In a recent book review in Harper’s, Cristina Nehring lamented the death of the Big Idea. Essayists, argued Nehring, are avoiding Baldwinesque pronouncements, instead opting for quaint, vapid reflection. In this age of Patriot Acts and Operation TIPS, maybe it’s fear that’s killing epic concepts. But don’t tell rappers. Since Melle Mell christened “The Message,” MCs have been obsessed with themselves as prophets of the streets. Once, rap acts delivered on the grand promises that issued forth from the naming of their albums. Consider the nihilism of Ready to Die, the horror of Death Certificate, the sheer force of It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.
But like all art forms that dither and dally in merchant valley, the substance is withering away, even as the veneer glows brighter. Witness the cryptic names that rappers lately offer for the most explicit of material—The Great Depression, The Understanding, In My Lifetime Vol. 1. With a few alterations, you could have called all of these albums Bitches, Gats, and Murdered Blacks Vols. 1-4. Some say it’s foolish to expect intellectualism from pop music. Fair enough. But it’s the rappers themselves who insist they have the knowledge to wake up the world—God’s Son, anybody?
David Banner’s Mississippi is a recent album—unlike most—that at least attempts to articulate a theme justifying its ambitious moniker. Banner, a grad student at the University of Maryland, has developed quite a thesis about the the black South: To him, Mississippi is the heart of Afro-America, a land suffering from the aftershocks of segregation, slavery, and the great migration. This last part is particularly interesting, and Banner spews his most potent venom toward black folk who fled North and only look back with shame. Mississippi is “the place your mama ran from,” says Banner. “Now you don’t mention us in your rhymes.”
Unfortunately, Banner is more Hulk than scientist, and the distinguishing feature of Mississippi isn’t his original take on the state, but his ability to have an original take and still indulge in hip-hop banalities. Chief among them: stringing together profanities like a Tourette’s-afflicted speed addict. In the “Intro,” having rather eloquently articulated a Southern perspective, Banner then goes all NRA on us, growling, “Fuck you. Suck a dick. Die bitch.” Then in the skit “Whoremonger,” Banner dismisses some anonymous person as “you old ho-ass, fuck-ass, dick-sucking-ass, hide behind your gold and platinum-ass, muthafucking weak. Oooooh!! You son of a bitch!!”
Hmmm, I’m sensing some anger here. Worse still, I’m sensing the wasting of some pretty decent tracks. Mississippi has its fair share of bangers. The rocking deep bass of “What It Do,” the whining violins of “So Trill,” and the looped guitar riff—as well as the social criticism—on “Bush” all point to a well-conceived album, musically. But outside of the title cut, Banner only achieves synergy on the single, the grinding “Like a Pimp.” It doesn’t hurt that, in “Pimp,” Banner’s M.O.P.-South flow is balanced by the smooth drawl of Lil’ Flip.
But Mississippi ultimately succumbs to its author’s belief in black anger as a shock tactic. The result is silly hooks like “Might get your jaw broke, might get your wig split, might get your car shot up, might get your dog hit, might get you kidnapped,” off of—you guessed it—”Might Getcha.” Say this for David Banner: He knows what he should be saying. Even if he refuses to make a whole album about it.