Dissent is hip-hop's most important tool. Our culture arose from an underdog status which still lies underneath every bragging word, and that underdog status is most fluently expressed with dissenting words. Pushing back came easily in the dawning days, but deep into our history, anger towards the powers that be is frequently directed to other places. The last truly important political rap record is in the distant past, and the conscious age has disappeared as quietly as its entrance was grand. Since many of the most compelling rap albums ever recorded have been politically minded, the occasional record still arrives that maintains this focus, but political dissent has almost completely been buried within a single track on your favorite emcee's album.
The disappearance of the political record is not a mistake. Crafting a good album of this type is extremely difficult. The first problem to consider is that such music must be absolutely riveting to divert the average listener from more accessible subjects. Additionally, the artist in charge must be very intelligent, articulate, and angry. A vague discussion of one's opinions must be eschewed in favor of poisonous barbs directed at anyone deemed part of the problem. Especially nowadays, when there is such social turmoil associated with politics, simply discussing general difficulties without providing a diagnosis and recommending a cure will be fatal.
This is Marcellous Lovelace's ultimate downfall. The political rapper (played in full character by Windy City emcee Infinito 2017) is under the impression that simply clustering wrongs together within a verse constitutes powerful dissent. A short sample from the opening song, "Nubians in Devastated Places (9 Remix)":
"Spoken words slap a government official
No I don't like Cheney, Ishtar
Study and socialize, reading all knowledge
Looks can be deceiving
I'm like triple darkness
You see me like a black hole"
Why mention Cheney without going for the throat? Within this first song, there is a plethora of intriguing material, and by straightening it out so that we can understand, Lovelace would have been making exceptional music. The production is there; the pulsating guitars donated by Mixx Massacre are an ideal backdrop for exploration of the holes in our society. Lovelace is brutally honest, and he is clearly capable of building thoughts that are worth exploring. Each idea is sufficient standing on its own, but most of the twelve songs feature unrelated lines mashed together. "Black people living on the streets without a home" is followed abruptly by "what's the use of coming to America if you have to face violence" on "Disbelief Dogma." There are endless examples of this, and the listening experience is dotted with interesting but underdeveloped thoughts instead of eye-opening verses focused in one direction. There are a few hints at what could have been, which truly makes me wonder. "Locked Inside Rules" is still scattered, but Lovelace highlights various ways in which the black community is subliminally trapped in place. With the guiding theme of the title, everything falls into place, and his focus becomes clear. Moments of introspection occur as well on "Internal Dialog," as Lovelace takes a breather from the problems of the world to examine his own mentality.
The production, mostly courtesy of Mixx Massacre, plays its part admirably. With such an emphasis on the vocals, the beats are engaging but content to lay low in the background. A few don't work quite as well, and a few more stick out because of a special catchiness, but each song is ideal for such an opinionated and forceful emcee's musings. The use of vocal samples is a bit much, however. Nearly every song features at least one sample stripped from a speech or some other media, so the music is frequently interrupted in favor of these soundbites. Through the first listen, this seems odd but not disruptive, but upon further inspection the record stalls a bit when each beat is faded out. The confusion initially caused by Marcellous Lovelace's labyrinth rhymes is increased by the strange use of these interludes.
"To Know American: The Study of a Peoples' Suffering" is an apt title, because as a whole, this record provides just what it advertises. Without any semblance of organization, however, the listener is left either to untangle Lovelace's thought processes or to simply accept the jumble as is. This is quite a frustrating scenario because the ideas are all there, but they are not arranged in any palatable manner. There are many thoughts drifting around between songs that could have been gathered in for a collection of political concept songs, and the result would have been provocative. Marcellous has the right idea, but his words lack the structure that turns intelligent banter into great commentary. His next study will need an index before publishing.
Music Vibes: 6.5 of 10 Lyric Vibes: 5.5 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 6 of 10
Originally posted: August 16, 2005