Citizens of Sleep are an indie hip-hop act out of Oberlin, Ohio. They are comprised of emcees Sacrifice, !nk, Baraka Noel, and UR$, with production work by The Economy of China, Sean Blaze, G the Future and UR$. Baraka and Sacrifice are also founders of Freestyle Theater, a hip-hop theater company. I won’t lie â€“ I was really scared when I read the words “hip-hop theater”, and I was anticipating the worst. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised to find 13 tracks of thoughtful, progressive hip-hop that would not be out of place on Anticon or Def Jux.
The beats are strong throughout the disc. The opener “Exodus” has a gentle piano loop with a haunting female voice. “Lullaby” has pounding, off-kilter piano with maniacal laughter that adds tension as Baraka drops lyrics like:
“I know bombs are dropping, but damn
Abstract concepts are not what I want to talk about
Let’s slow down
I know now my privilege is such
I ain’t really had to deal with too much”
Other highlights include a beat built around an old soul riff on “Neverlove”, the mellow and introspective “Apollo and Tappan”, and “Battle Cry for the End of the World” which has an intensity that reminds me of Public Enemy.
This disc also features some of the better lyrics I’ve heard in a while, with all the emcees showcasing some serious verbal calisthenics. They bring a much-needed infusion of intelligent wordplay to hip-hop, and move miles beyond the standard “jewels, guns and hos” subject matter that a lot of rappers are mired in. They tackle the Iraq war, the Virgina Tech shootings, depression, relationships, absent fathers, white privilege, and of course, the state of hip-hop. The Citizens avoid being preachy or sounding too full of their own brilliance, which is a problem some conscious rappers have. Instead, they spit lines like:
“Had to call my mother just to wonder what to call my father
When I was seven years old someone told me
What heaven is and how life packages end in severance
And how benevolence comes to those who bend to it
Later found out that’s bullshit
Just medicine for how the world gets
Linked to fears of the afterlife”
Like the best hip-hop songs, the lyrics stick with you, and each listen provides an opportunity to unravel their language and discover something new. The Citizens put the poetry back in hip-hop. They also have a sense of humor, and sex, weed and food all get the proper respect here. One of my favorite tracks was “Breakfast”, which is basically a seven-minute freestyle with all of the members getting a chance to goof off. Another great track is “By Your Side” which appears twice on the album, with different lyrics. It features a lonely piano chord with a ticking beat, and an old-timey singer on the hook. On the remix, Sacrifice raps:
“Excessive regret used to cheat
Disrespected my ex
It’s complex to express
I resent that I can’t ever repent
Condemned to get remembered for events I’d rather forget
Have to admit I want a child but can’t begin to commit
I don’t want to keep with monogamy or misogyny
Here’s my apology
I fall between
Not fond of either”
This disc isn’t without its drawbacks. On “City of Sleep”, the levels on the vocals are messed up, they bungle some of their verses, and it sounds amateurish. The title track is a little too precious for its own good, and sees the crew falling into self-righteous territory. Also, while I admire the lack of macho posturing, sometimes they get a little too “emo” for their own good. They occasionally cross that fine line between being sensitive and being whiney, harping a little too much on their insecurities and personal issues.
For the most part, however, this is a great disc. It’s available free on “BarakaNoel.com,” so there is no reason not to cop it. Citizens of Sleep is a promising group, and I’m looking forward to checking out their future releases.