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Amad-Jamal

Barely Hangin On: The Chronicles of a Brotha Like Rodney King

(Urban Umpires; US: 13 Jul 2010; UK: Import)

Mixed bag of mostly familiar hip-hop moves

L.A. rapper Amad-Jamal namedrops Rodney King in the subtitle of this debut CD, but it’s pretty hard to see why. Apart from the fact that they are both black men living in the same city, King and Jamal share no obvious connection. Considering the trauma that King had to live through—beaten by white police officers while lying prone on the ground—it’s questionable for a rapper to try to gain street cred by co-opting another man’s spilled blood. Heck, it’s more than questionable, it’s downright offensive.


That aside, there’s a mixed bag of tunes to be found within Barely Hangin On: The Chronicle of a Brotha Like Rodney King. There are a good few head-nodding tunes to be found here, guest stars both inspired and lackadaisical, and spoken-word interludes that add little or nothing. On balance, it’s mostly pedestrian, with some definite highlights.


The album opens with a snatch of a John Lennon interview—go figure—in which he makes his well-known comment about “so-called reality”, then moves swiftly to one of the album’s standout cuts. “We” rumbles along on a swooping bassline, intricate synths, and attitude-heavy lyrics. Unfortunately, the momentum from this song is immediately sapped by the long “comic” intro to the next, bewilderingly entitled—wait for it—“Rodney King”. This mid-tempo tune is diverting enough, but its connection to Mr King is tenuous to say the least.


Dilated Peoples show up for “Believe That”, the best track on the album, built around a jagged keyboard riff that justifies every second of its four-and-a-half minutes. At the other end of the useful-guest-or-not spectrum, Doc One sleepwalks through “The Pros” with its yawn-inducing boasts of coolness beyond measure. The same tired lyrical content mars “Regardless”.


Every time the listener’s expectations start dropping, Amad-Jamal manages to throw something unexpected into the mix. “Beautiful Hardcore” steps up with an unexpected sonic palette comprised of howling guitar distortion and thudding drums, while “Hood Tales” weaves tinkling keyboards and synths into a delicate bed supporting a grim story of betrayal and double-cross. “Stop Clownin’ Around” is a formulaic recital of hard knocks in the hood, elevated by lovely vocals from Maaya Ota, aka Lady Dragon. In “Goin’ Postal”, Amad-Jamal plays the role of a young black executive made a scapegoat for the company’s failures; after he’s fired, he terrorizes his former supervisor in a street mugging. These songs display glimmers of something far more interesting than the standard hip-hop posing, which unfortunately crops up too much elsewhere.


Samples from TV shows and movies add nothing to the disc and serve only to break up the flow. It’s tough to know what the point is here. Is the listener expected to recognize the Traffic reference, allowing him or her to smugly bask in hip pop-culture awareness? Or is the public memory so short these days that a few snippets of dialogue from a ten-year-old movie will pass unrecognized? Either way, these interludes come off as filler, and annoying filler at that. This isn’t the only record to suffer from them, of course. They’re a plague that hip-hop albums would do well to vaccinate against.

Rating:

DAVID MAINE is a novelist and essayist. His books include The Preservationist (2004), Fallen (2005), The Book of Samson (2006), Monster, 1959 (2008) and An Age of Madness (2012). He has contributed to The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Esquire.com and NPR.com, among other outlets. He is a lifelong music obsessive whose interests range from rock to folk to hip-hop to international to blues. He currently lives in western Massachusetts, where he works in human services. Catch up with his blog, The Party Never Stops, at davidmaine.blogspot.com, or become his buddy on Facebook (or Twitter or Google+ or whatever you prefer) to keep up with reviews and other developments.


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