Sunday, July 25, 2010

a piece about a piece of strange

Cunninlynguists - A Piece of Strange

Although it came only five years, two albums and two mixtapes after Natti, Kno and Deacon the Villain, the Cunninlynguists in question, appeared on the scene, A Piece of Strange carries the experience and insight of an entire career behind it. The depth and breadth of topics covered with humble yet righteous expertise suggests a level of maturity that does not seem to add up chronologically with the years these kids have been around. And hearing them ruminate briefly on the grisliness of war before smoothly slipping over to the subject of American Christian entitlement, you might even begin to doubt your own ears. This is an album that prompts a lot of questions – not just “What can be done about the racism embedded deeply within rural southern communities?” sort of questions, as was probably their intention, but “How could they manage to have a metaphor that connects all three verses of that song but also fits in the overarching metaphor of the next two songs and the narrative of the whole album?” or “Wasn't hip hop dead or something?” and maybe most importantly, “How seriously does a group calling themselves the Cunninlynguists want us to take them?”

The name did make sense at one point, though: back in 2001 when they were more interested in the clever little puns of questionable nature than retelling the gospel in an extended mixed race relationship metaphor, the title of the group followed naturally from a love of lyrics delivered with tongue-lashing slippery flow. It was a nice throwback to a classic Andre 3000 line they enjoyed sampling on their first album - “My oral demonstration be like clitoral stimulation” - and it showed they recognized the importance of simply having fun in hip hop, and music at large. There were indications of their diminishing interest in their current standings from early on as they managed to cut the jokes for a few songs to get a little personal, and they were never afraid of showing how socially aware they were when they needed to. A Piece of Strange is not then such a radical departure from their artistic direction as a point of revelation where they realized that they wanted to do something more than they had done before, and they moved forward with the confidence in their talents necessary to make art this dramatically powerful. This an exciting point in the development of any artist – having managed to break into the realm of financial success and now looking at a new plateau of cookie-cutting out more of the same, taking the next step up can often be as hard as the first, but doing so can produce some of the most genius output of their career. The Beatles donned the masks of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in case their bold plunge into the world of psychedelia proved unsuccessful. Radiohead ditched their iron lung and bought a synthesizer. It takes a certain dissatisfaction with one's current success and tons of courage, but most importantly, it requires something worth saying.

A Piece of Stange has many things worth saying, and it's willing to talk on any level that it'll be heard. Skim the surface and catchy beats will hook themselves in your ear, settling in for a near permanent residence. Courtesy of lead producer and occasionally rapping Kno, the instrumentals demonstrate an appreciation for both live instruments and synthesizers in hip hop production, blending them in such a way that gives the sense of classiness without coming of as pretentious. Above these, he carefully sprinkles samples that give flashes of recognition and a deep nostalgic warmth without stealing focus too far away from the song. The production of this album is truly inspired, a real miracle in a genre where money usually persuades more talent to engineer a more addictive beat and more sales with it. Kno obviously loves variety, and one can almost picture him digging through crates of records of any genre as the flamenco guitars dance around a more traditional drumkit with jazzy female vocals floating above. He approaches it all with a curiosity that recalls the exoticism movements of late classical periods – eager to deliver the flavor of the world at large without becoming esoteric or losing sight of his goal. It is through this variety that one becomes equally eager to get the full message of A Piece of Strange, as it becomes more and more apparent that it's a little stranger than one might think.

Delve a little deeper and the true scope of the album starts to become clear. Lyrical themes occur between songs, and even if the full meaning is not yet clear, a web of narratives and ideas begins to construct itself in the back of the listener's mind, continually being fleshed out as each morsel of a syllable is snagged and devoured by the spider of consciousness. “Fucked with enough spiders to charm a mama leglong”, Deacon drawls on his verse on “Hourglass”, and the fact that some arbitrary analogy can remind me of a fairly standard line from this album is now totally unsurprising. The infectiousness of the lyrics comes from the mystery, and the brain loves to process riddles in the backrooms of the mind, allowing the answers to pop up on feeble excuses whenever the opportunity arises. He's saying that he's had enough bad relationships now that he feels experienced enough to court a beautiful, long-legged non-spider, while still jokingly referring to the spider-like “daddy longlegs” bug. Clever. And once you start catching these, the addictiveness just keeps escalating, making it very fortunate that this album is a veritable smorgasbord of lyrical insects buzzing around the edge of the conscious ear.

