Dead Prez, the duo M-1 and Stic.man, has tried to foster as uncomfortable a relationship as possible with suburban hip-hop fans. Though they made a valiant effort with their at times downright racist rhetoric, quality won out. “Let’s Get Free,” their 2000 LP, was just too good. It’s true, they couldn’t get play on the radio, and I’m sure many a soccermom was turned-off by the anti-white diatribes that the album was laced with, but the music was just too good. “Hip-Hop,” the breakout track on that album, and not-surprisingly the only one to give pass on the hardcore racial posturing that laced the other songs, became an underground classic.
The album though, despite the swaggeringly triumphant thumps of “Hip-Hop,” was steeped in the somber reality of poor urban blacks in America. “They Schools” addressed the failure of inner-city high schools to provide realistic options to their students, “Police State” somberly warily denounced the flawed legal structures:
“The average black male
Lives a third of his life in a jail cell
Because the world is controlled by the white male
And the people don’t never get justice
And the women no never get respected
And the problems don’t never get solved
And the jobs don’t never pay enough
So the rent always be late; can you relate?
We living in a police state”
And this is Dead Prez at their mildest. With a handful of mixtapes and another full-length under their belt, the mellower if similarly themed “Revolutionary But Gangsta,” Dead Prez is shifting directions. “Let’s Get Free,” despite its quality, never exploded. Radio, commercial and college, was driven off by the radical message, and the white suburban hip-hop consumers, who drive most album sales, were understandably put off for the same reasons. Still, “Hip-Hop” rose to be the opening theme of college-phenomenon “The Chapelle Show,” and Dead Prez has now whet their lips on the heady draught of mainstream success.
Mainstream, of course, is here a relative term. Despite a temporary home in the Sony stable, Dead Prez is a difficult act to keep on board. Dropped shortly after RBG’s release, perhaps that is the explanation for M-1’s dramatic change of course for “Confidential”. Speaking of his new solo LP, he says; “I don’t want people to think about the usual Dead Prez. I want little boys and girls to be talking about me and saying there’s this new dude, M-1, who’s their favorite rapper. I don’t want to attract the same kind of attention that I’ve attracted in the past.” It’s not so easy to get away from your musical pedigree as that: after all, M-1 is seeking nothing short of a complete rebirth. It’s hard to argue with his reasoning though. For an artist as talented as he is, it must be frustrating to have a successful career with so few financial rewards. Thankfully though, M-1 doesn’t get far enough from his Dead Prez beginnings to fool anyone, or lose the lyricism that made “Let’s Get Free” shine.
“Confidential” is packed with the same intellectual aggression that prior releases were, albeit driven by a more soulful production suite, though there still are the rumbling woofer-blowing beats for which Dead Prez is famous. The album leads off with a chunky molasses-slow track that tensely sits on the edge of explosion. It doesn’t come, instead dissolving into an incoherent political ramble, trailing into “Early,” the next track. With “Early,” M-1 showcases the classic Dead Prez spirit, pulling off a thumping grinder about discipline and dedication. And he said he was going in a whole new direction.
Being a revolutionary is apparently a hard habit to break. “Land, Bread, and Housing” is a an R&B driven lullaby that covers familiar subjects, but highlights the softer-edged radicalism that M-1 is steering towards. It’s not until “For You” that the new direction shows its colors, and even then, they are the ones you would expect: red, black, and green. Still, things have changed. M-1’s metered flow has been replaced by a rattle-mouthed cadence, skittering across the top of the bruisingly brash beat.
The album chooses an unusual cause in that of Black Panther Assata Shakur, who escaped from prison after a double-murder conviction and fled to Cuba, and M-1’s rambling interludes preaching “our movement” sound forced at best. Now is not the time to address this subject, but I have always been confused by the sympahty that black dissidents with legal trouble fosterâ€”a question for someone more knowledgeable than myself to address perhapsâ€”but it certainly seems as if there are more than enough problems with poverty, education, and hunger than with unfocused vendettas on the US legal system. Moving on “Gunslinger” is one of the most pleasant surprises on the album. The twangy Southern slap-a-knee beat leaves you bopping you head, and segues elegantly into the aggressive head-bobber “Comrades Call”.
This album could not be appropriately reviewed without mentioning the host of guests that M-1 enlists in support. Q-Tip, Ghostface, Styles P, and Young DrÃ© all chime in, and that’s only mentioning the most high-profile guests; nearly every track features one, if not two guests. Despite the volume, they seem somehow under utilized, and in fact, the entire album has a troubling uniformity. While there is musical variety, the message has not changed, and any album that includes lines like “splitting crackas’ wigs” is going to have a hard time earning the enthusiastic youth support outside of the stagnant world of modern Black Panther politics.
M-1 seems to have chosen all of the least appealing aspect of black radicalism to showcase. While “Let’s Get Free” seemed like a liquid portal into the helpless inner-city, “Confidential” seems like a bid into the directionless world of afrocentric activism. “Don’t Put Down Your Flag” bids you to “Stick out your chest and represent like a G,” while sticking to the rules of engagement:
“You know what Marcus Garvey would say
Up you mighty race and stop wasting time
Now I’m not trying to say don’t ride or don’t bang
But use new eyes when you’re looking at the game
Like no slanging around the babies
And making sure they get to school safely
Now these are some rules of engagement
For when my team meets your team up on the pavement”
Compelling, but the middle path M-1 is following sounds strangely false. The raw compulsion of “Let’s Get Free” has given way to a less focused, and ultimately less forceful and authentic sound. Though it all sounds goodâ€”homing in on a weak point isn’t easyâ€”it lacks the effortless ease of Dead Prez’s earlier work. It could be that M-1 just doesn’t stand as well alone as he does with Stic: possible, but he doesn’t really seem to be missing any one person. What he is missing though, is a strong vision for “Confidential”. It’s a kind of hodge-podge; the inflammatory rhetoric of Dead Prez without the hard lyrical bite. Still, it’s definitely worth more than a passing listen, and it’s strong enough to solidly launch M-1’s solo-career.