I recently read Chris Matthews’ 2001 bookNow, Let Me Tell You What I Really Think, a book offering the “Hardball” host’s opinions on everything political from the Nixon-Kennedy race to the Bush-Gore race, with a good deal of biographical information to boot. While overall the book is fairly insubstantial, especially compared to his other books, and has aged particularly poorly given the short shelf life of its content, one quote stood out to me so much that I whipped out a notebook and copied it down to keep for my own reference:
“There’s a false assumption out there that talent will always be recognized. Just get good at something and the world will beat a path to your door. Don’t believe it. The world is not checking in with us to see what skills we’ve picked up, what ideas we’ve concocted, what dreams we carry in our hearts” (p. 200).
This passage turns up in a late chapter in which Matthews offers advice and motivational material, but the reason it hit so close to home for me was simply because it rings so true in the rap game. I like to think that we in the hip hop press do a fairly good job unearthing hidden gems and giving credit where credit’s due, and I personally find great satisfaction in trumpeting quality music released with little promotion and small budgets on indie labels by unheralded artists. The rap media is so deep nowadays, too, that it’s easy to assume that one will pick up on all the good stuff released if they merely look hard enough. Every so often, though, I’ll stumble upon a truly great piece of music that has received so little recognition that it makes me question everything I knowâ€”the reliability of the hip hop press, my own grasp of the rap scene, the ability of artists to push their product even in the digital age, the sheer volume of the underground, and perhaps most frustrating of all, how much more phenomenal music I’m probably missing if stuff this good can manage to slide completely under the radar.
Senim Silla’s certainly no stranger to slept-on releases. As one of the core members of the Michigan collective Binary Star, he recorded “Waterworld” in 1999 on a $500 budget and released it via a 1,000 copy pressing. Even that record generated enough positive buzz, though, that it warranted a remix/remaster project the next year, titled “Masters of the Universe,” that saw a much wider independent release and is considered by many to be one of hip hop’s most underrated classics, evoking classic hip hop spirit through deep, jazzy instrumentals and the rappers’ heady, reflective lyricism and sharp chemistry. “Masters of the Universe” has steadily gained acclaim through a series of national reissues, but by the time the masses seemed to begin to appreciate its genius, members One Be Lo (formerly known as OneManArmy), Senim Silla, and Decompoze had gone their separate ways. The Binary Star saga is harder to follow than the plot of “Inception,” which in a sense adds to their mystiqueâ€”some tales detail the members joining forces while in jail, while other rumors have even implicated Senim as a fugitive himself. In any event, Lo went on to find his greatest acclaim to date with 2005’s “S.O.N.O.G.R.A.M.,” and in 2007 Senim finally broke loose with “The Name The Motto The Outcome,” released quietly on Infinite Rhythm Network.
Among many other qualities, Silla and Lo share an impeccable verbal technique and lyrical dexterity that’s blatant upon first listen. It’s clear that in the seven years that separated “The Name The Motto The Outcome” from “Masters of the Universe” Silla didn’t lose even the slightest step, delivering his words with a clarity and conviction that is only fitting for his loquacious, socio-politically charged raps. Silla’s a spitter, but he’s also a poet, and he seems to pack so much soul into each verse here that not a breath goes overlooked. His lyrics here combine the inspiring spirit and societal critique of old school legends KRS-One and Chuck D with the compelling mystique of Killah Priest and Hell Razah.
Silla largely lacks his ex-partner-in-rhyme Lo’s laidback nature, and “The Name The Motto The Outcome” is a deeply complex work. Even the perplexing album art, featuring conflicting symbolism and countless religious allusions, is a study unto itself. The producers, led by old pal Decompoze and also including Mississippi Steve, Naaman Morris, and Chic Masters among others, infuse the record with such distinct, unusual soul that it warrants examination before Silla even checks the mic. Where “Masters of the Universe” relied almost exclusively on jazz for its samples, “The Name The Motto The Outcome” draws extensively from funk, soul, rock, and R&B as well as jazz, and while this variety could easily lead to a sprawling mess, the sound is focused and consistent as it is impressiveâ€”it comprises for a really inspiring sound. Decompoze isn’t retreading water here by any means, but the distant, abstract vibe of his instrumentals is a trademark of the Binary Star family, also evident on Lo’s solo LPs. Obscure vocal bites and sound clips will be familiar to any veterans of a Binary Star project, adding to the album’s already considerable aura. The multitalented Naaman Morris is the only guest, contributing as a producer and a vocalist, on the one hand a dead-ringer of an Anthony Hamilton sound-alike and on the other a commanding MC.
