Whenever the rewind button is mentioned in hip-hop reviews, it's usually used as a synonym for "oh no he didn't"-type punchlines. A reviewer finds himself hitting that button on a regular basis because it is his job to pay attention even to details. It may have occurred to you that in hip-hop, more than in any other music genre, reviews focus heavily on the lyrics. It is because lyrics are so important to this artform. Allow me to draw this clumsy comparison: a song is like a possible significant other. The music is what makes the song attractive, but the lyrics are what make it interesting. You might want to spend some time on the dancefloor with a hip-hop tune if the beat is tight, but you might think about turning a chance acquaintance into a serious relationship if you connect with the lyrics.
You can bet that on an album called "Bomb Shelter Poetry", the lyrics play an important role. It makes you think of war victims hiding in bomb shelters, left with nothing but a pen and a pad to scribble down their hopes and fears. "There's a war going on outside no man is safe from" is a famous Mobb Deep quote, and somehow it's easy to imagine MC's seeking the seclusion of the studio to record verses like everyone could be their last. Therefore, being well aware of the importance of understanding rapper Sentence's "Bomb Shelter Poetry", I found myself in a situation the rewind button couldn't get me out of. I had to concede and ask the label for lyrics, which they readily provided.
There's more to this little introduction than just to make a jackass out of myself, a rap reviewer who doesn't understand the lyrics. Because whether you're familiar with rappers like Sentence or not, "Bomb Shelter Poetry" will recquire attentive listening. But which rapper would not want the listener to listen attentively?
But who exactly is Sentence trying to reach with these notes from the underground? He calls for his audience in the opening "Calling All..." particularly "all hip-hop apocalypse survivors," "all minimum-wagers and nine to fivers," "all graf heads and top-to-bottom fillers," "all escapists that dream through every weekday" and "all the fed-up activists sick of the clichés." After a short dramatic, cinematic sequence, the intro turns into a track beaming with urgence, the bumping beats tearing hard at the classical strings. But not one to dwell on things for too long, Sentence flips both the beat and the rhyme style several times in just two and a half minutes.
He doubles the already fast cadence for "Standing Still", very much in contrast to the song's title, yet in sync with its message. Detailing the modern day hustle and bustle with lines like "It goes: work from nine to five, and then class from five to nine / then try to find a spare five minutes to sit back and write a rhyme" and "My moment of peace is non-existent / I got tacks lining the map, showing the path of my conquered distance," Sentence comes to the conclusion that if you try to keep with everybody else's pace, you're hardly advancing. He wraps up this moral of the story in the chorus:
"The scenery all passes and slips onto your tomb
and everybody wishes that they didn't have those dues
but if they would just listen and stop trying to prove
that everything is nothing - then they'd probably finally move"
The track's sentiment is supported by producer Gollum's choice to overpower a relatively relaxed background with a pulsating and pounding rhythm section.
The production remains refreshingly challenging with "Blindfolded", switching up accordingly to what Sentence is trying to convey. That way, we don't get just the stereotypical somber mood but also with some funky bits thrown into the mix. Still, only three tracks into the album, you know that the soulful interlude to "Done Right" won't last very long. And indeed things accelerate, but this is actually one song that's a tad bit easier to follow than the rest - except for the chorus which Sentence for some reason decides to complete at break-neck speed. Still, his decisive manner on the mic is in tune with the message of self-support he's trying to get across:
"In my experience life's an ocean without reason
and it's a fact that most the cats I know are simply sinking
See, nowadays anyone can rock the cape and tights
and parade around their house, too lazy to save a life
as long as they got just a couple fans to say they're right
Their dues will be forgotten, but I'll still work to pay for life
I used to watch the clock, hear the ticks, and hate the sound
then one day it snapped and I realized I couldn't wait around
so I dissected records, connected segments of the breaks I found
and dove headfirst into the pressures of this parade of clouds
I've been carrying the weight, they rock the barely-caring face
It's all apparently a phase, it's arbitrarily malaise
it all grows bare and tears away into a buried serenade
So spare me your complaints while you're staring into space
I've always had my side to prove, they've always had their pie to lose
I've never had to hide the truth, I've never heard them lie so smooth
Every time I try to move, first I gotta pry me loose
from this unsightly tightened noose
So check it - for the record - I'm not really in the dying mood
I catch reality and punch it through a drum line
cause every shadowed soul I meet is searching for the sunshine
that's why I hold life in my teeth - cause I don't trust time
I know I gotta do it myself if I want it done right"
Producing a good portion of his album himself and relying only on few guest appearances, Sentence certainly lives up to that credo with "Bomb Shelter Poetry". As expected, not all his decisions are well advised. "Nonsense" tries to fuse some acoustic string-plucking with electric guitars buried in the background, topped off with a forced aggressive delivery. It's hard to imagine a crowd being rocked by a rock-influenced track that DOESN'T REALLY rock, even if you throw in a little rock trivia:
"I got a mean crew, teeth two-feet-long they can hardly breathe through
and we'll run up in your club in cheap suits screaming for free food
then take the mic from your hands and as your wack fans fill the hall
throw out promo copies of Whitesnake and break into "Kill 'Em All"
You thought you knew? Hardly fool, you're talking to a rockin' dude
who's dropping moves like b-boys or gangsters popping off at you"
Obviously, Sentence knows how to score points in verbal pugilism, but in that department, everything has to fall into place for real damage to be done. It's different with introspective raps, but battle raps should come clear and concise. And so we're back where we started. The delivery. When Sentence raps, the words often tailgait each other so close they inevitably catch bumps and bruises rubbbing against each other. Getting it all out in one big lump may be a good way to relieve stress, but he actually might end up just transferring stress from himself to the listener who has to deal with this barrage of words. The overall bumpy effect of this record is augmented by the animated beat programming. However, it has to be understood that all of this is very much part of the style. And within the boundaries of his style, Sentence is exactly the unorthodox rapper who will be able to please fans of unorthodox rap with - before I say 'unorthodox rap' again, let me just say that "Bomb Shelter Poetry" is a rare occasion of an album that is as consistent as the argument it tries to make: "My poetry's a shelter from this world's self-destruction."
Music Vibes: 7 of 10 Lyric Vibes: 6 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 6.5 of 10
Originally posted: October 8, 2002