One of the main issues facing any fan of hip hop in 2007 (at least in my book) is the careful distinctions we have to make regarding the subtle but important differences between Hip Hop culture proper and the music it spawned, rap. With corporate control of the music end growing stronger by the hour, it’s less and less clear what role the all-inclusive set of values, styles, fashions, dialects etc that are distinctly hip hop have in the musical products most of us use as the base of our interactions with said culture.
Rap has always championed the existence of its numerous and varying sub-genres, but has also demanded with equal vigor that those offshoots conform to the strict tenants laid out way back in the South Bronx. So the question we have to ask, as more and more people identify with hip hop as “their” music (but not necessarily their culture) is: do we have a place for everyone at the bountiful table? Much like the Jewish reggae rap star Matisyahu, Qwiet and his breed of Christian-rooted rap artists form a uneasy sort of sub-genre, one who feels rap is the best vehicle for their expressions but seems not entirely derived as artists from the culture at its roots (mainly due to the occasional but deeply clashing values encountered between traditional hip hop and a Christian lifestyle).
In the end, the power of hip hop is that it is both incredibly restrictive and demanding in its structures, but ultimately open to anyone who has something they need to say. And while there’s little doubt that Qwiet loves hip hop, it is less clear about his place in it.
Living up to his moniker, Qwiet makes music here that is at turns mellow, jazzy, reflective and (occasionally, unfortunately) unexciting. His voice recalls the unassuming tenor of Bahamadia, as his verbose delivery seems to demand talking without a commanding presence, lest he run out of breath. Coupled with music that is filled with pleasant airiness and sweet melodies but unable to overcome its lack of boom bap thump, the total package delivers Sunday afternoon funkiness, but rarely more.
Content-wise, Qwiet deftly avoids sermonizing by keeping his Jesus-flavored message subtly hidden under sober laments on American culture and heartfelt odes to love and understanding. Unfortunately, he falls into the old trap of the underground too often by defining what he is by what he is NOT (as defining yourself against the dominant paradigms of bling and bitches still places you firmly within that same paradigm, sadly). His main gripe, a trope repeated throughout the album’s 12 mostly satisfying cuts, is that American mainstream culture is toxic to the youth.
This works in some places (as on “So Beautiful,” where he raps: “Sometimes I hate this world, I’m still in love with it, no matter what she chooses/ I can still see she’s beautiful even through the cuts and bruises”); however, overkill sets in when on “Consequence” he basically blames so-called negative gangsta rap for his protagonist’s crime of hate and its subsequent regrets among inmate and victim alike. Which is basically the same right wing bullshit Tipper Gore and her ilk have been preaching for over twenty years. Ultimately, the artist’s responsibility for the messages he sends out into the community is a valid (and even needed) discussion, but the song’s blanket condemnation is silly and removes all nuance from a complex issue.
By the time the triumphant horn loop booms in on “Return with Honor,” Qwiet’s M.O. is clear. But unfortunately the line between those who will really dig his platter and those who will say “thanks, but no thanks” is just as obvious. For true believers like him, this is some soul food goodness; for the rest of us, it’s easy to appreciate and champion his cause, but actually internalizing the product as pure hip hop expression (“our” music) is a whole â€˜nother story.