True to Their Schools?


Dear Talib,

Okay, so maybe you’re right—juxtaposing two seemingly random albums like Beanie Sigel’s The Truth and Dead Prez’s Let’s Get Free isn’t quite an impossible feat. And I second your emotion, it would be presumptuous to expect all rappers to become leaders of their communities just because they can rhyme; the thirst for knowledge and social consciousness is a self-motivated circumstance. Sigel and Dead Prez members and M-1 have similar backgrounds; all three are products of the rotten educational system, resulting in lucrative street pharmaceutical sales. And all three use our folk culture as a means of platforming the ultimate tax-free government job—slinging—as well as contempt for crooked cops and the prison industry. Beanie glorifies and even instructs on how to destroy his neighborhood with drugs, inducing a “ghetto fatigue syndrome.” But and M-1 (they’re both international political activists) have channeled beats, rhymes, and lives into their soundspace in order to organize beyond mere rhetoric. And although The Truth and Let’s Get Free have little in common lyrically besides their borderline excessiveness, both joints are driven by those two dramatic Piscean fish ebbing in and away from, well, the truth.

For real, I must confess I was in the minority who didn’t anticipate Beanie Sigel’s debut, even though I heard his label head—Jay-hova!—touting him as the next best thing since B.I.G. and Ishkabibbles. But I beg to differ; the “arsenic flow” he spits might be witty, but overall it just comes off as one-dimensional ear candy for dime-store pushers and for Leonardo DiCaprio if he was, like, 15. If I sound like I’m above apolitical rap, remember: The Chronic and Ready to Die are permanent fixtures on my modest three-CD changer. And really, if Beanie is sweet like suspiros, then why was his first single Jay-Z’s “Anything for You” (you know, that ditty that scores Act II of the PJs‘ rendition of Annie)?

I’ve been checking for Dead Prez’s album for the last three years, ever since Lord Jamar landed on them like Christopher Columbus. And like you expected, I was thoroughly satisfied with Let’s Get Free—I haven’t heard the proverbial alarm go off like that since Public Enemy and N.W.A. (how dare I?). PE sprouted as a result of Reaganomics and a decade removed from black power; Dead Prez rise on the tail end of the Clinton administration, which Chuck D. says has neutralized African and Latino America with the outgoing prez’s apparent love of gospel and jazz, McDonald’s, and other women. But DP remind us that the proletariat is still living in a “police state,” where a third of black males spend time behind bars and boys in blue make black and brown boys black and blue. Are you following me, Kweli?

And did you check out Lorraine West’s illustration of baton-waving pigs dressed in cop uniforms, of capoeiristas, and of a kaleidoscope of black-fisted visuals in the album’s booklet? The unrelenting Let’s Get Free, in all its glory—with its sticker censoring the sepia-toned cover of rifle-toting Soweto soldiers—is a musical biscuit. “I’m an African” is relentless: Nervous tambourines, high-octave organ chords, spraying bullets, and a dark bassline are cut by the insanely gifted Mista Sinista of the X-ecutioners. And the baddest joint on the album might be “Hip Hop.” The bassline is simple and ominous; the sped-up drum patterns and hi-hats are accented by a rattle, without overpowering DP’s swift, slightly Southern flow. Producer Hedrush and DP are like fried chicken and waffles; they’re both good alone but deliciously complement each other (a lot like you and Hi-Tech) when paired up.

But the other night, while I was listening to the electric bass strum and ethereal melody on Dead Prez’s brain-fucking “Mind Sex,” I was interrupted by the bumping of intense violin scales cut by scratches and amped cymbals and by Beanie Sigel piercing the chorus to his Memphis Bleek-conspired “Who Want What.” I ran over to my window and, 17 floors below, mugs across the street at Riverton were bouncing frantically, spitting, “Who the fuck want, what!!!” while racing on the courts at, like, one in the morning. The next track, “Raw & Uncut”—marked by congas cleverly underlying more hi-hats, and electric-guitar licks providing the upbeat melody—featured Jay-Z on prose and chorus. Everybody at Roc-A-Fella makes appearances, including Amil (think Alvin and the Chipmunks) on “Playa,” the mercurial Memphis Bleek, and Jigga himself.

So, needless to say, The Truth is on heavy rotation round these parts. (A far cry from Fort Greene, which I think is single-handedly responsible for pushing Mos’s Black on Both Sides to gold status.) But though The Truth might be the ultimate Tunnel-party soundtrack, conceptually it sounds generically assembled at the same tired old hustler-cum-rapper-misses-hustling hit factory. “Everybody Wants to Be a Star”—equipped with a standard so-what hook and squeamish singer on chorus—shows just how much is riding on the manufactured success of Roc-A-Fella’s (one-man) dynasty.

Dead Prez’s “They School,” in contrast, subverts the blatantly uncreative method of using an r&b chorus to hook the audience, adding a “muthafucker” so us ignorant folk can hear them: “The same people who control the school system/control the prison system/and the whole social system/ever since slavery.” As with many left-wing artists like Mos, Common, the Coup, and your group, Reflection Eternal, DP aren’t totally vested in capitalism yet, so conforming to a sonic political agenda is not the issue. And okay, vested artists do make imperial albums—but, especially today, they drop few and far between. Still, I challenge ya’ll surf-‘n’-turf socialists to be consistent once you sell 500,000+ units and Uncle Sam’s money doesn’t feel so bad anymore. Shit, I challenge myself.

For now, though, Let’s Get Free is a refreshing break from rap with that glossy Sisqó swang. (PS: I saw more cameos in the “Thong Song” video than at any Diallo protest.) So Talib, I put The Truth away, placed Dead Prez back into the changer, and decided that determining where the truth lies is as confusing as defining what it is. Ain’t it?

Peace and progress, Roc