By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
And there's visceral storytelling that's not stupid at all: In 1999's "Me and Jesus the Pimp in a '79 Granada Last Night," he introduces the one-armed pimp by saying that Jesus "slapped a hoe to pieces with his plastic prosthesis"so later, when the narrator recalls how, as a little boy, he heard Jesus slam "Momma's head against the front bolt lock," you can almost feel the hard plastic against skull against metal. And then the confusion: The little boy intends to get even with the pimp but in the meantime plays friendly ("You accidentally killed my mom, no playa hation points/You know how bitches act, shit, exclamation points"), asking the pimp to be his mentor. He explains to us, "First it was a setup move, then it was the truth/His letters were the only thing I had as a youth." The boy grows up violent and abusing women. Finally as a young man he kills Jesus, which is cathartic but leaves him unresolved, since now, grown up and a father, he still only knows to act violent.
The new album's "Nowalaters" is, if anything, even more complicated than "Me and Jesus" (though not as vivid or as musically gripping): A guy thinks back to his teen girlfriend, his having had to get high to overcome his fear of sex with her, and then it turns out that the girl got pregnantand thenthat she was trying to sucker him into thinking that her kid was his. (Moment of truth: "The baby was four months early and around 10 pounds.") The singer in retrospect realizes how scared the girlmust have been and how she'd been taught that her only choice in such a situation was to grab a man. So there's anger at her, and sympathy, and finally his thanking her for letting him go.
What I miss from the last LP, Steal This Album, are more such social details: repo men disguising themselves as pizza delivery boys to get inside a house; fast-food workers confronting their shift managers; hip-hop skits that for once are actually funny, about sneaking into movies, pissing at funerals.
Maybe what the Coup's real message is, or what I'd like it to be, beyond the sloganeering, is that all of thisthe wordplay, funk, jokes, fucking up, getting angry, scrambling to eat, pay the rent, have funis a party. And from this party you can evolve the power to alter the conditions of life.
But again, I have to wonder about Boots's pretensions to be a political organizer, or wonder if there are disconnects between Boots the organizer, Boots the storyteller, and Boots the sloganeer. "If you got beef with the C.O.P.'s/Throw a Molotov at the P.I.G.'s." I mean, if he truly wants an effective mass movement, at some point he's going to need the support or at least the acquiescence of a lot of cops, not to mention their siblings, cousins, and neighborsand he's not going to get it by calling them "pigs." So I really don't see what these songs have to do with creating alternative social arrangements; they're more a kind of identity politics, where pimps and teen moms get to be interesting people, while cops and shift managers and repo men are corrupt and worthless, across the board.
Not that I expect great political insight from musicians. But actually, why not? This has been a main perplexity of mine, since I'm always hearing socialinsight in music: When a Jay-Z kicks Amil out of bed or calls Prodigy a ballerina, I feel that I'm getting culturally rich actions from a culturally rich world, no matter how narrow or conventional or bigoted or creepy Jay-Z's particular action might be on the surface. Whereas when I hear a noncreep like Boots Riley rap, "Every death is an abrupt one, every cop is a corrupt one," I think he's just taking a potentially interesting world and reducing it to simplicities. I don't know if I can explain the difference, the richness of Jay-Z's bragging versus the narrowness of Boots's sloganeering, but I'm sure that I'm right and that the difference exists throughout music, the obviously political song usually coming out much more simpleminded than the standard love song, hate song, boasting song, gangsta song, pop song. You can hear the same difference between Boots's agitprop lyrics and his story lyrics. But why should this be? Why wouldn't a sense of politics and broad power relations enrichsong lyrics, not deplete them?
75 Ark, www.75ark.com