The underground is exploding and everyone’s scrambling to get on board. Each release is straining to be more independent, more experimental, and more straight-out weird than the one before. You got away with a chorus that was just a screeching wail? That’s cool and all, but what about the six verses I devoted to the psychosomatic quivers in the back of my mind? There’s an ongoing competition to see how introspective and heartfelt you can be on your record and still move units (Slug takes the cake) and as sensitive as I am, sometimes you’ve got too many problems of your own to hear about someone else’s. That doesn’t mean though, that I’m ready to wade straight into bitches and hoes territory. I wasn’t sure what I was going to get then, when I slid the Kentucky quartet Code Red’s debut disc, “All Aboard,” into my CD player. Was I going to have to mope through another extended episode of hip-hop heartbreak, or was I going to have to turn the volume down to avoid pissing off the feminist chicks that live down the hall?
It was a relief then, to hear a lazy Curtis Mayfield sample slipping out of my speakers on the lead-off track. I knew it was going to be all-right; a nice middle zone, the thump without the nasty, the lyrics without the painfully self-aware stabs at “real” poetry. Manfred’s husky flow kicks in for a well-timed introduction that confirms my hunch – equal parts crunk and intelligent:
“Over the hills and through the woods
Through the bricks and around the curbs
In the sticks and in the burbs
City-slickers going to work
We burn that coal, your neck go jerk
Heard my flow, respect my work
Make you shake your ass till your rectum hurt
Oh my lord, I can see that y’all were bored
Here’s a style y’all can all adore
All afford to rap with us so all abooooarrrd”
It quickly takes a turn into the club with “For My People” and the single “Elbow Room,” both standard booty-shaking songs â€“ pulsing production and hooks from the standard lexicon (ballers, honeys, and rims) â€“ yet both have a freshness brought by Waltz’s live production, a trend that keeps up with few exceptions through the 50 minute album. “Elbow Room,” soon to be featured on a Lil’ Jon compilation, has a ratcheting southern beat, backed by a g-funk whine. It’s decent, but the most interesting material is cued up at the later in the album. “Looking Good” highlights El One’s distinctly underground flow, sharp rhymes in the vein of his fellow Kentuckian, Deacon the Villain of Cunninlynguists.
Most of the songs are party bumpers, but Code Red is not without loftier ambition. El One and Dread, the third of the groups MC’s, are army vets, and the politically themed “Give Me a Reason” is one of the more intelligent and courageous takes on the war in Iraq I’ve heard outside of Sage Francis. It has become standard concert protocol (at least here in Boston) to whip the crowd into a frenzy with an arbitrary “Fuck Bush” chant when the energy dies down, so it’s nice to hear artists that have a more nuanced take. “Give Me a Reason” addresses the personal turmoil that young soldiers confront shipping overseas, putting a human-face on a tremendous social and political issue:
“They putting guns in the hands of little children
But he’s fighting for freedom; he’s fighting for reasons
He don’t even understand it, while standing at ease
He knows that if he leaves
That he’s committing treason
So he puts himself in harms way everyday
For that couple extra dollars of hazardous duty pay
They send him overseas to fight for their democracy
But all he thinks about is the daughter he never got to see”
The underground has hollowed out such an entrenched niche for itself that it’s easy for hip-hop heads to forget the raw pleasure that can be taken in silky bass lines and buttery layered productions. Code Red hasn’t forgotten those essential truths; the group, backed up by a team of live musicians, has produced a polished quality piece of art. True, little new ground has been broken, and there are duds scattered through the album (the baffling electronica beeps of “The Sky is Falling”), and I doubt Code Red will be lighting up nationwide charts, but they have shown they are real contenders and worth keeping an eye on.