The Hustle or the Flow?
Hip-Hop is not dead but alive and well and working on projects with a lot less bling.
—me, with all apologies to the popular quotation that “God is not dead but alive and well and working on a much less ambitious project.
If you were so inclined, you could summarize Kia Shine’s Due Season as the work of yet another rapper from the southern United States (Memphis, Tennessee—the land of hustlin’ and flowin’—to be exact), and you could say the LP revels in the virtues of cash, clothes, and conspicuous consumption over grinding beats that run on a minimalist diet of fuzzy synthesizers and tick-a-tick-a-tick drum programming.
You could say, “Wow,” as a long, drawn-out incredulous syllable, like the chorus of Kia Shine’s own “W.O.W.”, “this dude name-drops clothing brands more than Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown.” In fact, Shine’s first rhyme begins, “Now should I talk about my grind or should I talk about my clothes? / I don’t know, kinfolk, I guess I’ll talk about ‘em both”. When I played this for my friends, they were like, “We were sort of thinkin’ you should talk about ‘neither’,” but that’s kind of cynical and mean-spirited.
You might go on to assert that Shine’s crawling Memphis drawl might be charming, but his rhymes lack nuance, timing, internal rhyme, alliteration, and a host of other poetic devices often referred to as “skills”. Along these lines, you could survey the terrain of our beloved genre of rap music and say, “Golly gee,” because that’s what the cool people are saying these days, “Kia Shine is no T.I., Lil’ Wayne, Jay-Z, or even Young Jeezy,” and you could laugh your backside off when Shine, in “Swag Music”, claims he’s “fresher” than they are.
If you said and did those things, it would be difficult to challenge you on these points, although the devil’s advocate in me would offer a few counterarguments, such as:
1. So what if the brotha raps about his hair and his clothes? I don’t have a problem rockin’ Run DMC’s “My Adidas”, Nelly’s “Air Force Ones”, or the rest of the name-dropping rap songs released through the years. Truthfully? Okay, just between you and me, I think we provide way too many free lyrical advertisements in hip-hop. I’m not talking about when brand names are used for similes or as a clever reference. I’m talking about name-dropping in order to “floss” or present a certain status. Then, when we suspect the decision makers at these companies don’t care about hip-hop (“What do you mean I’m not the target market for your product?”), we want to complain and/or launch a boycott over a product we probably should’ve been ignoring in the first place. Remember Jay-Z’s “ban” on a certain popular alcoholic beverage last year? Maybe that beverage shouldn’t have appeared in our songs. At least not for free. But you didn’t hear that from me, so shhhhh….
Likewise, I’m not diggin’ it when Kia Shine asserts in “W.O.W.” that hip-hop isn’t dead because it bought him a chain or helped him acquire other accessories. It makes me think, “Is that what it’s all about? Is that what’s been missin’ in my world? Gettin’ a phat chain? Wearin’ loafers?” But, then again, I remember bumpin’ Sir Mix-a-lot’s “Baby Got Back”, so, um, yeah…there’s no hard and fast rule that says you have to like songs that only revolve around “serious” topics. I’m just being real with you—sometimes I want to elevate my mind (“Let’s listen to KRS-One!”) and sometimes I don’t (“I’m gonna listen to that ‘Chicken Noodle Soup’ song, I don’t care what anybody says!”). It’s true that we eventually have to put away our childish things (i.e. the assertion that my shoes, my haircuts, my sweaters, and whatever else are “fly-er” than yours), but do we have to put them away all at once? Okay, okay, I’ll do it, but at least let me see The Transformers movie first!
But, isn’t it worth noting that as long as he’s paying attention to his clothes, his general “freshness”, and the tenacity of his “grind”, Kia Shine avoids rhymes about drug use, pimping, and miscellaneous criminal activity? If you believe the hype, this should be the recipe for success. Then again, maybe it’s like that episode of The Twilight Zone where the pawnshop owner accepts a genie’s offer to make a wish, and goes on to wish for a million dollars, only to find out later he’ll have to pay back nearly the entire bundle in taxes. Counting the money he gave away like he was Nino Brown in New Jack City serving Thanksgiving meals to the community, he and his wife were left with something like five bucks. Talk about “hustlin’ backwards”! Be careful what you wish for, indeed!
