, and a slight sloppy slurring quality to his voice on his harder songs, every moment on here is pretty bright. Even the dope spoken word break by Malik Yusef.

My favorite tracks are “Reminding Me Of Sef”, “Stolen Moments..”, “Real Nigga Quotes” , the second and best ever of the  “Pop’s Rap” outros, “All Night Long” and the super Hip-Hop “Hungry”

This album gets 16 Candles out of a possible

4812 or 16.

4(Classic Just because where it stands in Hip-Hop, whether it be the time of it’s release, it’s influence, or the popularity of it’s singles overall)

8(Classic because it was solid for it’s time, but may be a little dated or less than amazing by today’s standards)

12(Classic as a complete release and probably celebrated widely on the surface, but possibly lacking one key element – be it one song that doesn’t fit, a wack guest appearance, lyrics, lack of depth or beats)

16(Classic all around)

If you don’t see why, One Day It’ll All Make Sense

NIGHT CATCHES US – A Movie You NEED to see!!

I’m Just coming back from seeing this movie – which I made it a POINT to do and became quite the mission for me this week, and I must say that Iam really appalled that this Critically acclaimed and award-winning film was not promoted or given half of a chance. It’s a great independent with a great cast and great performances by everyone included.

Anthony Mackie and Kerry Washington‘s chemistry on film is dynamic, but it’s young actress, Jamara Griffin, that delivers the most layered performance and debut from a young actor since Spike Lee’s Crooklyn. There’s several familiar faces that appear here with a soul-heavy soundtrack and score provided by the legendary Roots Crew. Check the trailer and this review and synopsis from the New York Times http://movies.nytimes.com/2010/12/03/movies/03night.html

As it was only viewable in about 3 theatres in New York since December 3rd and was pulled out of the so-called ‘Black theatre’ (Magic Johnson’s AMC in Harlem), it’s only showing in one theatre for one more night only. The theatre, Cinema Village on 12th street, will be holding 5 showtimes; with the last show at 9:05 Thursday Night, December 16th.

If you take nothing more from this film than to spark conversation or the want to go back into your Black History books, then that is a victory in itself for the makers of this movie. It Should be celebrated for its introspection and softness. It’s a refreshing take on Black issues that doesn’t force Black issues in your face. No message. No cliché. Just the humanity of choices. It’s a subtle film, and I urge you all to catch it on its last night before the night catches up.