If we’re being cynical it’s easy to say that there is a lot of artists out there at the moment who neatly fit the maxim of “style over content.” If gimmicks are going to get you more downloads and ringtones, then it’s just inevitable. All the time said artists fleece young teenagers of their pocket money, you’re quite likely to see them talking in interviews extensively about how they “keep it real.” Meanwhile Emmanuel Jal has been busy cramming as much content as possible into his records with stories realer, and certainly more interesting, than those in the mainstream. You don’t have to read his press kit or check out his myspace page to learn this either, you just have to listen to his album, which makes a change.
What Emmanuel manages to do with consummate skill is tell his story in simple and moving terms. His vocal style is probably best characterised as spoken word or a Sudanese answer to Mike Skinner. His rhymes are delivered mostly in a laid back conversational voice, never straying into rapid fire territory for fear of you missing what he’s saying. He’s a man with a lot to say. Earlier tracks deal primarily with his early life in Sudan as a child soldier. Perhaps most insightful of these is “Forced to Sin” where he deals with the difficult dilemma of having to commit barbaric acts to survive.
“Voices of friends in my brain
Of friends that were slain
Friends like Gua, who died by my side from starvation
In the barren jungle and the dessert plain
Next was hard by Jesus heard my cry
As I was tempted to eat the rotten flesh of my comrade, he gave me comfort”
You’re probably not going to hear that set of couplets chirping out of many Nokias in the pub. As the album moves on Emmanuel expands into a wider issues. “Hai” expresses his dissatisfaction with the mental shackles of African people. “Vagina” calls out western mining companies for exploiting Africas resources and giving nothing back and is successful despite containing the cringe worthy rhyming of “miner” with “vagina”. No record it seems is complete without an anti-US government song these days and “Ninth Ward” does this pretty well attacking the worlds most powerful nation for its selective approach to foreign intervention. These songs never come off as preachy just powerful heartfelt messages of a person who’s been there for himself.
Emmanuel does stumble a couple of times in his mission. Mid-way through the second half of the record we get the three pronged attack of “No Bling”, “Skirt too Short” and “50 Cent”, the topics of which you can probably discern from the titles. All of which have admirable messages but none of which resound with the insight of the tracks that surround them. They just come off a bit basic in comparison and none contain the obvious passionate, hard delivery of “Ninth Ward” or “Vagina”.
All of this would of course be pointless were it not for the music that backs up Emmanuel’s raps. Fusing his roots in gospel and African music to a modern day Hip-Hop aesthetic is an area fraught with pitfalls and yet Roachie (who produces most of the tracks here) deftly navigates this tricky area supplying music worthy of a global artist. His fusion of Hip-Hop with a much broader global pallet is more accomplished than certain big name ex-Fugees members, who keep plugging away at it. Much like the vocalist he’s working with there are cuts that could have been left off but an adequate mastery of different moods from soaring gospel, rugged beats and soulful ballads, showcase his talent well. Most importantly production and lyrics always compliment and never fight for space here.
In essence this release surprised me, an increasingly difficult trick as the years tick on. Although picking up a gospel influenced rap album by a Sudanese artist wasn’t top of my list, Emmanuel Jal captures his own vision of Hip-Hop with a clarity and a vibrancy you can feel. It contains several tracks you can happily live with out but when it works it has a magic enough to make you look at the world through Emmanuel Jal’s eyes and that is an achievement indeed.