The first that you’ll read about Northern State in just about any review are their stats—these are three 20-something women who are from Long Island, college-educated, and white. This tidbit gets plugged over and over, I’m hypothesizing, because Northern State are a rap group. Despite De La Soul and Public Enemy, Long Island is hardly a hip-hop hotbed; for some reason, education is assumed to be unnecessary to write a rhyme; and notwithstanding the über-success of Eminem, in this genre, you’re not down unless you’re brown.
So what? The media machine being what it is, the Northern State craze is due, at least in part, to their novelty. This is both an advantage and a disadvantage. Advantage because if what they do is just mediocre, Northern State have automatic access to publicity that black artists just don’t have, even if they’re twice as good. (Case in point: these girls got written up in Rolling Stone before they even had an album pressed—when was the last time that happened to a black rap group?) The disadvantage comes in the same turn—even if what they do is stellar, they have to work twice as hard to prove that their race and their gender don’t instantly cast them as a joke.
So there’s a lot riding on this little EP and the fledgling group that produced it. Dying in Stereo is more than just a debut—it’s also a litmus test for the status quo, a preamble to a potentially transgressive, or regressive, historical moment. What will happen to white, female, feminist rappers, who aren’t pencil-thin or supermodel pretty? How will their talent be judged? What will happen if they make it? What will happen if they don’t?
What Dying in Stereo is—beyond these lofty expectations—is an album of clever, old skool-inspired raps. It’s like taking hip-hop of the early ‘80s and jettisoning it into the now: update the metaphors, the references, and the technology but not the beats, the flows, or the vocal stylings. This, too, has its advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, the album, it listens like a welcome change—finally, hip-hop not bored by the now-standard beats of Neptunes or Timbaland, the shout-outs to top designers or sexual favors. At the same time, this blast from the past doesn’t do anything to help Northern State transgress the label of gimmick, nor does it necessarily innovate on the hard work currently being done by other underground hip-hop acts.
Wrested from this context, however, Dying is undoubtedly fun, and occasionally fierce. Strongest among the album’s eight tracks are “At the Party”, a scratchy, hand-clappy jam that will prove to you almost instantly why Northern State gets doused with Beastie Boys/Paul’s Boutique references. (Check the refrain: “You can pop the cork / Say, you can twist the cap / I’m at this party and I’m here to rap.”) “Vicious Cycle”, one of the more sober songs on the album, takes on the issues of youthful ennui, capitalism, being a woman, and wack Republican politics. The title track, “Dying in Stereo”, is the album’s most complex, riddled with samples and loops, guest vocals, toned-down, more sultry deliveries, and less overtly comical rhymes.
In the spirit of the hip-hop forbearers, Northern State namecheck themselves in nearly every song. But more than paying homage to rap’s historical currency, this act is also about the trio’s own legitimation. Over and over again, Northern State is asking you to take them seriously. Will you or won’t you? And if you don’t, will it be because of who they are, or what they do?