Once you begin to appreciate music as something more than a casual pastime because you feel it has become relevant to your existence in some form or another, you will begin to think about what exactly makes music relevant. There are people who can spend their entire day listening to music without caring much for it. They care neither about the broad categories like styles or artists, nor about the details music buffs can spend hours talking about. For them, music is simply a means of distraction, something to drown out all the other noise that has become the score to our busy lives. Don’t get them confused with the young people who are primarily attracted by the visual presentation of music, because at the very heart of it, even they care about music, just in a slightly more superficial way than your typical music nerd. Because when music becomes relevant to you, it happens on a very personal level. It can be just a tune you like to hum along to or a beat that makes your head nod, or it can be a song that evokes a distinct memory or expresses a strong emotion you can relate to.
In the end, there are as many ways for music to be relevant as there are people finding out that music means something to them. It would be nice if all of us who care about music one way or another could forge some kind of unity and develop an understanding for one another, no matter how much we disagree on matters of music and other things. We all like to make fun of other people’s tastes, but what may sound silly to your ears may hold a very special meaning for the next man. Needless to say that all of this applies to our inner circle – hip-hop – as well. It even applies to a certain individual who is known to take hold of other people’s musical output like a parasite. I’m talking about the self-appointed music critic. A particularly contemptible creature I myself have unwillingly turned into. For the longest, acting as a music critic brought me nothing but a rack full of largely obscure hip-hop releases. In more recent times, it provides me with a small bonus which I invest in less obscure hip-hop releases.
I am therefore not driven by financial motivation but by pure arrogance. Which, I have to admit, seems even worse. By arrogance I mean not only having the audacity to criticize music, but to assume that I am in a position to criticize it. Understandably, it’s mostly those who care about music who question my qualifications, and the one group most entitled to calling me out are the musicians themselves, because in most cases no one cares about their music as much as they do. My only answer to that is that I, too, care about music and that that concern is exactly the reason why I would like to see some minimal standards being fulfilled and the occasional highlight occur. All that said, you should never forget that whatever speaks for or against us people in the media, each one of us represents just one opinion among many others, one of which will hopefully be yours and yours only.
What does all this mean? It means that while I’m not ready to praise the recording I’m about to present, as always everyone is invited to make up their own mind. In this case this will be facilitated by the fact that Soulbrotha’s “Music For Agony” mixtape can be downloaded atwww.theehlp.com. Just to balance things out, I am happy to report that Soulbrotha has gotten positive feedback from trustworthier people than me, among them Large Professor, Karriem Riggins, Purple Crush and DJ’s King Most, Kilo and Hen Boogie.
Soulbrotha spent the first twenty years of his life in Nigeria, where he was exposed to a wide range of musical expressions. Early on, hip-hop became part of his musical background when he witnessed a cousin perform Eric B. & Rakim’s “Paid in Full,” and as the ’90s came, he took to the sounds of Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, The Notorious BIG, the Souls of Mischief and many others. In the new millennium he would hook up with producer B-live, with which he still forms the duo PLUSSIGN. “Music For Agony” sees him branching out on the solo tip, while still being provided with beats by his partner. Currently residing in Houston, where he plans to graduate, Soulbrotha offers us this 45-minute performance while waiting to release “The Ezekiel Hanani LP,” a collaboration with a British beatsmith.
“Music For Agony” contains none of the negativity many people associate with this music. It is a message of peace and love sent forth over often soulful backdrops. To illustrate Soulbrotha’s frame of mind, he recalls a debate he had with a teacher who lectured her students about the problems that continue to plague the African continent, assuming her African student would confirm her bleak vision. Instead, Soulbrotha recounts how he challenged the teacher, referring to “the resources and beautiful lands that God has blessed us with” and stressing that people who talk about Africa should “find a balance between the good and apparent evils.” His conclusion (as related on the track “Answers”) not only threw his teacher off, it is likely to be met with opposition elsewhere. In his opinion, Africa needs Jesus.
If anything, that statement shows how strong Soulbrotha’s beliefs are. His spiritual side surfaces in several songs, yet doesn’t gain an overpowering presence. “The Offer (Remix)” deals with devotion, but shows a deeper understanding of the trials and tribulations humans go through. When he says, “We need more than just to be preached at / more than just songs teachin’ us how to get stacks,” you can rest assured that SB tries to heed his own words. Well, “In Many Ways” does sound like a sermon, but “God Is Love” embraces the idea of love as a universal force over Common’s “Love Is” instrumental, complete with a nod to the track’s producer: “Love is James Yancey bangin’ out beats till his fingers bleed / drums for a purpose on that MPC.” And as for Soulbrotha’s rhymes for a purpose:
“Love is not defined by society’s values, love ain’t just morals
Love is more than what the word describes
Love is Jesus Christ savin’ lives
Love is givin’, love is receive and give again
And love is livin’, and love is breathin’, and love has meanin’
Hey, I don’t care what you believe in, love is real
Love builds, plus – love never kills”
That doesn’t prevent Soulbrotha from admitting that one can be afraid of love. In fact, it almost looks as if SB starts to hesitate once affection is mixed with attraction, seeing how both “Afraid” and “First Glance Interlude” are mere song sketches. “How Can I Be Mad at That?” on the other hand addresses a loved one so directly you almost feel like eavesdropping on an intimate moment. Equally personal is “Precious Pearls,” a heartfelt dedication to lost ones.
So what’s the problem? Or, more accurately, what’s my problem with “Music For Agony”? A major gripe is the sound quality. When the vocals clearly sound better than the beats, something went wrong in the recording process. Obviously, Soulbrotha has more important things on his mind, and the fact that he isn’t obsessed with rhymes and flows like his peers are is actually a relieving experience. But his mixtape largely lacks the sense of style that has been with hip-hop from the beginning. When Def Jef said he was “droppin’ rhymes on drums,” it was both an accurate breakdown of the bare essence of the artform as well as an ironic understatement. Technically and in terms of the message, a rap release should be about more than just droppin’ rhymes on drums. Soulbrotha got the message part covered, but on the technical level he still tends to fight against the beat instead of flowing with it.
There are two exceptions to the rule, “Realize Naija,” which combines American and pidgin English with the voice of Mint Condition’s Michael Stokely. “Believe It” also features interspersed vocals, acting as a constant, confirming witness to Soulbrotha’s accusations which he delivers in a highly original flow of chopped, calmly shouted phrases, before he switches to a staccato-like stream towards the end. There’s no denying Soulbrotha’s vocal presence, made felt early on with an introductory speech. SB can command attention. But his delivery has to improve, along with the writing. What in earlier times would’ve been called a demo tape is now disguised as a mixtape, with rather pointless contributions by DJ Fusion of FuseBox Radio. Judging from “Music For Agony,” Soulbrotha is as of yet stationed below the established rap underground. At the same time, this mix indicates that this is someone who needs to be heard (whereas many of his peers merely want to be heard). Here is someone who views humans as social and spiritual beings, and that kind of conviction isn’t exactly widespread in today’s rap music. “Aluminium grills ain’t enough to give a glimmerin’ speech,” Soulbrotha reminds us. Now all he needs to do is buff his own stuff.