Unconscious with a Conscience

Dope Opiate and the Hip-Hop Heart of a Too-Smart World

Bone Crusher made a name for himself in Atlanta singing big growly hooks on other people's records, and the nasty bass synth and croaked chorus in his first nationwide hit ("Never Scared") are all syrup-soaked crunch, rumble, and roll. But what's that in the background? A chime? Well, one that sounds like it's cut from an old trash can, but still. And that siren? Don't tell anybody, but it could almost be a bird call. So you hear all this precise and delicate production, and you think the whole AttenCHUN!album's going to open up into some love, heartache, and hurt beneath.

As it turns out, if I were a 380-pound behemoth like Bone Crusher, I'd never be scared either. And maybe I wouldn't need to think too good. It would take a better critic than me to find emotional complexity on a track with a chorus of "Yeah 'ho back up," and there's not much brains in "I see his boys and uh his other boys and uh some more of his friends but I'm in it to win." That's all part of the affable charm, though.

Crusher's weird vocal antics keep things feeling real friendly: the occasional reminder that he's just clowning, yo, like closing "For the Streets" with a "Hey Hey Hey" straight from Fat Albert. No matter how tuff and tumble the sentiments and overtly menacing the production, there's something warm, lush, and cinematic about the whole affair. And the Crusher's blunt growls are offset just enough by guest spots courtesy of the South's finest (David Banner, Lady Ice, Killer Mike, etc.) on nearly every track.

But even if he ain't scared he sure does care, in that Incredible Hulk picking-up-a-small-child-and-petting-him-on-the-head sort of way. He knows he's somewhat superhuman, and devotes a big chunk of his album to motivational speeches like "Gettin' It (That Money)"—about how we can all get our grind on clocking crack. Yeah, and Richie Rich made his millions selling subscriptions to Grit after reading an ad in a comic book.

Halfway through, AttenCHUN! takes a sudden turn toward slower, sung tracks, which actually pull off that elusive and dangerous bugaboo—soul. The camera pans back for a widescreen panorama as visceral gives way to contemplative; strings come in, start to dance and swing; drums stop stuttering, turning into big throbbing timpani rolls; Crusher opens up his voice and—who knew—lets loose a heartbreaking Curtis Mayfield tenor. "Sometimes it makes me wonder why this pain it hurts me deep inside," he asks on "Hate Ourselves," and he doesn't even try to provide an answer. But his voice is sweet, gripping, cathartic: perfect for Goodie Mob to flip some head-turning rhymes over. And coming from a big slow man like the Crusher, it doesn't feel like a pose.

That's more than most self-consciously "conscious" rap groups can claim—certainly more than the Black Eyed Peas could, until now. Their relentless nonpareil positivity used to solve every problem with a good beat, a good time, and maybe an injunction to arise into the infinite. But their new Elephunk goes the smart route—it gets stoopid. The sound has less loose-limbed post-new-jack funk, more big and bouncy multicultural beat science. There's dancehall, bhangra, Bollywood, jungle, Latin, big band, nu-metal, and Christian pop's oft-neglected healing bombast; boom-bap, yeah, but also poom poom, polka oom-pah, Motown wooh-ah, Cole Porter doo-bee-doo, disco bam bam bam, and even some salsa cha cha cha.

"Labor It's a Holiday" is a fine manifesto for the album, with its casual chorus "I don't work today . . . " amended by " . . . or the next two days" like the most lovely afterthought. Forgetting about the troubles of the world is a dumb way to change it, but forgetting about your own can be a good way to change yourself. So I connect even more with "Shut Up," a wrenching breakup track about a relationship killed by overthinking, overquestioning, and fears of commitment brought by neither party but inevitably inserting themselves nonetheless. As it fades, the man sings "stop the talking baby or I start walking baby" while his girl croons back "Is that all there is?"

The lead single and last track, "Where is the Love," caps a chilling list of grievances (including "terrorists in the U.S.A." like the CIA, FBI, KKK, Bloods, Crips) with a pathetic plea for guidance from above. I want to dismiss this, but can't. Sometimes anger, even righteous anger (and even more the unfounded anger of a broken heart) does need to be sublimated to survive in the world. Not forever, but maybe just today and the next to look back at the people dying and children crying, to turn the other cheek. When you ask where the love is, you can even do it with a sneer.

In the course of writing this review, my girlfriend of nearly two years left me. This was probably for the best. While I came to realize this, I listened to nothing but the Black Eyed Peas. Elephunk still makes me dance much as ever, though without the same emotional heft it carried in those few painful days.

AttenCHUN!, meanwhile, keeps on giving.

 
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