Spellbinder

Six years later, incorrigible hip-hop perfectionist Lyrics Born has his crowd-pleasing say

The big thing about Later That Day . . .is that it's a pleasure to listen to. It sounds good. Voice authoritative, flow powerful, beats deep, arrangements full, audio lush, with only the last compromised at all by undie-rap budget. Lyrics Born is his name, but Oakland funk is his game—the different neoclassicist strokes of such different folks as Tower of Power, Maze, and Too Short, all of whom immigrated from non-Southern cities, as did Tokyo-born, Berkeley-raised Tom Shimura. Hear also Bay Area natives Boots Riley of the Coup and Michael Franti of Spearhead. But where the lefties' formally familiar groove left cynics room to sidestep their message, Lyrics Born is an incorrigible music nut now steeped in the rare grooves of the Munich-based Poets of Rhythm. And while his morality is there for the inferring, a full-time propagandist he's not.

My favorite LB lines come from the 1997 airplay hit "Balcony Beach" on the only album by Latyrx, the duo he swears will rev back up once Lateef the Truthspeaker's solo CD is out: "I think it's better to be depressed for a minute and admit it/Instead of being a bitter cynic, isn't it?" This known notion and all its kin are unprecedented in hip-hop or any other pop, and immensely strengthened by its status as lyric. Reread the couplet for musicality, all those it and in sounds echoing and interlocking—and then imagine LB's missus Joyo Velarde crooning a chorus, drum-kick/bass-thwong drenched by sampled breakers crashing, words eddying around the beats in a relaxed, resonant, contemplative, conceivably stoned slur. Yet that's only a foretaste of the self-produced Later That Day . . . , which explores, expands, and has a ball with the same grown-up tone. Lyrics Born is a notorious perfectionist, and while his album gestated he remained active with the UC Davis-spawned Quannum Projects collective, where DJ Shadow concocted Latyrx tracks and Blackalicious shared cameos and LB got so hot for the Poets of Rhythm he oversaw their 2001 Discern/Define. During those years I caught him with both Latyrx and Blackalicious, and twice he proved spellbinding—quick of lip and quick to ruckus, riding grooves and pushing beats with a stage savvy rare in any hip-hop, much less the supposedly joyless alt kind. The crowd pleaser has his say on Later That Day . . . too.

The always excellent Latyrx album has improved with time, but its aesthetic works changes on spartan alt-rap minimalism-of-necessity, with the spirit of Shadow spurring the production to uncommon heights and depths. Later That Day . . . is a '70s funk record straight up. The opening "Bad Dreams" is sung-intoned over an aptly obtrusive funk-rock beat with female call-and-response establishing a sonic trademark. Not until track 10 is there an actual song that does without the ladies; they even juice two skits. A "U Ass Bank" teleteller interrupts an on-hold chorus cooing "You're an asshole" to announce "Whoa—you have no fucking money," after which the flash button can't save our man from buying shit he doesn't want as telemarketers chime a seductive serenade of "We wanna talk to you." But first come the spiritual "Rise and Shine" he shares with Velarde and the projected party hit "Callin' Out," where the girls harmonize, "Don't worry 'bout the president/He can't stop us now" before LB starts callin' out. Ideologically old-school, it's musically older-school, as intricate as any P-Funkupdate comin' out your speakerboxx. For all the props Lyrics Born gives the Poets of Rhythm, Discern/Defineis merely a blueprint for the turbulent flow he won't rest till he gets.

Flawless pacing and sequencing keep the album of a piece. But as promised, it never repeats itself. A reggae love song is topped by a conscious funk-reggae hymn straddling a distinctly street guest rap. "Stop Complaining" bitches genially enough, then two tracks later a Latyrx reunion posits "a movement of people across the globe" against straitened opportunities, surveilled lives, and other American malfeasances, including the way "patrons of any faith outside the mainstream are berated falsely painted as endangering the way things run." Reread once again—it's not just the relatively spare beat (overlaid with a cuica picked up in Brazil) that will keep cynics off the protest's back, it's all the long a's. This "potentest braggadocious vocalist goin' postal" loves assonance—he flaunts it, jokes around with it, executes a rapid-fire run that starts, "Well abracadabra I saddled up a camel traveled the Sahara" and ends 50 seconds later with "Vanity, Miss Japan, Canada, and Bananarama in the back of an Acura."

This is sound for its own sake, high play in a new tradition—but also one of LB's less original rap skills. The Japanese American veteran of Too Short's Telegraph Avenue youth has somehow absorbed the groove, timbre, and definition of Afro-Southern speech, but not so's he bites anyone in particular. A little Gil Scott-Heron in his husky baritone, a little Barry White in his arrogated ease, neither Deep South—and beyond that, what? Harried home owner in his sighs and shrugs, yet world-weary hipster too, so that when he speeds he's as much Lambert Hendricks & Ross as Spoonie Gee or Big Pun. There's a complex personality in Lyrics Born's voice alone—serious and good-humored, down yet beyond down, committed to continuity meaning committed to change. Born in 1972, he was less than 25 when he conceived "Balcony Beach," and already he sounded something like wise. Still does. Which makes the Later That Day . . . 's insistence on having fun and moving the crowd one more piece of morality alt-rappers had better the fuck infer.

 
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