[16 September 2008]
Some people call it “sophomore jinx”. Others say it’s the “second album curse”. Whatever the label, the situation is the same. An artist releases an excellent debut album, which either sells a whole bunch of records, receives high marks from critics, or both. A year or so passes. Then the artist releases a follow-up album, which either fails to sell a whole bunch of records, receives low marks from critics, or both.
It’s possible that a quick listen to Ise Lyfe’s Prince Cometh would lead you to think that the Oakland, California wordsmith is in danger of succumbing to this well-known tragic fate. Granted, this follow-up to his stellar debut Spread the Word (2006) falls short of the quality and expertise exhibited by its predecessor, but it hasn’t fallen victim to a jinx or a curse either. Spread the Word presented a grab bag of spoken word and straightforward but forward-thinking hip-hop. Prince Cometh attempts the same approach but stumbles lyrically, while Ise Lyfe expands his musical palette.
Ise Lyfe could be compared to another spoken word craftsman from California, Azeem, as well as poet Saul Williams and singer-songwriter Jill Scott. Based on their backgrounds, the comparisons are relatively easy to see. All of them attained success in poetry and spoken word and have ventured into the world of popular music.
Listening to them, of course, underscores the differences. Saul Williams’ musical work often leans heavily on his spoken-word methodology, in the sense that his “rap” often mimics the cadence of his written and spoken-word poetry. In that light, he is certainly an artist, but not necessarily an “emcee” in the tradition of a Rakim or a KRS-One. Azeem, on the other hand, is one heck of an emcee and his verses demonstrate his status as one of the best in hip-hop today. He is both a poet and an emcee, effortlessly moving between the two art forms while also being skillful enough to infuse his hip-hop handiwork with his poetic flair. Jill Scott’s tremendous singing abilities distinguish her from the others, but the spoken-word on her albums is rather familiar. Rhythmic and fashionably hip, her poetry seems reserved for the topics and emotions that can’t be captured by singing alone.
Ise Lyfe is paving his own road to success. Like Saul Williams, Ise Lyfe remains faithful to his love of spoken word but, like Jill Scott, he tends to keep his spoken word pieces separate from his raps, as she keeps hers separate from her songs. On Prince Cometh, Ise Lyfe tackles a variety of communal and psychological issues in tracks like “Oakland Stand Up” and the minimalist beatsmithing of “We Are the Answer”.
Where Saul Williams, and Azeem to some extent, can be lyrically abstract, particularly in terms of imagery and metaphor, Ise Lyfe’s calling card, especially this time around, is the power of his direct delivery. Azeem can turn a powerful phrase and, as I explained in my review of Azeem’s most recent outing, Air Cartoons, his words work on paper as well as they do over quality musical production. By contrast, Ise Lyfe’s strength on Prince Cometh resides in his willingness to communicate his truths, unfiltered and unrestrained. Reading his words on paper might not impress you but, on stage and on this album, he speaks boldly and, most of all, honestly about his subjects. It helps that he’s also willing to vary his vocal presentation. Sometimes he chooses a fiery attack. Other times, his voice operates at a notch slightly above a whisper. The latter, however, runs the risk of sounding affected or like he’s flirting with melodrama, like Tyra Banks’ soft, tortured elimination speech at the end of an America’s Next Top Model episode.
If you concentrate on making “plain talk” your biggest asset, your attempts to incorporate metaphor and other poetic devices can be counterproductive. In the case of Prince Cometh, the metaphors feel forced, like in the title track and opener when he says, “My fade [is] parted, like Moses walked across my scalp” or in “The Blow Out” when he claims he’s “stacking money like Lincoln logs”. In terms of his critique of current hip-hop trends (“I don’t give a f*ck about your platinum plaque / It just means a million other people are as dumb as yo’ ass”), there’s a sense here that Ise Lyfe is working overtime to reach an audience that has already converted to his messages of struggling against the status quo, accepting the responsibilities of being “conscious”, and realizing our inherent beauty as human beings. The first seven songs hammer these themes with little variation, saved only by engaging accompaniment and instrumentation. In other words, the beats are fresh, spanning the styles of jazz, videogame noises, rock, and pop, but the lyrics in those songs become repetitive.
To fully appreciate what I think Ise Lyfe is looking to attain, you have to resist the urge to see lines like these as “corny”. His first album already displayed his ability to be clever and subtle. Instead, you’ll want to view these lines as symptomatic of Ise Lyfe’s eagerness to, as his debut album title stated, spread the word. His concern for society’s ills is commendable, as he confronts the insecurities of daily life and the self-esteem issues that accompany gender politics. In this way, the best comparison for Ise Lyfe would be to Gil Scott-Heron, the writer-musician-activist affectionately referred to as the Godfather of Hip-Hop.
