Hip-Hop is one of those rare venues in American life where being white is not the norm. That's not to say there aren't plenty members of the Caucasian persuasion repping the movement and repping it well. It just means that, as opposed to the rest of society, within hip hop culture being white means inhabiting a "marked" identity group, one in which your race is a notable feature of your self. This is nothing to feel particularly aggrieved about – the situation is the same for pretty much any non-white person occupying a position of leadership in a Fortune 500 company, something that presents a much greater obstacle to inclusion in this country. But it is an ironic change of pace for whites to have to take stock of their race since most of the time it is not a salient feature for them.
What am I talking about "them"? I mean "us." As whites, we have it easy in most situations. When we commit a crime, we do not suddenly become representatives for our entire race, making every other white person a criminal by association. When one of us performs badly in a job, it is not viewed as indicative of the innate abilities of all whites. And when we apply for a loan, we can be sure that our race won't be a limiting factor in our ability to secure financial backing.
These aren't things most whites have to think about, because we take for granted all the benefits that accrue to us simply for being prone to freckle. Involving yourself in hip hop, however, removes you from that comfort zone and makes you accountable for your race and the historical baggage you bring along with it. There are a couple of well-traveled options available at this point. You can pretend it's not a factor, in the Stephen Colbert "I don't see race" mould, and hope that you don't get called on it. Depending on your situation, this may or may not work. Or you can deal with it up front, acknowledging what your race means to your role in the culture, and work from there.
This is the strategy that the duo known as AntiRacist 15 embraces in both its debut album "Stand in Solidarity" and its stance toward community organizing. Eschewing the approach that led Eminem's handlers to try to make him raceless in his early days – they reportedly wanted him to look green rather than black or white for the cover of his debut "Infinite" – AR-15 goes for broke with the white anti-racist identity, and they are forceful and articulate in their advocacy of the cause. They express their solidarity with movements for change across the globe and encourage other whites to be agents for progress in their own communities, holding each other accountable rather than ignoring the race issue. It's a necessary message and it is conveyed in a heartfelt manner.
Unfortunately, a good message alone does not an album make. It is in the execution and delivery of the message that AR-15 stumbles, making their album a less forceful listening experience than their content might indicate. For starters, neither MC – Jus Rhyme or Raw Potential – is particularly nimble with the vocals. Raw Potential is the more qualified of the two, with a deeper voice and smoother tone than his partner, but his flow is less than polished and at times he struggles to find the beat. Jus Rhyme comes across as slightly grating – not a quality you want in an advocate for change – and his timing leaves much to be desired. Both display the ability to write lyrics with technical proficiency and large-scale meaning, but the failure to deliver these lyrics with any sort of style makes them fall flat most of the time. Because of this, they sound like activists at heart who decided to make a rap record on a whim. Their love for the culture is evident, but the execution fails them.
The music, on the other hand, is on point throughout. Produced entirely by King Karnov, it is a head-nodding affair, chock full of breezy samples and shuffling drum patterns. The beats are characterized by delicate layering and a lo-fi sound that suits the group's aesthetic. The vocal sample and piano chords that lay the groove for "Ohhh" are the perfect soundtrack to rhymes about "maxin', captains on this cruise ship relaxin'," while "Funky" makes good on its name with swaggering horns and a plucky bass line. It's not an overwhelming soundscape, but it certainly proves why Dre would want to have him down with his Aftermath label. Although, for his own sake, I hope he gets more work out than the good Doctor is known for allowing.
With the grand scale of their ambitions, it's hard to believe this album will live up to the task set for it by AR-15. Sad to say, but albums like this remind you just how valuable Immortal Technique is, since he has the talent to support his political causes with the vocal force and swagger they deserve. AR-15 do not possess such skills, or at least not yet, and it hurts the album in the end. As a result, while I wholeheartedly endorse their agenda, I cannot equally recommend their music. I hope they keep fighting the good fight, though.
Music Vibes: 7 of 10 Lyric Vibes: 5 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 6 of 10
Originally posted: December 30, 2008