Ironic, this same place I’m making figures at/That there’s the same land they used to hang niggers at. —The Clipse, “Virginia”
The South done rised again. Over the past decade, Southern-born-and-bred hip-hop has laid siege to the charts, and Dixie-fried beats have marched the streets of New York, Philadelphia, and every other precinct that twinkled Robert E. Lee’s steely eyes. Tag Team, 95 South, No Limit, Cash Money, Missy, Timbaland, the Neptunes, OutKast, Goodie Mob, Nappy Roots, Ludacris, Bone Crusher, and countless country bumpkins have infiltrated the airwaves with a bubblegum crunk so sizzling that the hick bug spread above the Mason-Dixon line. Even New York Yankee 50 Cent bites the bait with his true-gray slur. Nothing grants cred like escaping poverty, and nothing implies poverty like a lazy drawl.
And nothing goes better with a drawl than fire and brimstone, even if it’s not the God-fearing kind. On his debut album, Monster, Killer Mike barks his rhymes like Bobby Knight coaching the Bad News Bears, spewing venom and chaw with a glare and a wink. On the disc’s first single, “A.D.I.D.A.S.,” Killer and Big Boi trade twangy lines about the holiest of holies over an organ bounce. “When I dreeyall, I don’t speeyall, even if she’s on the peeyall/Keep mah weapon covered, conceeyaled, and in a sheeyald/Cuz I don’t need that A-I-D-S,” he woofs.
Killer Mike’s big break came courtesy of fellow Georgians OutKast (an audacious guest spot on 2002’s “The Whole World”), and much of Monster recalls the duo’s straighter moments. “Akshon (Yeah!),” produced by Andre 3000, playfully pairs a throbbing, distorted beat and bassline with a circular xylophone riff as Killer Mike’s Georgia brogue stretches beyond recognition. In the song’s best moment, Mike tips a Falcons cap to his mentors, snapping, “Took ‘The Whole World’ and murdered that shit,” while three notes of the OutKast hook coyly chime.
So Killer Mike is Marshall Tucker to OutKast’s Allman Brothers (’00s hip-hop guest spot = ’70s Southern-rock tour support), and, like Tucker, Mike doesn’t do enough to escape his guru’s shadow. Content to merely establish himself as another Southern MC, Killer Mike rarely evolves past sexual boasts and hollow threats. Monster still has its charms, though: “All 4 U” works OK as a sing-along Jay-Z homage, and the rock-tinged “Rap Is Dead” finds Mike leaping at targets (hip-hop and flaccid MCs, mainly) like General Sherman armed with a gas can and a Zippo.
But while hip-hop’s been more than hospitable, today’s rock-radio world greets its Southern heritage with an upturned nose. Saliva, 3 Doors Down, Creed, and Evanescence (Confederates all) might drop their G’s in interviews Clear Channel broadcasts to the Bible Belt, but their hits lack any Dixie affectations. Rock means white, and too many drunken yawps of “Freebird!” have pigeonholed Southern rock as Good Ol’ Boy beer-swillin’ music, implying a lower class that rock, now firm in its belief of its own greatness, considers itself above. Lynyrd Skynyrd these bands ain’t-aren’t-ain’t.
Contemporary Southern rock is still dominated by Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers, both of whom currently boast bona fide chart hits (the ominously titled “Red White and Blue” and “Firing Line,” respectively). Further down the family tree, the now defunct Black Crowes had considerable success in the ’90s with their Stones-meets-Little Feat strut, leaving Kid Rock as rock’s last man twanging, only he’s in Detroit courting a country career with “Picture.” Are we forever doomed to region-free rock?
Birmingham, Alabama, trio Verbena want to say no, but market pressures say yes. The band’s 1997 debut, Souls for Sale, on Merge, was a stellar stab at Stonesy country blues—singer Scott Bondy heaving, howling, and humming like a redneck Rod Stewart—but a leap to Capitol for the Dave Grohl-produced Into the Pink in 1999 found the Delta grime whitewashed for post-grunge polish. The sudden metaphorical homelessness left the band sounding lost, and the disc dropped into used-bin sinkholes without a whimper.
The horribly titled La Musica Negra definitely surpasses Grohl’s hatchet job, though Verbena still sound cowed by their roots. “Way Out West,” the album’s first single, sticks with the nu-Nirvana (mis)direction, though Bondy at least nixes the Cobain groan for a sneering drawl. Still, uptempo tunes like “Way Out West,” “Killing Floor (Get Down on It),” “Devil in Miss Jones,” and “White Grrls” (with its R. Kelly-worthy command, “Go get a big black car”) rely too much on modern rock’s stiff aggression, not enough on boogie rock’s loose swing.
Verbena’s ballads pull off a more convincing back-porch vibe. Bondy duets with Shivaree’s Ambrosia Parsley in “Camellia,” a relaxed lament that Jagger and Faithfull or Wagoner and Parton could have sung. Easing into its lush “hallelujah” chorus with a confidence most of La Musica Negra lacks, the band finally sounds at home in the honeysuckle and hickory wind.
Verbena play the Mercury Lounge June 5.