Although you wouldn’t classify Kia Shine as “socially conscious” (whatever the definition for that might be these days), you could still argue the novelty of his technologically savvy verses in “Tech Game”, although it might not be apparent from a line like, “Tell me your whole name, ‘cause I’m about to Google you”. “Tech Game” is a ditty that rivals Prince’s “My Computer” (from the mammoth Emancipation set) for espousing the theory that immersion in technology will lead us into a gadget-centered utopia. Shine is also quite keen on reminding you to buy ringtones, particularly his ringtones, and references to them are scattered album-wide. “Ringtones is where all the money at”, he says in “Tech Game”, “Records ain’t sellin’ no’ mo’ out the store”. I haven’t started “twerking” with ringtones myself—back in my day, we made telephones by tying pine cones together with long pieces of twine, and we used smoke signals for call waiting—but I appreciate all of the shopping tips in Kia Shine’s song. They will come in handy during Christmas season.
In “Touch”, the idea of a man getting intimate with a woman after they “leave the club” could have gone very, very badly. It could have been too direct, too tawdry—and there are some spots where it’s exactly that, actually, and the overall theme of Shine-as-ladies man seems a bit presumptuous at times, but the execution works. As a result, it comes off as believable—to the point that I was shocked when I enjoyed it—with only a few unfortunate lines to muck things up (“She gon’ respect my sex” and “Promiscuous girl like Nelly Furtado” leading the pack). The female backing voices also help to provide balance, at least to show that Shine’s amorous intentions are mutual.
In the same manner, “She’s Serious” carries a distinct “Uptown Girl”-meets-“No Scrubs” vibe that almost elevates the sista in the song to a classy level. Never mind that the hook’s way too repetitive, with Shine constantly saying “she’s serious” and pronouncing “serious” as “seer-ious”, like he’s imitating the actress that plays Meredith Grey on Grey’s Anatomy (“Seeeer-iously, Izzy? Seeeeriously?”). And never mind that the woman in the song only seems to be out of reach to would-be suitors if they don’t have the requisite bank account to compete (“If you ain’t talkin’ ‘bout money, [the] conversation won’t last”)—she nevertheless runs her own business, has her own car, and pays for her own place to live. Wifey (yeah, she’s just called “Wifey”) makes a guest appearance to round out the song with a verse from the female point of view, a smart decision. That’s “smart” in the sense that a woman should have the opportunity to speak for herself, not in the sense of lyrical precision. So you see, Shine is at least trying to say something positive. I realize the songs aren’t the tightest you’ll hear this year, but effort should count for something, shouldn’t it?
2. So what if a “brotha” can’t “spit” (ugh, how I hate that term) like T.I., Wayne, Jeezy, or Jay? So what if the guest spot by Jim Jones on “I Be Everywhere” blows Shine clean out of the water? So what if you thank your lucky stars that MJG and 8 Ball lent Shine some help in “Bluff City Classic”?
See, what had happened was, y’all didn’t notice that the brotha said he was the “freshest” emcee, not the “best” or even the “greatest” emcee. If, and I stress if, we extend “fresh” and “fly” to include more than one’s emcee skills (like, for instance, having a “fresh” wardrobe or, I don’t know, being really good at Scrabble), then Kia Shine could very well be “fresh” or (cough) the “freshest”. Whatever you think of all that, it must be noted that “Pre Season”, “Bluff City Classic”, and “Swag Music” feature Shine’s strongest vocal turns on the M-I to the C, and this couplet right here is my favorite on the C to the D (strangely enough, considering the content):
Fuck a critic who critique[s] how I spit it, ‘cause
Y’all’ll never get it, ‘cause y’all ain’t who I spit it fuh [for]
That was actually kinda dope. As a side note, one of the things I love about hip-hop is the whole “not giving a fuck” attitude, so it strikes me as odd when rappers show that they actually do give a fuck by incorporating critic-hating lyrics in their songs. I’m probably biased on this point, but it seems like “critics” are too soft to be challenging targets for those who are raw and streetwise. What’s more, why acknowledge the excess hate on your own album? You’re the one with the record deal; ignore the “haters” and concentrate on the art. Word. And that’s one to grow on.
