Hip-hop is the groove of the streets. Got it, you punk-ass, dreadlocks-and-beads sissy? Didn’t you see those Uzis at the end of Wild Style, fool? The lecture must go something like that. You know, the chiding that every positive rapper gets before cutting an album. How else to explain the relentless pledging at the altar of the streets by artists whose interests clearly lie elsewhere? Chuck D claimed to “reach the bourgeoisie and rock the boulevard.” Dead Prez transposed the RBG of Marcus Garvey’s red-black-and-green to Revolutionary But Gangsta. Perhaps panning the whole idea, Lauryn Hill noted, “Even after all my logic and my theory/I add a muthafucka so you ignorant niggas hear me.”
The Lifesavas don’t share Hill’s comic timing, but they’ve taken her point to heart. On the very first cut off Spirit in Stone, the group dispenses with appeals to street cred. “The streets? The streets can go to hell, I want freedom/The streets is watching the idiot box and cop reruns,” raps Vursatyle on “Soldierfied.” Even the black nationalist reasoning that undergirds most positive hip-hop is jettisoned: “Blame the white man, I feel ya for rough justice and new laws/The White man creates nines and techs to flood schoolyards/The White Man ain’t pull the trigger and took it too far/The White Man ain’t going to jail nigga, you are.”
Like most post-Native Tongues groups, the Lifesavas are locked in a pitched battle against their own earnestness. And this isn’t garden-variety Talib Kweli earnestness either. The Lifesavas are borderline social conservatives, preaching the evils of cloning and pushing Judgment Day fear factor. They claim pro-life, preach family values, and rail against the narcissism of men. They might be more Jerry Falwell than Jay-Z. But the Lifesavas understand better than most of their cohort that to believe you’re right means nothing if you can’t stay on beat and your production is weak.
So while a careful listen reveals the album’s first single, “What If It’s True,” making a “Believe or forever burn!” argument for Christianity, the electro-funky track still bumps, and the obscure imagery provides other things to think about: “She said I need to see your hands higher/All that ground beef dead that/Mama got an Uzi up under her head wrap.” And while “Hellohihey” is just a rant against arrogance, the track’s singsongy hook and acoustic guitar add up to a sweet head-nodder as Vursatyle offers an absurdist take on the absurdity of hip-hop’s braggadocious roots by turning the camera on himself: “Man it’s hard being the best, these MCs get pissed/Cause next to me they almost don’t exist/No dis, but who can really say/That they’ve gone where I’ve gone and played what I’ve played/And that they’ve done what I’ve done and stayed where I’ve stayed.”
Even when the group moves beyond lofty topics, their skills maintain. “Selector” finds them taking up the formidable challenge of trading verses with the gifted J-Live. Vursatyle, especially, is up for the challenge. “The head exorcist blessed with 1200 volts, sending jolts/To your poltergeist, prepare to step bare-foot over broken/Mics and run wild. Timeless hymns I spin seven digits on a sundial.” Not that the group is beyond harangues, as “Resist” painfully illustrates. But by and large, they avoid the didacticism that mars hip-hop’s standard radicals.
MC Jumbo the Garbageman is the chief producer, but working alongside is Chief Xcel of Blackalicious, who play Jay-Z to the Lifesavas’ Memphis Bleek. Sonically, Spirit in Stone is a more focused version of Blackalicious’ ambitious but sprawling Blazing Arrow. While it shows plenty of gusto for samples and instrumentation, its core is pounding rhythm tracks, the perfect plane for proselytizing. Fine. I doubt I’d agree with them Lifesavas about much if we ever engaged in a conversation. But I sure would nod my head if they said it over one of their tracks.