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Good news is in short supply these days; bad news is pervasive. No news topic is too taboo on The Daily News, the remarkable follow-up to Donnie’s debut, The Colored Section (2002). A dry-eyed realism shapes this material. Though Donnie’s observations are as sharp and disturbing as the barbed wire pictured in the accompanying booklet, he makes listening to the not-so-good news palatable. Underneath much of the thematically chilling and infuriating subject matter are soulful grooves akin to a night at the Apollo, which is why The Daily News is so special: it expands your consciousness without proselytizing and sets your body in motion.
Is Donnie a humanitarian first, musician second, or vice versa? With these twelve songs (and one bonus track), the two roles are inextricably intertwined. Donnie sings for those whose voices are not heard or need to be heard louder, whether on “China Doll”, a blood-curling tale about the psychological effects of pedophilia on victims, or “Over-the-Counter Culture”, a biting commentary on how pharmaceutical companies feed a culture of addiction and dependency. In the latter, his character peers behind the scrim that promises a cure for every condition. The anger is palpable:
They got a pill for my erection
And another for my depression
And I can taste in my dinner
With your artificial flavor
You be doin’ it undercover
An invisible chemical war
So you don’t ever be breaking no law
In an over-the-counter culture
In fact, Donnie shifts in and out of character on many of the tracks to make sure his messages are heard loud and clear, a courageous move considering that some of the characters he embodies in the songs represent society’s ills. “I’d trade the World Trade to spend some time with you babe / I’d trade my racism, my sexism, my homophobia / I’d trade my funny ways / My financial center / It’s gonna be a cold and lonely winter without you babe”, he sings on “911”. Here, Donnie turns the mirror on his listeners, putting prejudice in proper perspective and illustrating how those flawed beliefs falter in the grand scheme of life. The call for tolerance and acceptance of others is so fundamentally important that it warrants a “911” emergency. Of course, if one reads “911” as “nine-eleven”, the title also references the World Trade Center attacks from September 11, 2001. By enjoining the two meanings, Donnie both speaks to his audience (“911 / Oh let’s come together / Come one come all) and represents his audience (the verse quoted above).
Donnie also plays the role of commentator. “The Atlanta Child Murders”, for example, documents the controversial, double life-sentence of Wayne Williams, a man who allegedly killed nearly two dozen children in Atlanta between 1979 and 1981. Opinion has shifted over the years suggesting that Williams was really a scapegoat (or “political prisoner”) and innocent of committing the murders. Issues of race boiled to the fore when Charles T. Sanders, a white supremacist and member of the Ku Klux Klan, reportedly praised the murders in a taped conversation from 1981 with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. Sanders said that the killer of these children – all of them black – had “wiped out a thousand future generations of niggers”. (Sanders passed a lie detector test for having any involvement with the crimes, which halted further investigation of his or the KKK’s possible involvement in the murders.) That Donnie is able to work the essence of the case into a song, even reciting the victim’s names, speaks to his deft rhythmic skills and creative phrasing, as well as Steve Harvey’s superb production.
Donnie, who took something of a self-imposed exile after his first album, also turns inward. Despite its provocative title, “Suicide” is really a celebration of life. His brave, autobiographical look at life on the precipice of death is explained with a club track and a lilting flute solo by Louis Van Taylor: “Suicide / Makes the Karma bad / For the one who gets / Your soul next / When you die”, he sings over a bouncing beat-per-minute count. Likewise, “Robot” is like an electro-soul translation of The Stepford Wives (1975), where Donnie feels programmed by the questionable mores of society: “There’s somebody inside of me / That be the body I want to be / Get your dirty hand off of me / I got every right to be free”.
The Daily News is not an easy listen but it is a rewarding listen. While some songs will inevitably become a time capsule of the early 21st century (“Impatient People”, for instance, references Hurricane Katrina), the lessons learned from them will be forever applicable, no matter what generation happens to hear them. Hopefully, The Daily News will also serve as an educational tool in the classroom, where students can fit each song into its social context. For the time being, do yourself a favor and pick up your copy of The Daily News. Look at yourself and the world around you while you listen. Dare, as Donnie implores on “If I Were You”, to make a change.