Remember “Self Destruction”, the group posse cut to rid the black community of violence? The hook was: “Self Destruction; we’re headed for self destruction.” How long has it been since then? Five, ten, 15 years now? Everyone, me and Sam Cooke included, is still waiting for that change to come. The ghetto… still impoverished. Middle-class America’s fascination with a rap’s ghetto nihilism… still profitable. But now that Kanye (and Common too) have made self-consciousness palpable for the masses, records espousing consciousness are the rage. This is just such a record, though not as commercially viable, but a poignant narrative delivered in the tradition of the “modern day urban Norman Rockwell, who paints pictures of his spot well” (stolen from a fellow Rhymesayer artist).
I Self Divine fronts Micranots, is one-half of Semi.Official, helped establish The Dynospectrum, and is on the Rhymesayers roster, which has nurtured some of the underground’s best lyricists you’ve never heard of (including Brother Ali, Slug, and more). Minneapolis is sitting on a lot of talent. While I can’t profess to laud the skills of every artist, this one, I Self Divine, etches vivid portraits: “White chalk on the ground where you might walk/ Street gangs get it popping when the lights off,” sounding off from the ice cold streets of the Midwest.
“This Is It” is Divine’s introduction, a straight outta the Midwest crazy nigga wit that rap attitude and a flow resembling Memphis Bleek. It’s a percussive number belonging to Jake One, who also crafts the stuttering staccato of “Ice Cold” and sinister bounce of “Everyday Shit”. Ant, Vitamin D, and Bean One round out the producers, keeping Self Destruction soulful, as in Vitamin D’s “Sex Sex Sex” or “Live in the Moment”.
Pardon my ignorance, but Minneapolis, a city that (for me) creates only middle class mental pictures, comes off as harder than expected. Bullets tear through these tracks. Police brutality has taken its toll. Racial tensions run high. Divine makes it seem like the stench of racism still masks democracy’s sweet fragrance where he’s from. Spike Lee’s Malcolm X was on last night. He still dies in the end. By any means necessary is still jump, run, steal and now rap your way to the top. That forward progress of the ‘60s, it’s on hold. Malcolm’s death, Medger Evans, MLK Jr.; what was it all worth if white kids, now raised within earshot of the ghetto by pimps and thugs, fling the term nigga around? I mean, as Q-tip said it in “Sucka Nigga”: “A whole bunch of niggas throw the word in they rhyme.”
So there’s “N-I-G-G-A”, a hidden track tacked onto the end of “Sunshine” to explain it. Divine breaks down the word’s post-modern reconstruction (“Say it with an a it sounds lovely to the ear/ With an hard ‘er’, you might get stomped in ER”), wrestles with his own experiences (switched schools after an altercation with some whites who used the word), his desire to use it as a term of endearment (as in “what up my nigga!”), and the rules of who can and who can’t say it (never right for whites). What we get is a deft examination of the racial ambiguities created by the multicultural world of hip-hop, a story that revisits an uglier time in American history, a story that continues to affect today.
The struggle continues; no song alone can change that. Divine picks at America’s unsightly wound, exposing the wounds of racism and slavery 400 odd years later. There are few new developments. The only constant is the struggle, the hustle and flow of ghetto life told without compromise. If these familiar stories have been known to move you, join the march. We shall overcome, first, in the music and then in the street… one day.
// Notes from the Road
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