It was inevitable. At a certain age, every pop genre begins to decelerate. In turn, its audience harkens for past glories and achievements, celebrating artists who uphold tradition rather than subvert or destroy it. How else to explain the emergence of adult contemporary hip-hop?
On first impression, the moniker “adult contemporary”—a catchall phrase for MOR pop and power ballads, smooth jazz and classic soul—doesn’t suit the ostentatious fabulousness of rap’s current superheroes, until you realize the term stands less for brash upheaval than for nostalgic yearning. “After a while, you kind of wish you could go back” to the past, Asheru, one-half of Washington, D.C., group Unspoken Heard, told URB magazine late last year. “It’s kind of like a whole new genre has to be invented for that category—an adult contemporary version of hip-hop for those who remember getting uplifted before but don’t know where it all went.”
Asheru and Blue Black of Unspoken Heard are two of a loose coalition of underground rap artists who take their cues from A Tribe Called Quest’s cool jazz masterpiece The Low End Theory as well as the mellifluous funk sounds of the Roots and its many adherents (Common, Kamaal the Abstract, Talib Kweli). New York’s J-Live, New Jersey’s Grap Luva, and Columbus, Ohio’s Lone Catalysts all appear on Unspoken Heard’s Soon Come, holding forth on midtempo “Jamborees” as harmlessly raucous as a midafternoon Budweiser-fueled barbecue. Other highlights range from “Truly Unique,” which swings like a ’40s big band by way of British acid jazz, to “Elevator Music,” a strong balance of peppy guitar work from Munier Nazeer and producer Ge-ology’s infectious mock-Muzak dreaminess. “Don’t believe the brother don’t whistle while he work,” smiles Asheru.
Soon Come is tasteful to a fault: Its only controversial element, so to speak, is the duo’s unabashedly pro-Black and anti-industry stance, though even that seems less a political platform à la Dead Prez than a mere matter of opinion. “We got to take what’s rightfully ours like the Maroons done,” they chant on the title track, giving shout-outs to their indie label Seven Heads and owner Wes Jackson, then tell us elsewhere “the Black man is God, the Black woman is God.”
But for the most part, Unspoken Heard are an even-tempered, happily rhyming unit, and Soon Come is light and mellow, less a quiet storm than a sun shower. They profess to be “an artifact from ’83/A pre-industry, pre-Puffy,” in “B-Boy,” and recite classic lines by the Fresh 3 MC’s in “Soul.” You would think Soon Come would be an electro and hi-NRG romp made up of equal parts Whodini, Planet Patrol, and the Fearless Four. Instead, Unspoken Heard come off like the S.O.S. Band or Mtume. Perhaps this is the point: After all, Soon Come, as Asheru tells us, is “something both you and your kids can understand”—a return to the days when hip-hop was banned from MTV and relegated to late-night radio and BET’s catchall Video Vibrations.
Unspoken Heard aren’t the only ones paying homage to the spirit, if not the eclecticism, of hip-hop’s ’80s “golden age.” AOI: Bionix, the new album from one of the legends from that era, De La Soul, finds Long Island’s beloved curmudgeons shunning the role of elder statesmen in favor of slightly amused lectures to all whippersnappers aspiring to follow in their footsteps. On the title track Posdnous rebukes, “Unlike these underground MCs who rock for heads/We include the chest, throat, arms, and legs.”
Throughout their history, De La Soul have been hip-hop’s most glorious reactionaries, whether deconstructing skin-color politics on “Me, Myself, and I” or bemoaning self-destructive tendencies on “Stakes Is High.” But this reputation for cultural muckraking, the most appealing aspect of the group’s complex personality, makes AOI: Bionix a confusing listen. In “Trying People,” Dave talks about how a love of God “overcomes the worst of weathers.” This sentiment is preceded by a handful of “Rev. Do Good” skits that lampoon De La Soul’s image as hip-hop purists; they, too, possess human frailties and desires (for sex and money, natch) just like any other New York thug. All jokes aside, De La Soul are generally uncomfortable with the genre’s horny urges and youthful aggression—”There ain’t nothin’ street about me,” raps Posdnous on “Watch Out”—despite the pathetically titled “Pawn Star,” a nadir in the group’s decade-plus career. So civil disobedience means remaking Paul McCartney and Wings’ “Wonderful Christmas Time”; sex rhymes translate into “Baby Phat,” a well-intentioned if slightly dorky tribute to big-boned and fat-bottomed girls.
Some of the lyrics on AOI: Bionix read as if penned by three aging rock musicians in their mid fifties instead of a rap trio with a median age of 33. But when Posdnous and Dave frequently make mention of their kids, they don’t sound like absentee dads who drop the rug rats off at their baby mama’s house, but active fathers who like changing the babies’ diapers. Likewise, “Simply” is an anthem for the thirtysomething set who take party cruises to Jamaica, while “Peer Pressure” finds De La Soul battling the urge to take a hit from B-Real of Cypress Hill’s joint (as if the group didn’t smoke oodles of O’s themselves in their heyday). “I don’t ball too much, you dig?” says Posdnous on the title track, “I got a ball and chain that wants my ass home.” Unfortunately, De La Soul’s vacillations have led to one of the worst-selling albums of their career; few, it seems, are interested in their anxious attempt to grow old gracefully in public.
Implicit in both Soon Come and AOI: Bionix is Black people’s right to make and enjoy hip-hop music that soothes and comforts. If Jay-Z is for thuggin’ it up in a club at midnight and Ja Rule is for hanging out at the mall, why shouldn’t there be hip-hop music for coming home from work, kicking off your shoes, and relaxing in an easy chair before making dinner? In this month’s issue of Hip-Hop Connection, Brooklyn’s finest hardcore rap duo, M.O.P., admit their deep admiration for schlockmeister Kenny G. “Kenny G, he makes music for Black people and that shit is so beautiful,” gushes Lil’ Fame. Needless to say, an enormous market awaits artists who can convincingly mimic cheesy pop balladry in a hip-hop context.
To be fair, Unspoken Heard probably had something else in mind when they called for “an adult contemporary version of hip-hop.” Perhaps they hoped for a rapping Luther Vandross, or a lyricist on the scale of Diane Warren. Still, it’s a bit unsettling to imagine that a generation of MCs and DJs, once so arrogant and bold, will settle for drifting slowly into the twilight of their careers, leaving only a spate of maudlin LPs and reunion tours in their wake.
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