The coolest thing in the history of the world is the fact that September 16 of last year was “Nappy Roots Day” in the commonwealth of Kentucky. I mean, is your governor that cool, to name a state day after a rap group? The publicity materials state that their first album, Watermelon, Chicken & Grits was the biggest-selling hip-hop record of 2002, which surprised me quite a bit—but there it is, and I’m sure Atlantic wouldn’t say it if it wasn’t true. But it stretches incredulity: this six-man crew who met at Western Kentucky University, unabashedly South-o-centric, rhyming together in various configurations, relatively conscious but not obnoxiously so, no big chart hits but not “difficult” in the least, had The Biggest-Selling Hip-Hop Record of 2002? Truly, we are living in wonderful times.
So for their follow-up, they select a new theme: wood and leather, two organic materials that are everywhere you look but are largely taken for granted. These materials pop up on several of the songs here, but its main concept is something else entirely: “Being Nappy Roots, and How We’re Dealing With That.” Their attack is sharper now, their rhymes are tighter, their beats are fresher, and they have a much wider palette of subjects now that they’ve “been around the world from Monday to Sunday”—all in all, this seems tailor-made for just about everyone’s top 10 of the year.
But it won’t end up on mine, because the one thing Wooden Leather is missing is the one thing I personally need most in rap right now. Let’s talk about it at the end, though, because first I want to talk about the moments that I love on this record, which number in the hundreds.
First off, let’s take on the idea of this kind of rapping still being around in the present day. There are no extended monologue-type things with Nappy Roots: it’s all about the tradeoffs. Neo-trad groups like Jurassic Five had effectively killed this format by being dull and having huge gaps between the ones who really can rap and the ones who seem like hanger-on tertiary posse members. But all the members of Nappy Roots can hold their own, and none of them seems to have much ego about his place in the group. It’s a collective, each one with his own way of rocking the microphone and seeing the world: “One of ‘em’s fat and loud / Second one’s black and proud / Third one’s drunk and wild / Fourth one’s slim and sly / One of ‘em’s just shy / Last one young and wise / Home-grown, battle-tested / You gon’ love these guys” is a pretty fair assessment of the situation.
Their interplay is something special. Check the beginning of “Light & Dark”, where each member kicks his own spoken-word piece about what music means to him simultaneously, before Organic’s fat electrofunk beat drops in and they start starting and ending each other’s lines, spinning off from each other into their own tangents in the complicated choruses, different vocal styles conflicting and contrasting and complimenting each other. And if I can’t tell which one is rapping at any one time, who really cares? I mean, a collective personality is just as potent as a mix of six different ones, right?
Well, yeah, it can be, and here it really is. On the country blues piece “Sick and Tired” (damned if Freddie Mac McIntosh isn’t the next genius of hip-hop) there is a crucial call-and-response that shows how this works:
Man I’m sick and tired of runnin’ and duckin’ (Quit runnin’, then!)
Specially when I ain’t did nothin’ (Do something, then!)
Out here in these cold streets hustlin’ (Po’!)
Tryin’ to make this dough (Dough!)
Before the po-lice bust me in (Whoa!)
In a simple back and forth dialectic, they get to have their cake (thug narrative) and eat it too (critique of the lifestyle involved). Nappy Roots are out on a polyphonic spree indeed, circling vocal lines undercutting what needs to be undercut and emphasizing what would otherwise be lost.
Fear not, the songs never sink into the sad indie miasma, thanks to the guest producers. We’ve got David Banner busting up “Nappy Roots Day” (which starts with that announcement by the governor on September 16) with a sad minor progression and a sped-up sample from the Bee Gee’s “Holiday”. Banner returns later in the record to knock shit out with the heavy metal thrash of “War/Peace”, featuring McIntosh on guitar and bass and some truly tweaked lyrics from the group: “I got a telegram / From a pelican / Said in the clouds last night / She got higher than she’s ever been / Seen shuttles and huddles, hard rocks and war bombs / Eerie lights fireworks and distorted sounds”. Man, Banner’s legacy looms large in the world of rap right now, and it’s all been this year, just about.
And there’s the Lil Jon party track “What Cha Gonna Do? (The Anthem)” with its crunky horns and its stylistic similarities to—well, to every single other thing Lil Jon ever does. But it still sounds dope, as do the two Raphael Saadiq-produced tracks in a row, and the Mike City pieces, and the very subtle reggae-blues track called “These Walls” put together by Kanye West, and the wah-wah psychedelia of “Good God Almighty”, and what am I forgetting? Oh, some other stuff. There are a lot of producers.
Nappy Roots have the ability to blend in with all their producers, to alter and adapt their vocal styles and song subjects to whatever track is on at the moment. They go soulful on “Push On” because they have great soul singer Anthony Hamilton watching their backs; then, when Troy Johnson comes in with his pimped-out minimalism for “Lac Dogs & Hogs”, they focus their energy on talking about their big cars and what they have on them and how much gas they need to operate these huge beasts. Any group that can do soulful hustling tunes and car songs and songs about getting it on with fine-ass southern women (“Twang”, which features the classic image of pants so tight that you can tell she doesn’t have anything in her pockets) is okay by me.
But for all that, there is one significant flaw: I don’t mind that no one in the group seems to have a breakout personality—after all, Wu-Tang started to go downhill the second they started to fight over who got more airtime, didn’t they? But what I do mind is that no one seems to have much of a sense of humor. The opening and closing skits are pretty funny, but none of the songs are, y’know, fun. And I need that in my music, I really do, I need it now more than ever. I’d rather listen to people who really aren’t as good on the microphone, people who have bad intentions and no morals, as long as those people have fun.
For example, Nappy Roots and Mike City work up a hell of a groove on “‘Roun’ the Globe”, which has some seriously fun handclaps and a warm and fuzzy notion that “The whole damn world’s country”—but they don’t sound like their trips around the world have made them happy at all. The best line in the song is “Never had a glass of purple juice for breakfast / Till I took my ass to Houston Texas”, which is great, but it’s delivered with such a furrowed brow that it’s just dreary. And all the polyphonic interaction and funky production work and intelligent soulful rhymes in the world can’t save you if you are allergic to fun.
I want you to hear this record, because you’re really not going to experience many more interesting and listenable things in the world of popular music right now. But you better have some Ying Yang Twins or Junior Senior on hand, because you’re gonna need a pennysworth of fun to go along with your nickelbag of funk.