The war hawks involved in the battle for the soul — hell, the continued existence — of indie rap could not ask for a clearer distillation of the differing viewpoints and what's at stake in their fight than recent albums by four artists on the frontline. Their mentalities and strategies differ, but they only represent that of their squadrons; listen closely and the battle lines become obvious.
Californian lovebird weirdos Georgia Anne Muldrow and Dudley Perkins, who were whipped into shape by Madlib and his intimidating force of a record label, Stones Throw, have gone AWOL from that camp and are now content to fight the forces of injustice from the safety of their own socially minded record company, SomeOthaShip. On July 28, they both released new projects: Muldrow's Umsindo and Perkins' Holy Smokes. The outings, each clocking in at over an hour, are awash in pseudo-spiritual societal outrage with sprinklings of harmonic wishful thinking for global co-existence; they are exaggerated condensations of modern rap's serious side.
At the other end of the field, new albums by Philadelphia's bitchy princess Amanda Blank and Minnesota's (the birth state of this decade's wave of underground hip-hop) Eyedea & Abilities, each one a tight half-hour of genre-mingling dance-rock flow, carry the flag for the carefree youth of rap's infancy.
Judging by these albums, the party people are winning.
Perkins' Holy Smokes starts out with just as much fire and teen spirit as Blank's and E & A's work. His H.R. Pufnstuf verbal attack firmly in place, Perkins bounces through infectious jams like "Fonky Soul," "Sally" and "Boogie" with no greater purpose than to set the soundtrack for a particularly sensual loft love-in. Even the skits feel like the ramblings of a stoner trading A-game one-liners with close friends. In fact, the first 13 tracks, taken by themselves, would have made for a pretty great record. But there are another 13 to go after that, a patience-thinning slog of a second half that kicks off, depressingly, with perhaps the most juvenile attempt at political commentary ever to hit a rap album: "Evil Overlords," a two-minute unaccompanied babble in which Perkins plays around with what seems to be a Gollum impersonation, announcing himself as the one man in the world who will expose evil. This is immediately followed by "E&R," where this incoherent tedium extends to a nearly five-minute listing of people (Miss Cleo, Benny Hinn, Jesse Jackson, Oprah Winfrey) and corporations (Wal-Mart, Kmart, Trinity Broadcasting Network) that he deems evil.
Perkins' self-destruction drags on for an eternity, time enough for his peace-and-hate hypocrisy to become crystal clear. The aforementioned shit list is undercut by his own later track, "Love Yo Nabor" (because nothing says progress like intentional misspellings). "Come and breathe with me/If I love you then I have to love all about you/All are one," Perkins therapy-speaks over an uninspired beat. Character flaws in a musician can be more interesting than their music, but preachy self-confusion dooms albums.
There is no such confusion coming from Perkins' soulmate, Georgia Anne Muldrow, who has taken the freedom-from-a-label opportunity to indulge in every half-thought and musical cliché that occurs to her. Umsindo kicks off with a Swahili chant set to tinny drums and clearly digital tribal rhythms and descends quickly into the ridiculous. "Seminole Unity Chant" finds Muldrow warbling through more of these plug-in native beats (is there a downloadable collection of them somewhere?), "Uhuru Flight" takes a spacey bent that does nothing for Muldrow's organic flow, while "Roses" recasts Muldrow as a torch singer with a cause: "You don't have to cut up no roses/Please just leave them living," she pleads. Are we expected to nod our heads in a united front against flower-picking now?
Muldrow's best moments are rendered equally toothless by her own doing. "Caracas" finally brings her together with a worthy beat (Muldrow produced the album herself) only to see her squander the moment with freshman-level policy wonking: "I'm so ashamed of this country that you won't see no American me/We headed for some chaos if our God is white/Why not delight in the bounty of life?" wonders Muldrow, the stepdaughter of Rev. Michael Beckwith, who is famous as one of the proponents of "The Secret," a new-age philosophy whose empire of merchandise advocates asking "the universe" for what you want. Did somebody forget to ask for everyone to delight in the bounty of life? That must have gotten lost in the shuffle.
Whereas Muldrow and Perkins waste their considerable talent on their new albums, MC Amanda Blank milks her far inferior skills for every drop of creative inspiration on her new album, I Love You, to produce an overflow of musical wealth. Since she popped up in Spank Rock's XXX-rated video for the track "Loose" — Blank sits quietly to the side of a coke-fueled orgy until she can't take it anymore, letting loose a machine-gun-fire, independent woman-touting verse, then dismisses the porn stars with a pointed, "Y'all bitches is nasty" — the well-connected Blank has won over critics and fans alike with her no-bullshit take on the modern Roxanne Shanté. With the sarcastically titled I Love You, she recruits producer friend Diplo to help set the stage for a proper arrival announcement. There's a cover of the Prince-smothered Vanity 6 song "Make-Up," a Spank Rock reunion that gives her first shot at the mic ("Bitch/You call me kitsch/I do it for the kids") and a series of edgy, instant-earworm pop songs ("Shame on Me," the Santigold-assisted "A Love Song," which expertly samples LL Cool J's "I Need Love") that possess more layered pomp than a Rihanna single, concluding with a gorgeous kiss-off ballad, "Leaving You Behind" (Lykke Li doing her thing in the background). I Love You is a commanding performance from an artist who feels like Lily Allen's mouthy American sister.
Taking the biggest step forward is Midwest duo Eyedea & Abilities, who have always flirted with moving beyond standard Rhymesayers output and have finally, after a five-year hiatus, burst out of their restraints. Incorporating heavily fuzzed instrumentation, blown-out percussion and verbal acrobatics from Eyedea aimed more at storytelling than showing off, producer Abilities stands out as a fearless maestro. No longer simply keeping up with his cohort, Abilities' soundscapes — light and airy on "Sky Diver," disturbingly schizophrenic on "Time Flies When You Have a Gun" — now lead by example, setting the tone for the tracks rather than the other way around. The group presents itself with so much confidence that even their aping of better bands' sounds (TV on the Radio for "Hay Fever," U2 on "Spin Cycle") feels organic.
Does this mean that Muldrow's and Perkins' preferred brand of cultish beatnik rap should move aside and make way for more accessible acts? No, not at all, but what makes Amanda Blank's and Eyedea & Abilities' albums so victorious is that they don't allow a message — or, in the case of Georgia and Dudley, a smattering of several messages stacked on top of one another to the point of unrecognizability — to get in the way of the music. They each say more with less (and in a much shorter period of time) by letting the song and the melody dictate the firstname.lastname@example.org