I championed that comparison when Ise Lyfe released Spread the Word, and it still holds true. Gil Scott-Heron’s breadth of subject matter still extends beyond Ise Lyfe’s, but the poignancy of their messages provides a parallel. Ise Lyfe reinforces the comparison through his remake of Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon”, a spoken word piece illuminating the perceived distance between the struggles of everyday life and the attention paid to those struggles by the government, or “Whitey”. After a snippet of Scott-Heron’s original, Ise Lyfe, following Scott-Heron’s cadence and inflections, transforms the song into “Whitey in Iraq”. In Scott-Heron’s version, bad things are happening to the downtrodden while “Whitey’s on the Moon”. In Ise Lyfe’s rendition, bad things are happening to the downtrodden while “Whitey’s in Iraq”, and in other locales around the world.
Both songs play on the popular lament that it’s hard to believe that “we” can’t fix problems in education or the legal systems, but “we” can send people to the moon. Both songs also take a broad-stroke approach to making that point, casting government, those in power, or simply an uncaring attitude as “Whitey”, without regard to the gradations between the individuals who run government or between individual attitudes. Given the overall body of work of both artists, however, this monolithic view of “Whitey” can be viewed as a call to those who are “downtrodden” to work harder to improve their situations. The pieces seem to say, “When the circumstances on the moon or in other countries take precedence over your struggle, then it’s a sign that you should be taking action to bring an end to that struggle.” At the end of the day, I enjoyed Ise Lyfe’s homage to Scott-Heron, and he should certainly continue to employ the elements from the elder wordsmith that aid him in honing his craft.
Where Ise Lyfe is truly unique, though, is in his ability to describe scenarios of conflict and inner turmoil through his narrative verse. Not to sound too reductive, but there are some redundant themes in poetry slams and poetry readings, as you might notice from having watched HBO’s Def Poetry Jam. There’s the “revolutionary poem” that presents a call to action or a warning against being hoodwinked by the powers that be. “Open your eyes”, the poem will tell you, often accompanied by a smart play on words. Public Enemy’s Louder Than a Bomb isn’t a spoken word piece, but one of Chuck D.‘s lines in the song makes my point: “Your C-I-A, you see I ain’t kiddin’ / Both King and X, they got rid of both”.
Another popular performance poem is the “crime doesn’t pay” poem, wherein the performer extols the virtues of staying away from drugs, crime, or jail. These poems might come in the form of a tragic story in which the protagonist meets a bitter end or lands himself (it’s usually a male) in the slammer. A third popular poem is the “good-for-nothin’ man” poem, which can be a crowd pleaser when female performers discuss the sad state of affairs in the dating world, but is even more of a favorite when men sound-off on other males who don’t take responsibility for their lives, don’t have jobs, don’t take care of their children, or don’t do other things that now form the stereotypical image of the shiftless black male. Okay, so maybe I’m a little bitter about that last category.
Ise Lyfe has the “revolutionary poem” down to a science. While there’s little in his revolutionary pieces that would shock or surprise you, his skill is strong enough to warn against tossing those pieces aside. At the same time, he excels in his storytelling, as he did on Spread the Word, particularly when the protagonists are women. In “Thigh Bone”, featuring Zion-I, and “Get Off the Corner”, Ise Lyfe breathes dimension into his portrayals of atypical women who don’t fit the usual female parameters set by rap videos or even the still-too-flat depictions of women on television.
“Get Off the Corner” is a highlight, demonstrating not only his ability to bring the portrait to life, but also to convey the fact that he cares. Too often, songs about women involved in the hard knock life carry a tune of being judgmental and contemptuous. On 1989’s Walking with a Panther, LL Cool J had a short rap called “Fast Peg” about a woman who gets caught up in a violent world that was far beyond her control. It doesn’t end well, as LL sums it up rather coldly, “She had to pay for her man’s mistakes / They shot her in the head…that’s the breaks.” Brand Nubian’s 1990 song, “Slow Down”, showed no mercy for the plight of the sexually and socially fast woman. Over a sample of Edie Brickell & the New Bohemians’ “What I Am”, Brand Nubian claimed this woman’s mission was to “take all you can from a man and scram”. They weren’t worried about her psychological welfare. They called her a “dumb b*tch”.
Even songs that offer sympathy, like Ludacris’ “Runaway Love”, tend to set the scene from the outside rather than from the more tender position of an insider. Ise Lyfe does this in “Get Off the Corner” and “Greatest Problem Ever”, and he does it with ease. He even gets away with singing in “Luv War Metaphor”, a pop-ish tune in which Ise Lyfe laments, “You don’t love me / you love me loving you”. Prince Cometh convinces me that he’s better at recognizing and outlining acute psychological dilemmas, especially where love and gender are involved, than he is at being revolutionary or self-consciously “conscious”, and that’s where he will create a place of his own among his contemporaries.
Since Ise Lyfe enjoys telling stories on his albums, I think his career is blossoming into an intriguing story in its own right. It’s the story of a gifted spoken-word artist who develops and hones his poetry and his skills as an emcee to become a revered hip-hop artist. Prince Cometh is only one scene in that story.