Lavell Crump is a very, very, very angry young black man. He grew up in Mississippi, which he both loves and hates—loves because of the people he grew up with, and because it’s been so disrespected by outsiders; hates because of the institutional racism and educational neglect that have flourished there for years. He graduated from college there, and began graduate work, but the rage that had built inside him for all those years had to find a way to get out, before it tore him apart.
So he turned into a superhero named David Banner. Or maybe a supervillain named David Banner. No one is quite sure right now, especially David Banner himself.
Under this name, he is half of the group called Crooked Lettaz, and a solo artist with four albums out in the last few months: Mississippi: The Album and this one, and screwed and chopped versions of both. (The S&C take on MTA1 was one of my top 10 in 2003, just so you know.) That’s a lot of tracks, yo, and it’s not maybe very surprising that MTA2 isn’t as immediately accessible as the last one; it doesn’t have anything that sticks in the guts like “Cadillac on 22s” and there’s no straight-up political tracks like “Bush” here. One would have to be pretty hard-up to call Banner “cuddly” or anything, but this is a colder, harder, less-lovable DB this time around.
But that works, on Banner’s terms and on mine, as long as you adhere to certain caveats. One: don’t expect a one-to-one correlation between smart analyses of economic and racial situations and tracks that bark commands at strippers. This is a record that is as likely to talk about dragging some bitch out his mama’s house and stabbing that ho in the face as it is to break down the economic roots of crime or to ask Jesus for help in not going insane. This is a record where the most heartbreaking sonic moment comes at the end of a song called “Pop That”, when lovely, sad acoustic strums come in to escort in the chant “Pop that thing girl, pop pop pop that thing girl” like the Blue fuckin’ Angels.
I love it, in short, but I don’t always feel good about it. Banner is still in full Tourette’s Syndrome mode, blurting out “suck a dick” and “bitch” and “nigga” at every available opportunity, and his views about women are somewhat less enlightened than those of the Taliban and/or Ann Coulter. Banner being Banner, he offers us some clues about this, something about how when his Michelle died he stopped giving a fuck about a ho, but I’m not sure I buy this at all.
What I do buy is that Lavell Crump is working out all his demons in front of us, giving us the good and the bad all together, a mean-mouthed mad Mississippi Manichean. He’s putting himself out there, the same way L.L. and Common used to, the same way Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash are said to, the same way Joni Mitchell thought she did, the same way Thom Yorke and Beck think they do. Banner is even more fascinating than any of them, because he really doesn’t know if he deserves the love and respect of his audience. He’s in pain, as he tells us on song after song, for all kinds of reasons; he doesn’t give a fuck, as he also tells us on song after song. Most times, those songs overlap. It’s kind of thrilling.
Who is the real David Banner? Is it the one who goes out to kill and rob so his kid can have a visit from Santa Claus, as he hints on “The Christmas Song”—melody from “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” justification from Marx and Guevara and Baraka (“It’s Christmas time again / And we ain’t got no job / We fill out applications / But they treat us like we’re slobs / So we ROB / And we STEAL / I’m just trying to get a meal / Cause it’s Christmas time, and we’re broke again”)? Is it the one who says he’s the son of a dead slave, thereby tapping into some Jean Toomer shit? Is it the one who just wants to party with Nelly in a hard-rock way on the remix of “Air Force Ones”? We may never know, because Banner himself doesn’t know, but the search for the answer is what this record is, maybe, all about.
Actually, that’s not true. What MTA2 is all about is the grooves, the song-constructions, the rock-solid songcraft that Banner is capable of. He’s got so many musical ideas per track that it’s just scary. The sheer beauty of “My Lord” cannot really be explained, so I shan’t even try. The scraping factory sounds of “Talk to Me” do more than just back up Banner and Lil’ Flip’s barky “Lay it down, motherfucker! / Lay it down, you bitch” chorus—they disorient us, throw our heads out of joint. Even when Banner invites outside producers like Mannie Fresh and Domo and Young Sears and Cyber Sapp into his world, they all end up sounding like Banner disciples. (Better qualify that: Domo is God, and Cyber isn’t far behind. Shee-IT the beats for “The Game” and “We Ride Them Caddies” are smooth like TCBY. And the way Young Sears throws funky-ass P.Funk breaks into “Crank It Up” makes me jump up and down no matter where I am or what I’m doing.)
Another testament to Banner is how well the many MANY guests flow in this record. Scarface and T.I. and Bonecrusher and Nelly all slot right in; Twista and Busta Rhymes bookending Banner on the remix of “Like a Pimp” like they’re on some Chariots of the Gods trip; a whole lot of Marcus. (sic) and Sky all over; ah it’s just sublime.
This is not a record for those who are already convinced that crunk is evil, that Slug is the greatest MC of all time, or that rap has been dead since ATCQ broke up. This is a record for party people who don’t mind two-minute explications of the title metaphor from a broken-sounding Henny-sipping gut-shot-coughing Mississippi boy with a definite God/devil complex. This is a record that I play every time I have to get something done. This is a record by someone who doesn’t know if he’s a superhero or a supervillain, or maybe both at once. If that doesn’t sound too difficult, you might get something out of this-all.