It's sometimes a little hard to put into perspective. We're now a month away from the four-year anniversary of a "coalition of the willing" invading the sovereign nation of Iraq. Make no mistake about it, this "coalition" was over 90% soldiers from the United States, many of whom were part timers, reservists, and young kids who signed up for military duty to pay for a college education. Over 3,000 brothers, sisters, fathers and mothers who went to war have never come home, and that number continues to rise as sectarian violence creates a civil war where the "peacekeepers" end up caught in the crossfire. If you're going to pour out a little liquor though, don't stop there, because estimates of Iraqi civilian casualties range from 50,000 to 100,000. That's staggering. What has all of this death and destruction accomplished other than giving the United States an international black eye, scaring Iran enough to want nuclear weapons, and causing more terrorism than the invasion was ostensibly supposed to stop in the first place?
"This ain't for a paycheck. This ain't for us to be known. This is for somebody to understand a soldier's life." - Sergeant Chris Tomlinson, 3rd Platoon, 300th Military Police Company.
To be a soldier you don't have to consider the geopolitical situation, or the shifting landscape in the U.S. Congress, you just have to pack your bags and kiss your family goodbye. Once called to serve a soldier is proud to do so, patriotically fulfilling the obligations placed on them by their country, even if their country is sending them into harm's way. "Voices From the Frontline" is a peak beneath that stoic exterior, a compilation of honest observation from men and women doing their tour of duty many thousands of miles from home. At home you'd find them in a cypher, freestyling flows and cracking jokes, overseas you'll find them in drab camouflage carefully searching the streets for IED's that could blow them to smithereens. Inner cities and poor neighborhoods have often been compared to a war zone by the people who live there and rap about it, but Baghdad and Najaf take that to a whole new level. If anybody tells you they're a "soldier" because they're down for their favorite rapper, a member of a large hip-hop entourage, or a biased supporter of some record label, SLAP THEM UP like KRS-One. Nobody knows what being a soldier is like the people on this album other than other war veterans themselves.
"You hear like, people trying to say what they think about Iraq but they've never been there. And then it comes straight from our mouth y'know. We actually have that rocket hit and we saw that person die or we were there to work 18 hour days." - Corporal Mischelle Rae Johnston, U.S. Marine Corps.
Criticizing an album like this is incredibly awkward. You start and stop multiple times searching for the right things to say, not wanting to disrespect the honesty of the experiences these soldiers have. "It's all real in the field" has never been more true than for brothers and sisters who have watched their friends be blown up right in front of them, who have had to shoot or be shot and kill or be killed just to survive their time on the frontlines. At the same time though it's equally disrespectful to not be completely honest about "Voices From the Frontline" as an album because if these rappers were not serving their country they would be shopping demos, putting songs up on MySpace and trying to blow up not in the literal warlike way but the "I want to be famous" way. They deserve to know where they stand as MC's, regardless of what sand that they stand on. "Voices From the Frontline" is an incredibly raw, powerful and emotional experience, cemented by the NON-SONGS on the album - the skits and interludes of soldiers speaking about the harsh realities of their situation. Those skits alone could make a powerful documentary. The songs on this album could in a sense be considered the soundtrack to that documentary, and like many hip-hop soundtracks "Voices From the Frontline" contains a lot of filler and a few promising artists, all of whom are exposed on a larger level than they've been at before.
Manistyles Productions is really hit or miss on the beats for this 24 track album, which may be this album's biggest hindrance. True MP can layer up a guitar melody, drums and claps and merge them with a vocal track on "First Time," but one can't assume that competence in execution is the same as brilliance in result. The song ends up sounding incredibly derivative, like a track Eminem would create and throw away on someone just signed to Shady Records. "Do the Damn Thing" is a monotonously repetitive Dirty South muddle, "Ain't the Same" tries to bounce but has no real spring in its step, and "When I Get Home" could be mistaken for a T.I. track by DJ Toomp. That's not to say a few things don't break through the musical mediocrity. Miss Flame's "Girl at War" rides a simple but heavy bassline and Flame's lyrical message breaks through strong: "Shit, I can get shot too, just as well as a boy/and you lookin me up and down cause you thinkin I'm weak?/'Til you see me in Iraq and I'm patrollin the streets." Q and Amp's "Rest N' Peace" is a somber and eerie look at the camraderie of warfare, where you make friends in your unit and they really WOULD take a bullet for you, and how emotionally devestating it is when they do, feelings also reflected in the smooth "Don't Understand." The album's best cut may be the all-star "Family," which at first seems overdone with symphonic strings and mournful piano keys, but ultimately bridges the gap from a soldier's family to the family they left behind at home and how deeply they are missed.
It's evident from this review's opening paragraph that I have some deeply personal feelings about the Iraq War. I'm the proud son of a father who served in the United States Navy, but I'm also happy that he was able to serve his country without coming home in a coffin with a flag draped over the top. The Vietnam War was as confusing a quarmire as this one, full of noble ideas and intentions with claims to be "stabilizing a region" and doing good for the world, but ultimately history remembers that Saigon fell and U.S. involvement only prolonged a bloody conflict that cost over 50,000 American soldiers their lives and achieved nothing strategically or otherwise. Every soldier that makes the ultimate sacrifice deserves the utmost respect, but that respect should also come with the deepest regret they were put in harm's way in the first place. "Voices From the Frontline" puts a face and a voice to these soldiers. They are not a casualty or a statistic, they are hip-hop heads just like you and I who hope to come home alive to their friends and loved ones. Visit VoicesFromtheFrontline.com to learn more about this project and who these brave men and women are, then consider what you can do to see that their voices don't end up silenced.
Music Vibes: 5 of 10 Lyric Vibes: 6 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 5.5 of 10
Originally posted: February 13, 2007