Silla shows he’s come to rock on the table-setter “Keep It Coming,” flashing his show-stopping flow over a charming Decompoze track that would be equally at home in a Blaxploitation flick or a Nintendo game, anchored by a smooth flute line, sturdy piano, and distant female vocals:
“I’m paintin’ a vivid picture with literature
Ten years ago these images were distant miniatures
And we were sittin’ in prison predicaments
Positionin’ bevels on picnic tables envisionin’
The buildin’ abandoned
Like so much Play-Doh in the hands of little kids, manipulated it
We finagled it, mixed and mangled it
Made it pay the rent, look Ma what I made of it”
“V for Vesper” is an exercise in fist-pumping bravado, name-checking Martin Luther King, George W. Bush, and 2Pac on an energetic track with a dusty horn foundation. “Brothers Killed Malcolm” is an early standout, with a stunning, otherworldly musical frame and soul-baring lyrics:
“I ain’t religious, nor superstitious
I try my best not to sound redundant
I ain’t in love with God or government
They think they’re fuckin’ with some friend of Huck Finn
Nigga Jim, keep the ice in my drink, baby these rims don’t
Spin, I ain’t your preconceived notions
Unplug the telephone wires, see I play the game
Even with ten people the story change
They translated a translation from a dead language
Some thousand years later we pray to some white dude in a painting
To get our sins atoned, say twenty Hail Marys and you’re good to go
Only if you’re on what they’re on, you know?”
The suite of Naaman Morris collaborations yields the album’s most brilliant standouts, beginning with “Less Than Capital,” a driving, affecting number with a heavy guitar solo, and the ominous “Rear Window,” where the two MCs despair over personal struggles, religion, and street life. “Wild Life” is a soul-heavy winner with knockout performances from both parties:
“My intentions are for worse
Women sidestep me on the street clutchin’ their purse
I mean no harm, but I’m guilty by persuasion
Why else would they want my ethnic background on applications?
I tried tracin’ my roots and foundations
I guess I’m just a nigga…right?
But that depends on who’s sayin’ it…right?
These days I catch it from blacks more than from whites”
“The Awakening” is a chilling lyrical showcase, where Senim paints a picture of oppression handed down by the confluence of racism, religiosity, and capitalism. The minimalist, if not apocalyptic, beat by Mums The Word casts an appropriate sense of gloom and desolation. The tempo picks back up for “Breaking the Law,” and deep tracks “Yeah,” “For the Record,” and “I Hate Him” each supply too many quotables to print here. “One for the Money” is a phenomenal closer, laced with dramatic keyboard-driven production courtesy of Decompoze and well-voiced vocals from Morris as Senim delivers a final lyrical manifesto:
“Now hear this, music is an art
But music is a business
I got kids, they ain’t eatin’ good intentions
And I got bills, they ain’t givin’ no extensions
I’m keepin’ it real, it’s thick
I’m tryin’ to get that real Bisquick, that elegant cheesecake
Lamborghinis racin’ up the PCH, no breaks
‘Til we reach the mountain’s peak, can’t be no sleep
No retire no defeat, no surrender no retreat”
“The Name The Motto The Outcome” is the rarest of masterworks that seems so infinitely complex and cryptic that one could never hope to fully appreciate it, yet is so aesthetically appealing that it’s wildly entertaining nonetheless. On the solo tip for the first time, Senim Silla proves a deep, complicated thinker that even “Masters of the Universe” was too constricted for him to display, exploring his identity as a black man in the twenty-first century and offering his observations and commentary on the often gloomy world around him. Then again, it wouldn’t be even slightly unreasonable to imagine that the immense maturity flashed here took the full seven years since that album to compound, but with his solo debut he has proven every bit the lyrical force his former partner One Be Lo is. Senim’s is protest music, party music, rebel music, music to make you think, music to make you sing and dance, music to make you question everything you know and hold dear. Like everything else with Senim, it’s nearly impossible to grasp the circumstances of this record, but if I were to offer one suggestion it would be for him to fire his PR people, or if not then hire a few good ones. It’s been said before, but it’s really inexcusable and downright depressing that Silla and Lo remain as unknown as they are. Times are certainly rough, but even in these dark days it’s amazing that music this good can go relatively unknown, and in Senim’s case it would be a shame if the masses never got a chance to know his “Name.”