“Retirement” is one of those we throw around like it has permanence even though we all actually know better. Pro wrestler Shawn Michaels retired and came back. Josh McCown left the NFL and took a job with ESPN only to unretire to join the Eagles. Back in 2013 rapper Sankofa told me he was retiring, but as Patrick Taylor noted in 2017 “Few things are more worthless than a rapper’s word that they are retiring from the game”. The only thing I’d disagree with about Taylor’s statement is that it’s limited to just emcees — EVERYBODY does it. I don’t think people are necessarily being insincere when they retire. I prefer to believe they just don’t know how much they miss what they did for a living until they stop doing it for a little while.
So here we are in 2019 with “$5,000 Flashlights“, the latest album from the clearly unretired Sankofa. Even if you’re feeling cynical about people who get to milk an emotional outpouring from their fans only to come back for another bite of the apple there’s few people I can think of who I’d rather return from retirement than Stephen Bryden. He always has been (and let’s be honest still is) an underground kingpin with a tremendous reputation and scant commercial recognition. Stepping away could easily have been interpreted as recognition that critical acclaim doesn’t pay the bills, but the clarion call of the microphone is just as hard to ignore as the roar of an enthusiastic crowd watching you perform, whether it’s combat sports, live concerts or pro wrestling. One starkly honest MMA fighter once told me “It’s a drug. Nothing else can give you that fix.” Sankofa gets his from songs like “Blood of the Eagle’s Eye”.
“Almost being close enough but never there” may have been an unintentionally apt description of rap career. You can’t deny the Agent Orange produced track though (he handles all the duties on “$5,000 Flashlights“) nor the stark honesty of the song AND the video. Let me be just as honest – the difference between Sankofa and me is he can rap and I can’t. We’re both white guys with graying hair from Midwestern places most people fly over, but Sankofa writes rhymes and I just write about those who do. Does his image affect his marketability? If you’re trying to be as big as Jay-Z, Migos or Kendrick Lamar sure. Underground rap is a whole different animal though. People have to connect with you, relate to you, BELIEVE in what you say and what you do. Sankofa is many things but two things he are not is FRONTIN’ or PERPETRATIN‘. He’s exactly as he appears to be.
There’s a whimsical and refreshing tone to songs like “Pez Dispenser Neck” that you won’t find from rappers that are too busy trying to convince you how expensive the cars they drive and the jewelry they wear is. The bouncy Agent Orange track and scratches by DJ Konfewshus are the glue that stick the beat to the rhymes and the chorus to the verses, but it’s the personality of Bryden that makes it work. “I paint proposals in the shade of vocal/maybe could have made it global, but that’s unlikely – I’m staying local”. That’s keeping it real. “I’m your co-worker using big words at lunch break/not to curry favor it’s just the way my tongue sway”. That’s keeping it FUN. Sankofa’s self-effacing raps make him relatable to his audience. He pokes fun at himself even as he spits bars better than you could ever hope to.
“Mom Jeans Cowboy” walks that line between being a head nodder and a knee slapper. I was tempted to say “it’s a fine line” but that’s not true — for Sankofa the line is broad and wide and he easily rides it without trying to straddle the sides. He doesn’t have to be one or the other, nor does he have to be the stereotype of the underground rapper who opens for big tours while endlessly chasing his big break. He’s something else entirely and so are the 37 minutes of “$5,000 Flashlights“. The liner notes claim that Agent Orange found flashlights with rolls of $100 bills stuffed in them where the batteries would go in a hidden compartment of his father’s safe. It’s a fantastical tale and it really doesn’t matter if it’s true or not — like the album itself it’s entertaining and worth taking the time to think about. I’m glad the call of the mic lured Sankofa back and I hope it continues to do so.