Brand Nubian are a throwback of sorts to hip-hop’s so-called “golden age”, the halcyon era of the late ‘80s. The same era that gave birth to Public Enemy, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Boogie Down Productions and N.W.A. also gave birth to Brand Nubian. Of course, looking back with 15-odd years’ hindsight, we are sad to see that the almost-utopian optimism of De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, to say nothing of the rigorous political ferocity of Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions, was all eventually overrun by the nascent nihilism of N.W.A. Looking over the annals of ‘90s hip-hop, its hard to find a single popular MC who didn’t fit the loose template hammered out in Straight Out of Compton. Certainly, Tupac, Biggie, Nas, Jay-Z, Eminem and most other multi-platinum rappers all owe their careers to that group’s singular mixture of violence, outrage and satire. (Of course, it goes without saying that many of the MCs to follow in Eazy-E, Ice Cube and Co.‘s footsteps failed to comprehend even the loose and flimsy satire of N.W.A., and successfully built careers atop a straight-ahead regurgitation of N.W.A.‘s unabashedly unpleasant gangsta fantasies.)
Brand Nubian, much like De La Soul and Public Enemy, seem like anachronistic artifacts in our modern, jaded era. The political and spiritual righteousness that once fueled their 5% Nation of Islam-influenced polemics seem almost quaint in an era where nihilistic materialism, misogyny and greed are the status quo even with some of our best rappers. Quite frankly, we are in desperate need of someone in the hip-hop nation to stand up and be a grown-up, to speak with the force of experience and conviction and condemn the false virtues of the material world. Unfortunately, if you were hoping that a resurrected Brand Nubian—composed once again of all three founders Lord Jamar, Sadat X and Grand Puba—might be just the group to deliver this Jeremiad, Fire in the Hole will come as a strong disappointment. There are some strong moments, as well as some keen production by Lord Jamar, but on the whole this album presents itself very much as you would expect a reunion album from a fifteen-plus year outfit to sound like: limpid.
The album kicks off with “Who Wanna Be a Star (It’s Brand Nu Baby)”, an archetypal example of the “we’re still alive” reunion track. They touch on a number of social issues such as prostitution and poverty (while unfortunately glossing over homophobia with their free use of “faggot”), all the while deriding those who seek out life in the fast lane at the expense of a sensible spiritual outlook. The song has the recurring hook of “it’s brand Nu, baby”—the implication being, perhaps, that the resurrection of Brand Nubian is an event of such overwhelming importance as to shed a new light on these familiar problems.
One of the album’s highlights is “Young Son”, built atop a looped hook from Cat Steven’s “The Hurt”, off 1973’s Foreigner. Of course there is some significance to the appropriation of Steven’s work, considering that Brand Nubian share their religion with the erstwhile Cat Stevens and current Yusef Islam. It’s a fairly typical cautionary tale on the limitations of inner-city violence, but it gains its strength not from any searing lyrical incision but Jamar’s hard production.
The rest of the album, while hardly bad, commits the worst cardinal sin that a rap album—nay, any album—can possibly commit: it’s just kinda boring. The lyrics just aren’t very sharp, and the production, while strong in places (such as the aforementioned “Young Son” and “Still Livin’ in the Ghetto”) isn’t enough to keep the momentum strong.
Oddly, the album gains its most firm footing with its final track, “Soldier’s Story”. It’s an aggressive, military-themed track that makes the familiar comparison of inner-city life to a military combat zone, but more than that it has a thrust and contemporary feel that is mostly missing from the rest of the album. Considering current events, the fact that international war and the threat of Islamic fundamentalism are almost absent from Fire in the Hole is curious. The echoes of war which inform “Soldier’s Story” offer a tantalizing glimpse of the much more satisfying album that could have been.