3. So what if a brotha’s beats have “fuzzy synthesizers” and “tick-a-tick-a-tick” drum programming? Who doesn’t like synthesizers and beats? What the hell is a “fuzzy” synthesizer? Plus, such narrow reduction fails to embrace the album’s musical highlights, of which there are a few, such as: “Krispy”‘s Neptunes-like pop-hop (think “Grindin’” or Redman’s “Freestyle Freestyle”) coupled with a sample of Beastie Boys’ “Paul Revere”; the watery guitar sound that lays a bluesy backbone for Shine’s anthem “Respect My Fresh” (that title is also his favorite catchphrase); the sample of Teddy Pendergrass’s “Love T.K.O.” in “Bluff City Classic”; and the sing-song-y refrain from Corey Hart’s “Sunglasses at Night” in “Stunna Frames” (except it’s “I wear my stun-glasses at night”, which is just so much fun I couldn’t help but sing along—sorry, Corey, I bet you never thought your line would end up getting twisted in a song like this, but…*shrug*…tough break, son).
Of course, you could counter my counterargument by pointing out the jacking of Tupac’s “Just Like Daddy” chorus for “Holla at Ya Kin Folk”, but, of all the hijacking of Tupac and Biggie, I’d have to say I’m still more upset by Jay-Z’s “Bonnie & Clyde” takeover of Pac’s “Me & My Girlfriend”. I realize, however, that I’m biased about Tupac/Makaveli, so I’ll let it go (“I ain’t a killer but don’t push me…”).
Even with my devil’s advocacy properly entered into the mix, we can still say Due Season is lyrically weak and monotonous in production value. But doesn’t that miss the point entirely? Some would love to declare that a release like Due Season (or Due Season itself) is the poster album for “crap rap”. They would pinpoint southern crunk (substitute “snap music” and “trap music” for “crunk”, if you want) as the source of hip-hop’s decline. But, oh come on, that’s such an exaggeration. Moreover, such declarations totally ignore what I think Kia Shine’s goal is here.
Look. He’s not trying to be the best rapper (“I ain’t tryin’ to be lyrical”, he admits in “Swag Music”). He’s not trying to create the dopest beats. That’s not his story. Rather, Kia Shine stands behind his “grind”, and while you might think, “He can’t be for real when he says he’s ‘krispy like a two-piece outta Popeye’s’”, he’s quite “seer-ious” when it comes to spotlighting his hustle. And that, my dear hip-hop lovers, is what we should take from Due Season—the legwork behind it, if not the rhymes and the beats at the forefront.
In the final song, the title track, Shine details the ups and downs of his life—from meager beginnings to the illness that ended his college basketball career, and from an unfulfilling stint in the corporate world to his subsequent period of financial ruin. His decision to get serious about a music career didn’t immediately put him where he wanted to be. At one point, he lost his house, his car, and his friends, and then he struggled to climb out of his financial and social abyss. He credits his wife with sticking by him during these tough times (see also “Holla at Ya Kin Folk”) and praises the Lord for delivering him through his troubled waters.
Musically and artistically, the title track is compelling. It’s real talk, a variation on the old “If at first you don’t succeed…” adage, filled with the raw emotion that’s missing from the album’s fresh and fly themes. The best part isn’t even the rapping; it’s the post-rap adlib, when he’s just telling his story without the artificiality of a rhyme scheme. His voice speeds up with excitement, gets gruff with emotion, and becomes choked with memories and indignation. It’s like he’s thinking, “Wait ‘til they hear the good part, they ain’t gonna believe this!” Do more of this, I say, even if you’re just talking over a beat, because that latter portion of “Due Season” easily provided the album’s most captivating and visceral moments.
Due Season wasn’t intended as an aesthetic statement. We knew that the moment we heard “Krispy”. It’s a testament to old-fashioned sweat, patience, and perseverance. Indirectly, it’s a reminder that we don’t always know a person’s story when we meet them or, in this case, hear them. It’s a lesson that who we are today is shaped, at least partially, by where we’ve been.
In the final analysis, I suppose someone could say, “Get real. You’re just trying to justify the hour and 20 minutes of your life you spent listening to this album.” I can dig that. Maybe there’s some truth in it. You don’t have to love the music; there’s a strong possibility you won’t. But if we’re going to spend time checking it out, we might as well appreciate the energy it took to get it made, if only to encourage the artist to dig deeper and reveal more of what really makes him tick.
// Notes from the Road
"On release day for their latest Big Mess, Grouplove packed Baby's in Brooklyn for a sweaty show.READ the article