Absorbing wild hair, beans and pork chops, beat-up overalls, and enough weed to sink the Titanic, six-man Bowling Green, Kentucky, hip-hop hayseeds Nappy Roots hope listeners walk away from Watermelon, Chicken & Gritz with some prime conclusions—mainly, that Nappy Roots are dirtass poor. On their major-label debut, they borrow Granny’s ’89 Cutlass Supreme to rhyme about 20-inch rims, and buy “a pack of Dutch Masters and a pint of alcohol” to help them through life without pagers, cell phones, or true-playa access. In “Awnaw,” the organ-spiked explosion of inner-hillbilliness that doubles as the album’s first single, they reminisce about indie days of cutting vocals in a closet while roaches crawled on the kitchen faucets. While Atlanta’s “most ballinous playa,” Jermaine Dupri, rolls up on One-Tweezy, these Western Kentucky University grads eat at IHOP and roll down I-65.
That all supports the group’s essential point: Life as a broke nobody from nowhere ain’t half bad with the proper self-esteem and sense of humor, because there are way more Nappy Roots folk than Dupris in the world. These guys are “nappy” in their ways, and “Jimmy crack corn, no fade, no perm, I’m just ballin’ on a budget, yea-ga!!” is one bizarre slice of lexicon—”Ballin’ on a Budget” ‘s title becomes plain ol’ “B.O.B.” elsewhere (not the only time they evoke OutKast).
Who ever heard of Kentucky hip-hop, anyway? Skinny Deville, Big V., B. Stille, Ron Clutch, R. Prophet, and Scales take their anonymity and run with it, baking a musical mutation that grabs mostly from Goodie Mob’s scorching-earth-singsong Dirty South and Too $hort’s cheap-drums-and-laid-back-charm West Coast. They sing hooks in thick drawls, and speed-rap like No Limit or the Dungeon Family. They employ the instrumentation of Dixie: mandolins, acoustic blues licks, and—in “Ho Down”—a prototypical Al Green-Willie Mitchell guitar jam. (Curiously, Bowling Green is closer to Cincinnati than to Memphis or Atlanta, but whatever.) Other songs, like the sparse “Start It Over,” retread the electro of mid-’80s Whodini. R. Prophet’s over-the-top, yapping reggae delivery hammers home the grooves.
The six also create a new persona—the hillbilly hustla, the guy who scarfs down plates of sweet-potato pie just in time to drive a shipment of dope over the county line. Their anti-bling-bling isn’t preaching; they’re too wasted for that. Put “Set It Out” ‘s rollicking hook “Roll some, drink some, cut some, what?” next to Queens of the Stone Age’s “Feel Good Hit of the Summer,” and you’ll notice the intoxication mind-meld. In their casual embrace of drugs and admission of petty crimes—they don’t commit any now, but do remember snatching purses back in the day—Nappy Roots are not all that removed from their urban counterparts. They’re African American men in their mid-twenties, struggling to make it in life, making poor decisions along the way.
The difference, however, comes from how Nappy Roots reach for their ounce of Jay-Z supremacy. They’re as real as real gets, if you follow their logic, because they’re not trying to pimp anything but their true surroundings. Judging from their photos, they really do wear their gravy on their sleeve, which makes their approach refreshing. Whether that gravy drips into the mainstream remains to be seen—at minimum, Nappy Roots turn New York’s mackcentric posse imagery on its ear.