It is lyrics, beats and flow that constitute what could be known as the technicalities of hip hop, the fundamental constructions of which provide the structure of the entire album. To disregard or fail at these is to either produce garbage or to shoot the moon towards an abstract piece of art that could hardly be said to fall in the album. The Cunninlynguists are not signed to anticon, and A Piece of Strange is not cLOUDDEAD, and although one might feel it could be somewhat limiting, it is also quite reassuring to note that the album rarely steps outside of hip hop's comfort zones. Most songs frame a sung or sampled hook with two or three verses, usually one from each rapper, usually presenting two aspects of the issue of the song at hand. When they aren't doing that, they're displaying the art of storytelling, another classic of the medium. They even allow themselves the almost requisite brag track (“Since When”) and drug track (“Beautiful Girl”), albeit in an unusual context. This is undoubtedly a hip hop album made by those that love hip hop and would die before having the gall or pretentious nature to totally disregard the genre, or possibly even formula, that got them where they are.

Luckily, as previously mentioned, the album still shines as just another hip hop album. There's enough variety in styles and delivery that progression never seems tedious and new tricks appear near the end. There are guest stars, appearing not for the hype or phoning it in to repay a debt, but to truly enhance the tracks on which they appear. Cee-Lo, currently exploding into everyone's mind as one half of Gnarls Barkley, shows humility and true musical insight by not simply doing a “Cee-Lo Green performance” on early track “Caved In” but by lending the song a robust voice and fleshing out the chorus in a profound, subtle way. Same with speedy rapper Tonedeff and rap revolutionary Immortal Technique: their verses play to their strengths, but never reduce them to a gimmick or a famous name. In the context of this ambitious concept album, it might be more apt to think of them as actors all playing a part. With this line of thinking, the final track – with instrumentals handled by the soulful Club Dub – might be the most brilliant and difficult piece of casting yet, equivalent to bringing in a guest director to oversee a scene. The result is fantastic; the final track, “The Light”, swings powerfully between gospel and p-funk. In the same way that this album marks a step up by the group towards their true intentions, this song can easily be seen as a step up in the listener's mind, the evidence necessary to deem the album worthy of true analysis and true appreciation. At this point, the only course of action is obvious – take an even bigger bite and go back to track one.

At the final depths, in the seedy core of the album itself, A Piece of Strange begins to open up its most personal truths. Here one can find the real brain and heart of the album: insights into both modern black Christian America and the ancient gospels, genuine dilemmas with genuinely emotional delivery. Like the precious reproductive cargo of the apple, these motivate the rest of the album, wrapping the difficult and sensitive issues with a sweet and appealing flesh that, from the perspective of the burdened enlightened, seems almost mocking or misleading. The overarching narrative of the album is relatively simple, but in its simplicity, the potential for nearly endless levels of interpretation and subdivision is possible. Repeated references and story rapping construct a story of a black teenager dealing growing up with temptation, his mixed race child with the white daughter of a racist firefighter, and his death and final judgement. Tracks like “Braincell” and “What'll You Do?” seem like entire stories in their own – the latter being unmistakably autobiographical and touchingly personal – but the imagination necessary to fit them into the larger narrative is hardly stretching. Neither is pulling the story itself into more general terms and mapping it to the books of the Bible, or maybe the history of Iraq conflict or the last decade of American politics. One can never be sure of which interpretations were intended and which are made more of the analyzer's projections and biases, but the number of topics covered and themes hinted at guarantees that any voyage of thought about the album will be at least somewhat fruitful.

Christianity and hip hop, particularly that of the dirty south, have had a strained relationship. The fundamental nature of the southern church imbues a good number of the rappers from the area with a dogma and duty of faith, but contrasting the actual content of the religion with the debauchery of the lifestyle reveals a paradox that is amazingly largely ignored. “Never done unto others yet claiming that they're Christian”, as Tim Means describes with intense sombreness on “America Loves Gangsters”, but is he more talking about Bible belt Fundamentalists at that point? Deacon has some stuff to say about that too - “I guess most of y'all must listen to Rush/long as you all good then everybody under you flush” - but is he digging at Christians or Republicans? The album is quick to cycle through topics, cleverly carrying over the listener's opinions on one to the other, creating associations that prompt even more questioning. Does the glorification of the old cowboys in American culture lead directly to overzealous overseas conflicts or drive by shootings? Or neither or both? Is the nature of night's masking on the true heinousness of crime indicative of pop culture's sugarcoating of the news? Is a racist still a racist if he is racist only in thought? It is in attempting to answer these questions that one truly gets a sense of the album and sees it more as a rich tapestry of interlocked themes rather than a series of separated essays, an album more than many individual tracks.

This is a developing group's bold statement not only about the issues they face at home, but an innovative piece of art that challenges conceptions of what a hip hop album could be without disregarding the legacy of the genre. It simultaneously pushes the envelope in both subject material and the art form itself. As the beautifully drawn cover suggests, they have taken of the tree of knowledge, they have moved forward with confidence in their talents and determination to get their message across. For this alone, they must be respected, but for creating a true masterpiece of hip hop in the process, they must be taken pretty damned seriously.

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