[20 September 2007]
Lotus Tribe’s S.E.L.F. (Self Expression is Living Free) project, The Art & War of Misanthropic Philanthropy is, for me, an intriguing listening experience. Mainly, I feel like this is exactly the type of album I should enjoy, the type I normally would enjoy, the type that would usually prompt me to do a longwinded why’s-everybody-sleepin’-on-these-cats review. But…somehow…I just didn’t connect with it.
What’s the deal? Okay, it’s not the group’s back-story, because that worked well enough. The San Antonio, Texas, ensemble—initially formed by Diego Chavez (“Aether216”), Jason Torres (a.k.a. “Triniti-i”), and Mark Gonzalez (a.k.a. “The Reason”)—rocked local live shows to establish a reputation. Adding another emcee to the cipher (Jacob Lopez a.k.a. “Aura”), the group set out to craft a definitive philosophical statement set to music, which is quite a goal, to be sure. In 2003, they began working on The Art & War of Misanthropic Philanthropy, and here we have the results. Hard work, persistence, dedication—these are traits I admire.
A cursory listen to Art & War reveals that these guys have something to say—lots of somethings, really—from issues outside ourselves (like war and classism) to issues inside our minds (like autonomy and self-expression). See? That’s what I’m talkin’ about. This stuff is right up my alley. Every now and then, between episodes of Deal or No Deal (“No, don’t choose that briefcase!”) and America’s Got Talent (“But not on this channel!”), I look for entertainment, including music, that makes me think as much as it makes me want to dance or bob my head.
Speaking of heads bobbing, Art & War‘s beats range from “decent” to “solid”, never “superb” and never “subpar”, but right in the middle. Hard and heavy percussion insinuates itself throughout the album, bangin’ on your ears with weighty thumps that threaten to give you a migraine if you play ‘em too loud on your headphones. Sometimes the strings are overpowering, and the minor chords emphasize the “war” and “misanthropic” portions of the title to the exclusion of the “art” and “philanthropy”. The upside is that the production is distinctive, albeit with a couple of nods in the RZA’s direction. As far as the beats go, there’s nothing to gripe about, but nothing to celebrate either. Let’s call it draw.
When it comes to the actual rapping, the emcees are competent, not exciting and not especially engaging, which is where my disconnection begins. I needed a bit more personality, a bit more interaction between the emcees, and more synergy between the lyricists and their beats. Structurally, they aren’t too fond of hooks, which is okay, but hook-less songs mean you’ve got to up the ante with memorable verses. Unfortunately, some the rhymes have a run-on, stream of consciousness quality to them that can be hit-or-miss in general, but are mostly a “miss” for me in this case.
The subject matter works from a metaphysical palette, with the crew speaking of mental progress and psychological evolution as forms of “revolution”. Throughout the album, they hit many of the wordplays you’d expect from rhymesayers determined to reach the upper echelons of consciousness, flipping phrases like “division with no vision” and “manifest my destiny”, while making reference to the all-important “third eye”.
Art & War has the ingredients of a solid rap album, but the ingredients don’t coalesce. Although the group sounds sincere about crafting meaningful music, I wonder if, in their pursuit to record a philosophical classic, they inadvertently snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Since the lyrics are delivered in densely packed verses teetering between abstraction and genuine insight, the group’s messages often pile on top of each other and get lost in the shuffle. The production is consistent, almost to a fault, like listening to a single 60-minute track that’s been broken up into 14 pieces. Further, the group’s hard, crunchy beats tend to devour the lyricists, who are more or less interchangeable in terms of style, sound, and subject matter anyway.
They can construct tighter verses, but constructing songs is a different matter, and that’s where the S.E.L.F. project becomes a dissertation espousing a worldview rather than a musical manifesto. I do, however, believe that the live show of this material would be more compelling than the recorded versions. Based on that, I’d be interested in seeing how the energy from the performances will transfer to their next studio project.