“Seeing all the people that was doing really fucked-up shit in the hood, most of the people were really good people at heart . . . ” And so’s David Banner himself, probably: He arranges scholarships; he tells interviewers about the need to set up recording studios in Mississippi so as to develop local talent and to create jobs. This is goodness as conventionally defined—except that his raps also give us a mess of other ideas about what’s attractive, what’s worth doing; ideas that mulch and mess this one up. Of course, in commercial hip-hop this dilemma is a convention, too, for those who want to use it—in fact it’s been a convention since long before hip-hop. (Think of the Shangri-Las back in 1965 explaining rather pedantically that there’s a “good-bad” that isn’t evil. The idea was ancient even then.) But its being generic doesn’t mean it’s not a dilemma, especially for someone like Banner who—with his thoroughly conventional ideas—aspires to be a role model. The conventions he lives by won’t give him a settled role, since the conflict they generate isn’t between right and wrong, but between contrary ideas of what counts as right and wrong.
“Tell the hatin’ ass niggas that they can suck a dick” isn’t “kill for peace”-type obtuseness, but rather a typical line from someone who really gets off on being angry, despite knowing that his aggression can hurt people he doesn’t want to hurt. “I swear I love you like I birthed you, but I’ll kill you bitch.” His Tourette’s-like swearing erupts in almost any song and any context, “bitch” said so frequently as to be an all-purpose condiment, often preceded by ____-ass (pussy-ass bitch, dick-ass bitch, suck-ass bitch, booty-fuck-ass bitch . . . ), directed at men, women, situations, anything, nothing—used for antagonism, intensity, merrymaking, color, meter, sound.
He explains the title Baptized in Dirty Water: “When you look at the word ‘baptize’ it means a change, it means a full change, but just imagine that if . . . if . . . you went to get baptized, and you were gettin’ baptized in dirty water. It don’t really matter what your intent was; if everything around you was negative, you gon’ become a product of that.” But since he’s not at all sure what is positive and what is negative, what is baby and what is bathwater, he keeps it all. “You gon’ become a product of that; especially what happened to most of my niggas. Baptized in dirty water. s to the next cut, no pause.] Yeah, Mississippi, motherfucker, comin’ out talkin’ big shit, fuck that, suck that, blast that bitch, duck that, nigga, yeah, I ain’t playin’, Mississippi motherfucker, Southside, yeah, Big Face nigga, Big Face Entertainment nigga. . . . ”
He creates a big, bellowing, larger-than-life, pretentious persona, which he mitigates with blustery humor. For instance, during that heartfelt explanation of “baptized in dirty water,” he interrupts himself with coughing fits, asks his friends to turn on the lights, then “turn ’em down a little bit [laughs], down some more, yeah, like to set the mood, might make it spooky.” More coughs, back to explanation: “Most of the people were really good people at heart. You know, you got some fuck boys everywhere you go, but just for the most part—uh, I don’t know, Hennessey break.” Swallows. Goes on. A way to tell us he’s jes folks, even though he’s also been telling us he’s much more.
Aside from the raps, the music—like the rest of Southern hip-hop—does a lot without making a point of it. The music nonchalantly includes tortured sine waves and human beatboxes, 14-karat electric beats, skitter rhythms from East London, looming monster music from East Europe, bellows from the backyard, ominous piano tinkles, goofy shouts.
His not-really-in-tune singing can be exquisitely eerie, but just as often excruciatingly terrible; his backing tracks’ darkness can be powerful or just plain leaden. The screwed-and-chopped remix that Michael Watts did of Banner’s previous album, Mississippi (s&c of the new one due this week), slows and cuts it into more consistent beauty, makes the sound stranger, gets spookiness out of what had been clumsy at regular speed. Mississippi: Screwed & Chopped is more listenable on average than the original, but loses Banner’s great achievement, which is getting the mess to rise up on its hind legs and do the hoochie-koo.
On Baptized, Banner puts a rambunctious beat under a funny, ghostly, genuinely celebratory mock Christmas carol (bells and sickly cheery holiday sounds mix well with the rough rhythm). “We rob and we steal, we’re just tryin’ to get a meal,” the carolers claim to the tune of “God Bless Ye Merry Gentlemen,” but once they go out robbing, they’re having a blast. “Take another pull of the spliff, cock it back, I got a present, bitch.” At the end of the track, a little boy says, “Wow Daddy, thanks for all the presents. Hey Daddy, what’s all that blood doing on your shirt? Ha ha ha.” And everybody laughs.