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Rawkus Records, which built a niche nurturing rap acts with small, loyal followings like Company Flow and Sir Menelik, is supposed to be a bulwark against the materially obsessed, dumbed-down styles that rule radio. But who wants to stay underground forever? Certainly not Rawkus, now approaching full throttle in its effort to package “independent” hip-hop for mainstream audiences. Where a year ago it figured that Mos Def would replace Co Flow’s El P and remain Rawkus’s franchise player for the foreseeable future, some of his thunder has been stolen by the stunning popularity of Pharoahe Monch’s “Simon Says,” a hit in the Funkmaster Flex and Tunnel territory normally owned by the DMXs and Mobb Deeps. It’s a triumphant hour for independent hip-hop, and a decisive one. As is clear from the two artists’ solo debuts, Monch’s Internal Affairs and Mos Def’s Black on Both Sides, the tension between art and commerce, between hip-hop as meal ticket and Zen-like way of life, is as pervasive as ever, even within the same family.
Over three albums with Organized Konfusion, Monch developed a reputation as one of the game’s elite “verbal cinematographers,” so good he made stuttering sound fresh. But frustrated by “selling wood in the hood,” as he puts it in “Simon Says,” Monch aimed his solo project toward the streets, and aided by the endorsement of Busta Rhymes, scored a surprise hit. The rest of Internal Affairs completes Monch’s hardrock makeover: “No Mercy,” featuring the criminally ignored M.O.P.; “The Ass,” a playful battle of the sexes with Apani B; and another potential Tunnel buster, the bouncy, kinetic Busta Rhymes duet “Next Shit.” While Monch’s transformation into a commercial MC violates his inadvertent underdog image, his kamikaze cadence and thematic inventiveness remain intact. The extended sports metaphor “Official” is vintage Pharoahe, with references both obvious and sneaky (“not a Wolverine, but still hold claws like Chamique”), but the best one is on “Right Here,” where he warns, “you get ate twice like Lynn Swann” (get it? 8 twice?). If there’s not as much of the Monch diehards have come to expect, it’s because being a hero wasn’t paying the bills. At the end of the day, he’s just Troy from Southside Queens: “I’m saying, god, I’m just trying to eat.” On this mostly self-produced album, he cashed in, but he did it his way.
Perhaps because he’s already paying the bills, Mos Def feels freer to break with industry formula, and Black on Both Sides is as challenging-and rewarding-a debut as hip-hop has seen in years. Think of it as an answer to Lauryn Hill’s Miseducation. Both albums teach love, but where the bulk of Hill’s lessons begin in the intimate realms of heartbreak and betrayal, Black on Both Sides focuses on the political and spiritual health of Mos Def’s intertwined communities. He opens by asking: “If hip-hop is about the people and hip-hop won’t get better until the people get better, then how do the people get better?” The underground presumption that something is wrong with hip-hop is controversial enough in these heady times of platinum sales, but Def’s answer is the real kicker: a sweeping manifesto of unconditional love for self, Black history, the Black community, his beloved Brooklyn, and especially hip-hop culture. Like Baldwin, Def believes that “the inability to love is the central problem” facing humanity at the end of the century. That’s why the L-word appears more often here than on any other hip-hop album this side of P.M. Dawn.
Not that loving gets in the way of being an ill MC. An actor who’s appeared in Spin City, Visa, commercials, and the forthcoming feature film Where’s Marlowe?, Def commands an exceptionally versatile flow, to the point where he’ll slip into someone else’s style for a while, and he has a sense of the dramatic that never slips into bombast. Moreover, he’s aware of enough of his audience to give the people a little of what they want as well as lots of what they need. In between the experimental Gil Scott-Heron? and Roy Ayers?style soul jazz meditations “Um,” “Love,” and “Climb,” Def includes some treats for the casual fan. There’s a Hot 97?ready duet with Busta called “Do It Now,” a “Brooklyn” tribute that nods to Biggie by jacking the “Who Shot Ya?” instrumental, and an ode to a sexy Taurus. But even in “Ms. Fat Booty,” Def’s good home training shines through-it’s the down-low hound underneath the poet’s exterior who gets humped and dumped in the end. “Rock and Roll” is the track that people are most likely to love or hate, due to its strident reclamation of the rock tradition in “Black” music and vice versa (“I am rock and roll they just ain’t let you know”). I love it for saying John Coltrane is rock and roll, for bigging up Bad Brains and Fishbone, and yes, for that Minor Threat impersonation in the third movement.
Moves like that drive A&Rs nutter, but they’re also the stuff of greatness. Cuckolded by indifference to his more experimental efforts, Monch played it safe and won-for now. It’ll be interesting to see, in a year or five, which is the more esteemed album. I’ll bet on Black.