If you had to draw a shaky line between rap back when and rap nowadays, you could argue that rappers, after having exhaustively discussed what was going on AT THE PARTY, started to rap about what’s going on IN THE WORLD. Furious Five member Melle Mel (assisted by Duke Bootee) is largely credited for jumpstarting this movement with 1982’s “The Message”. As hip-hop evolved from old school to new school, it was only a few years before groups like Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions went from describing societal ills to launching an all-out rhetorical attack on the powers that be. Rap had become a political voice. Shortly after it split into two major directions: so-called gangsta or reality rap (made popular by N.W.A), and a more conscious/spiritual vibe that would be mellow and militant at the same time (for example Brand Nubian).
And that’s when seemingly out of the blue rap stumbled upon a new item to examine. Groups as different as De La Soul and Cypress Hill began to talk about what’s going on IN THEIR MINDS. What’s the difference? Fast forward to 2002. There’s a song on this album called “Right Foot Blue”. For his entrance, rapper/poet Nobs chose to paraphrase Melle Mel’s legendary lines from “The Message”: “It’s like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder / how I keep from going under.” In Nobs’ words, this translates to: “It’s like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder / how I keep on getting dumber.”
You see right there that as soon as a rapper starts to pick his own brain, you’re in for the proverbial head trip. We can only guess what he means by that, if it’s even supposed to make sense or if it’s just his way to make a lyrical reference. But make no mistake, whether someone is trying to find out what’s going on in the world or whether he’s trying to find out what’s going on in his brain, his mental health is always at stake. The world’s a crazy place and it’s bound to drive its inhabitants crazy. Already Melle Mel worried about that: “Don’t push me cause I’m close to the edge / I’m trying not to lose my head,” completes the chorus of his “Message”.
But while Mel made sure his head was screwed on tight, rappers like Nobs are often frivolously flirting with the idea that they might have got a few screws loose. That can be fun. But it can also be tiresome. There are various obstacles to overcome when dealing with this attitude: You either feel corrupted by someone’s constant cynicism, or you don’t understand him because he’s too caught up in his own world, or you shrug your shoulders because you don’t give a damn about some dude’s personal problems, or maybe it all hits home too close. To some people you just don’t wanna be up close and personal, especially if they turn out to be real people with real problems (a description an artist such as Nobs can take as a compliment).
So if you have reservations against rappers and rap-related performers who indulge in self-doubt, “Either Or” is the hurdle you’ll have to jump over right at the beginning of this album, as Nobs alienates the average listener with comments like…
“I’ve got to finish this CD
so the population has something to wipe their ass with”
“Is this a hip-hop album or a wrongly labelled piece of garbage
of production that cost me two fuckin’ cigarette cartons?”
“The question remains, will an LP heard by best friends
make them worry more about undiagnosed depression?”
“Hip-hop taught me to be a loner wearing boxers
in front of computer screens, cursing myself, acting obnoxious”
“Is this CD a cry for help?
Is it takin’ up too much space on my shelf?
Is it for me and no one else?
Is every track meant to be intro
where the opportunity is clouded by the birdshit on the window?
My face is pressed against the window – am I the birdshit?
Is music laced with nervousness really a good purchase?”
Nobs is asking the vital questions, that’s for sure. But by being so blunt upfront, he may turn off potential listeners just as fast as this review. That would be unfortunate because “Either Or” is an incomplete indication of what “Musicide” as a whole has to offer. Even to the hip-hop head.
Coming back to “Right Foot Blue”, the song is in reality yet another take on Common Sense’s classic “I Used to Love H.E.R.”. It may not be as obvious, but once you realize that is where the quoted vocal snippet (“She hit me in the heart”) is from, it becomes evident that what we’re dealing with here is another sad love song about hip-hop:
“This is the last time I write about you, I might just stop
shit, you’re simply not worth a writer’s block
Please leave a message so I can save it and replay it
look pathetic, erase it when I get famous
and makebelieve that I don’t need it like I need cancer up the ears
so I can no longer hear
the beautiful voice that has the illest flow
and I got my bags packed but don’t got the will to go
to a place where at least someone loves me
minus the bass and the drum beat”
There obviously came a time in Nobs’ career when he moved away from common rap music institutions like flows and fat beats. But there’s enough evidence pointing out that hip-hop is where he comes from. For “Idiot Box” (produced by Jude Rock) he teams up with iCON the Mic King and together they make fun of the everyday madness that is the indie rap scene. Surprisingly, Nobs sounds very much at home on this track, proving that he knows his hip-hop:
“I been reeled in by lines casted by amateur fishermen
who rocked mics in the spotlight for less than a minute and
Annoying anthems ’bout their groupies and the towns they represent
but when’s the last time you been moved by a rhyming piece of excrement?
Heaven-sent, these balanced breakfast thugs who flash toast
and award prizes to the one who grabs their nuts most
Push pens mark the maps of the so-called craziest
who search for a fanbase beyond a 30 mile radius”
“Seinfeld” is more on the overdrawn battle rhymes side of things but wins thanks to an energized backing stringing up a set of dazzling piano strokes that are getting bullied by some seriously bumping beats. “Crippled Defense” is another battle track, this time bordering the surreal with wordplay like “Escape your mental pick pen / you MC’s are gun addicts going through a drought cause you miss-lead” and “New York isn’t for you muthafuckas actin’ squeamish / so study a-broad, but make sure this time she don’t got a penis.”
The majority of this album, however, doesn’t necessarily evoke the term hip-hop. But it’s not that far away. Unlike other borderline poets/rappers Nobs does rely on rhymes, and often even multisyllabic ones. He even has hooks. Rhythmically speaking over producer Slomoshun’s creations, Nobs is all about reciting his poems, no tricks and gimmicks needed here. Often, he’s accompagnied by nothing more than a simple piano/bass/drums ensemble. Thankfully, this low profile approach is ditched even on some of the non-hip-hop tracks in favor of a more animated atmosphere. Musically, the best results are achieved when the tracks get a little more intricate, such as “Fair Weather Song” with its melancholic horns, or “Mind Cloud Stranded” and its bluesy female vocal sample. The final “Exit Stage Left” sounds like a psychedelic rock song straight out the ’70s.
One thing you should not be is mislead by the album’s title. Don’t expect a nail-bitingly thrilling musical suicide mission. In that regard, “Musicide” doesn’t take any risks. It’s not like Nobs’ lyrics are all gloomy and misanthropic either. You could even make the case that this guy has something that keeps him alive, something called music:
“I’ve mustered up enough courage to cut the mustard in a conversation
now only if I can hold a knife to the neck of hesitation
killin’ off procrastination, ingore the stop signs at red lights
full throttle towards the stage, breathing life into these dead mics
cause as of now music is all I got besides bad hair days
and a person who whines about their problems gets talk radio airplay”
For those brave enough to listen to someone who actually thinks before he opens his mouth, “Musicide” holds excursions on the media (“Blood Sells”), motherly love or absence thereof (“The Strained Voice”), alcohol abuse (“Diseased You”) as well as more off-center cuts like “Insanity and His Litter Box Trained Wife”, “Salmonella Last Supper” (both featuring labelmate Brad Hamers of phlegm) or “The Leaking Saxaphone”.
The structure of “Musicide” will make that you bump into a vintage hip-hop track while still pondering the meaning of these abstract poetics. It’s this fine balancing act that helps “Musicide” go down much more smoothly than initially expected.