Hip-hop is most likely to make the entertainment news when one artist’s beef with another manifests itself in public. Witness, for example, the way the media became enchanted with the feud between 50 Cent and The Game. Entertainment reporters labored over each rapper’s words and deeds, almost as if they were just praying for it to escalate, as if another 2Pac-like shooting is what hip-hop really needs, as if being a rapper has become synonymous with being a thug.
Enter the Perceptionists, declaring on wax that “the game’s about to change”. Here are two MCs and a DJ skilled enough at what they do to take on all comers. Both of the MCs, Mr. Lif and Akrobatik, have had successful solo careers, and deservedly so: their rhyming skills rival anyone currently making hip-hop music. Their DJ, Fakts One, is no slouch, either. Yet the three couldn’t care less about battling. On their debut album Black Dialogue, their perspective is this: If you want to fight, then join the Army or become a bank robber. If you want to make music, then make music. “Fuck a battle / we got nothing to prove,” Akrobatik declares on the opening cut, quickly cutting away the drama and getting right to the business at hand.
The Perceptionists make their goals clear: working their asses off to create music which will make people dance and think (“motivating the brain and the legs and the hips”). These goals are completely entwined. They rock the mic over hardcore beats, that’s what they do. Yet steeped as they are in the tradition of KRS-One, Rakim, Public Enemy, and so on, they know that it’s possible to say something that means something at the same time that they’re having fun and sharpening their craft. On the opening track “Let’s Move”, they repeatedly put out the notion that they’re here to move crowds, to get them off their asses and make them move every single part of their bodies. Yet at the same time, Mr. Lif admits, “hard tracks remind me of blacks with scarred backs.” They’re taking nothing for granted. They know their history; they know their ancestors died for them to live; they know that life can be snuffed out in a second; they know that this is their one chance to make music that’ll last, music that’ll really move crowds.
The Perceptionists have the skills to make a fantastic party album which has nothing of substance to say, but they instead chose to fill their debut with their thoughts on everything from international politics to the hardships involved in maintaining a relationship. And they still made a fantastic party album. Their rhymes and beats are top-notch, ready to rock anyone listening. But the MCs are also not holding back any of their feelings; that honesty is what makes the album reach the heights that it does.
Both Mr. Lif and Akrobatik could be described as “political rappers”, but that would cover up the fact that when they’re expressing outrage at the war in Iraq or at the way poor people are mistreated in the U.S., they’re doing it not from a political perspective but from the perspective of people who care about the world they live in. Or, to put it another way, politics to the Perceptionists isn’t about political parties or candidates, but about actively fighting for fairness and equality, working to make people’s lives better. On “What Have We Got to Lose?!?” they back this fight up with an aggressive call to action, one which has the in-your-face feeling of a true rap-rock hybrid. “The world’s largest anti-war demonstration was answered by bombs dropping and blood draining,” Lif rhymes, making the case that the government doesn’t care about people, so why should the people hold anything back in fighting to make the world a better place. “It’s time for the people to stand up and stop being used / what have we got to lose?”
The rebelliousness of “What Have We Got to Lose?!?” is matched by that of “Memorial Day”, a powerful track about the war in Iraq. The chorus is a direct questioning of the President’s intentions and claims, but each of the even more forceful verses is from the perspective of a U.S. soldier in Iraq who’s realizing what’s really going on. Lif’s verse views the soldiers as human pawns in the power games of a government which seeks to keep control over the world, ‘stabilizing’ the world by making it more friendly to U.S. interests. In Akrobatik’s verse, a solider can’t decide if he’s a tool because he’s fighting a war for the interests of rich people who don’t want to do their own dirty work (“Would Donald Rumsfeld back me up with the chrome?”) or a hero for staying alive amidst such a messed-up situation, surviving no matter what the U.S. government has done to him. By the verse’s end he’s proclaiming himself powerful for seeing through the government’s lies, deciding that he will make it home and live a productive life against the odds, that he needs to stay alive to make up for all the lives lost and all the tears shed by families. “You can’t take my pride,” he declares to Bush and Co., “cause I’m a fucking solider.”
“What Have We Got to Lose?!?” and “Memorial Day” will no doubt be quickly dismissed as “anti-Bush” songs by some, yet the feelings and ideas contained within them transcend the specifics of today. These are intelligent, powerful, rebel anthems, in the grand tradition of classic Public Enemy, BDP, Ice Cube. Like those groups, The Perceptionists aren’t expressing their feelings about the world just at opportune moments, or trying to earn political points. Black Dialogue includes several tracks that are just as intelligent and explosive as those, but aren’t in danger of being cast aside as political missives.
The title track, “Black Dialogue”, is a complex call for self-motivation and education in the black community which acutely dissects the way that blackness has become hip and fashionable at the same time that black people are getting little economic or educational help from the government. ‘Educate yourself and build your life into something’ is the message behind the words, on both “Black Dialogue” and the clever “5 O’Clock”. Featuring a chorus sung by Phonte of Little Brother, “5 O’Clock” is a dedication to that feeling of exhilaration you get at the end of a work day. Lif and Akrobatik perfectly articulate that feeling, and then essentially ask listeners why they’re wasting their lives by keeping themselves from feeling that way all the time, as they would if they were making a living off of their true passions instead of working as slaves for corporations.
Akrobatik and Mr. Lif aren’t scared of revealing their sensitive sides. “Love Letters”, where each drops a verse which humbly asks for a date from a beautiful stranger, feels like another classic hip-hop moment, a “Bonita Applebum” for 2005. The tenderness of that song also runs through the album’s final track, “Breathe in the Sun”, but this time it feels even more personal, as the two MCs openly dissect their lives and consider times when they had to make major changes and move on.
Chuck D. has compared Lif and Ak to Miles and Coltrane, and he’s on to something. Each of the MCs has an unbelievable grasp on rhyming technique and a distinct voice. And when they rhyme together, as a true team, they’re unstoppable. Half the time they trade off verses, but just as often they’re completing each other’s sentences and rhyming as one beast with two heads. When unleashed, Fakts One scratches up the tracks with a mean, serious sort of intensity. At other times he lays low and lets one of the album’s four other producers (El-P, Cyrus, Willie Evans, Jr. and Camutao) take over. Each one delivers music that’s sleek and rich, fitting the Perceptionists’ songs perfectly while displaying the producer’s own musical personality. El-P’s tracks for “People 4 Prez”, “Blo”, and “Frame Rupture” are typically futuristic and dense, yet in places they’re also surprisingly controlled and nuanced. And Willie Evans, Jr. delivers really sensitive, lovely soul tracks that rightly complement the smart and tender sentiments behind “Love Letters”, “Black Dialogue” and “Breathe in the Sun.”
The Perceptionists’ Black Dialogue is gimmick-free, frills-free hip-hop from two self-proclaimed “black orators” who have important things to say and aren’t afraid to say them. It’s an album which has everything it takes to be considered a hip-hop classic. If they manage to steal away a few minutes of the media spotlight, maybe it will be.