Of all the Wu-Tang offshoots, Sunz of Man was always my favorite; and from that four-member crew, Killah Priest’s presence always stood out. So it was no surprise his 1998 debut album, “Heavy Mental”, would be a must-buy. Well-known for dropping memorable verses on previous Gravediggaz and GZA projects, this Brooklyn-bred MC had created a buzz with his spiritually-revved lyrics and gritty signature Wu sound.
But there was always something that set Priest apart from his peers. While his Wu counterparts garnished their albums with Kung Fu motifs and Five Deadly Venom skits, Priest chose instead to use snippets from old grainy Biblical films, i.e. The Ten Commandments (1956). If 36 Chambers is set in medieval Japan, “Heavy Mental” is set in ancient Jerusalem.
By coupling Old Testament themes with present-day street tales, Priest developed a rap style unlike no other. On “From Then Till Now,” he illustrates the Biblical legacy of kings and queens, pharaohs and sages, prophets and soothsayers — only to contrast that with today’s reality (“guns, shootouts and crack sales, Black males in packed jails, trapped in hell”):
“We used to pass over brooks of Kidron
The towers of Lebanon, the pool of Gershon
We used to sing songs upon Mount Heron
How is gold turned to bronze? …
We was the wisest and the richest
Now we turned to snitches, women turned to bitches
In the times of harvest, we was the smartest
Worshipped wisdom like the goddess
Now we act retarded”
He eventually finds karmic closure in the chorus: “what goes up must come down, what goes down comes back around again, where it all began.” Top that off with a poignantly mellow melody by Y-Kim, and what you have is a classic Priest track. The same mood is felt on the True Master produced “One Step,” where Priest relates the plight of Hebrew slaves in ancient Egypt to the slave trade of the 1600s, and then shows how the legacy continues now:
“Early natives, related to the thrones of David
Captured by some patriots then thrown on slave ships
They stripped us naked, while they wives picked they favorites
Lives were wasted, in the hands of the hated
Driven from the Garden, now we’re starving in a martyring Sodom —
They call it ‘Harlem'”
“B.I.B.L.E.” was well-received when it first appeared on GZA’s 1995 debut Liquid Swords, and it has the same impact now almost 10 years later. Killah Priest describes his struggle with spirituality — from dodging crooked preachers (“I went to church since birth, but it wasn’t worth the loot”) to endless hours of research (“I studied till my eyes were swollen”), until he reaches an epiphany: “For years, religion did nothing but divide.”
Before you secular folks out there get discouraged, “Heavy Mental” doesn’t focus solely on the spiritual. On the melodic “Fake MC’s,” Priest pummels no-talent rappers for their annoying clichÃ©s and tackles the then East/West fiasco. On the posse cut “Tai Chi,” the now estranged Sunz Of Man congregate over a haunting piano loop and chants courtesy of 4th Disciple. Inspektah Deck and the GZA also make impressive cameos on “Cross My Heart.”
More abstract joints like “It’s Over” and “Atoms to Adam” revolve around Revelations apocalyptic themes, while trumpets blare on “Information” as Priest forewarns of an imminent Big Brother era — where the TV watches you as you watch it. The spoken word track “”Heavy Mental”” is an intergalactic journey to the unknown (a la Sun Ra), and on “Science Project” Priest declares the decrepit living conditions in the ghetto to be the result of secret government experiments. Though there are a handful of sluggish beats (“Blessed Are Those” and “If You Don’t Know”), even when the production doesn’t impress, Priest’s vocals manage to make up the slack.
Lyrically, “Heavy Mental” is packed with wisdom — sort of like the Book of Proverbs in musical form. Assisted by Wu-inspired production, Killah Priest proves that uplifting, spiritually based hip-hop doesn’t have to be corny or overly preachy. Overall, “Heavy Mental” is not only good, it’s good for you.