Stephen ‘Sankofa’ Brydon does not have a typical hip-hop pedigree. He was born in Australia, spent some time in Minnesota and L.A., and wandered around on the Appalachian trail before settling in Fort Wayne, Indiana. That’s a long way from Queensbridge. His nom-du-rap refers to a symbol from the Cote d’Ivoire of a bird looking backwards, which means “looking backwards to move forwards.” It’s a fitting name for the rapper, since he has one foot in the old school, and one foot in the future. “The Tortoise Hustle” is his latest album, coming on the heels of several underground albums and singles.

Sankofa has a deep, commanding delivery in the same vein as Brother Ali. He comes out with both guns blazing on album opener “The Bottom Line,” a harsh indictment of the record industry. Over an old-school funk beat, Sankofa booms:

“You don’t exist to make music, you live to make a profit
Selling your advertising space but I know it’s never thought of
I wish you best of luck in all your demographic research
But when you follow the trends you’ll end up leaving feet first
Who are the people making money at radio stations?
It’s not the disc jockeys, the ones who live shoddy
It’s the people selling all the advertising slots
The fraternizing jocks with their status climbing flock
Who have got expense accounts in dense amounts
Mileage from driving the cars that are stylish
Benefits, got to have the pearly white gates gleam
Backroom deals are done dirty and they stay clean
Hedging bets putting chick’s drinks on my tab
Write it off to corporate slush funds, thinking to stab
Blink and it’s grabbed, another ass another day passes
Thankful I’m a shark in a world content to stay passive
My reign’s acid it isn’t about to cease quick
So spin another clone trying to rap when the beat kicks
You’re not a listener, you’re just a customer
And that’s the bottom line”

In my mind, there are three things you need to make a successful hip-hop song: you have to have something to say, you have to say it in a clever way, and you have to have a fat beat. Sankofa nails all three on “The Bottom Line,” and on most of the tracks on “The Tortoise Hustle.” He’s dropping an important message, and does it with a lot of skill and style. The production, handled by El Keter, sounds like classic James Brown, and may even be live instruments (there is a picture of Sankofa performing with a band in the insert). There are several other tracks on “The Tortoise Hustle” that have a similar funk sound. The album is rounded out by some mellower, more introspective tracks like “They All Die,” which is about religious wars, and the title song, which has a piano loop and handclap beat, and sees Sankofa exploring life as an underground and underpaid rapper. “The Tortoise Hustle” also shows that Sankofa is a little older and wiser than some of the young bucks out there:

“Cause they’re prone to say things which I don’t believe
And I’m known to say things that they won’t repeat
So I guess we’re even in a childish kind of way
Both deaf with conviction-listen”

Sankofa is almost completely free of the fronting and posturing that is synonymous with hip-hop. He lays himself out as a struggling rapper who loves his wife and his music, and hates haters and the industry. He isn’t even getting his grind on-this album was recorded over a year while he was planning his wedding, and is being released as 250 numbered tins (and also digitally on itunes). Clearly, going platinum is not high on Sankofa’s priorities. He also tackles subject matter that most rappers don’t deal with, like when he takes on America’s obsession with underage starlets on “Shiny”:

“It’s the cyclical nature making the sick smarter
Who cares about Alicia Silverstone when puberty hit harder?
A nixed artist, varnished, underaged vargas
Wispy Disney starlet, risky business with a prissy little smarm
it’s harmless
fun and games, child’s play with grown up customers
Trusted perks and thus disgust is blurred, you must’ve heard
The Olsen twins, talking about centerfolds and such
When they’re old enough, barely legal, evil rolling up
Who sold the smut, the same who profit, you got it
And you wonder how some young girls get neurotic
Vomit on the toilet seat, Hubba Bubba mixed with bile
And the best word to apply is denial
It’s the latest style, fashion, fad and must have
Keeping up with the joneses, eyeliner like a musk rat
And all the good news, I wouldn’t trust that
You wonder what she did when she cut class, just ask”

That’s a long way from rapping about having hoes in different area codes. I appreciated Sankofa’s thoughtful take on hip-hop and issues around it, although the combination of his lyrics and his commanding tone meant that at times I felt like I was listening to my dad lecture me. Thankfully, Sankofa manages to mix it up enough so that the album never feels too didactic or preachy. And when he is on, he is ON. My favorite track is “The Zoom Zip”, a funky, uptempo that Sankofa absolutely kills, dropping lines like:

“Act a jerk, you’re getting smacked for sure
It’s El Keter in the back with a track, superb
and Sankofa with a rap to learn, clap your hands
Taking it way back to Dapper Dan

You might find something worth a listen right here
right now, but if you don’t try, you’ll never find out
Lie down, taking a load off. making your woes stop
Oakland to Beantown-A’s to the BoSox
Flow locked? No question I’m testing most thought
Perfection is destined, I’m ready to go off at any given moment
The frozen are arisen with a dose of focus
Delivering the opus, spitting a cyclone
I shiver the light bones and didn’t invite clones
Lip-zip it and fly home, kid it is sick
Minimum I wrote, envision the bliss
With a telescope attached to the dopest rap
Don’t need a skeleton, cause Vogue is wack
Proceed to scatter facts in the mode of fat
Slow speaking data cats grin and grow, with that”

On “The Zoom Zip”, as on most of “The Tortoise Hustle,” Sankofa is on fire, attacking the mic with a stellar flow and amazing lyrics. His combination of lyrics, delivery, and beats makes this one of the better rap albums of the year, and certainly a disc worth some attention. I’ve been listening to this album as Curtis and Kanye have been having their public pissing match, and it made me realize that as long as the underground is producing work as funky, innovative, and intelligent as “The Tortoise Hustle,” I have no problem with both Curtis AND Kanye retiring.

Sankofa :: The Tortoise Hustle
9Overall Score