[5 March 2006]
On September 11, 2001, two planes crashed into two tall buildings and collapsed the psychological security of an entire nation. The government faltered, uninvolved civilians perished in the blink of a collective eye, and by lunchtime the world looked distinctly different in the new light of up-close terrorism.
Bigg Jus, founder (with El-P and Mr. Len) of indie-rap mainstay Company Flow, is not the type of intellectual to flee New York City in the aftermath for a rural life of simple fear. Rather, Jus is the type of intellectual to flee the city, withdraw with fellow underground rapper Orko Elohiem to the relative seclusion of a Georgia cotton mill, and emerge, a little under two years later, with the incendiary, blistering punch-to-the-Republican-gut that was NMS’s debut album.
The sharply-named Woe to Thee O Land Whose King Is a Child, released on Big Dada back in 2003, was exactly what underground hip-hop is supposed to be all about: fiercely individual, just a little rough around the edges, wickedly smart and not afraid to take risks. If at points it faltered, losing focus when trying to compress three different themes (sci-fi futuristic raps, abstract raps, and political raps) into one politically-charged, futuristic, often abstract vision, at least it was a better alternative – too many ideas to fully develop is far preferable to too few – to the lingering malaise of shiny gangsta-gangsta and polished, manufactured commercialism. Now that NMS has re-emerged with a sophomore disc, Imperial Letters of Protection, it’s worth a look to see just what has changed: the war is still dragging on, Bush is still in the White House, and Bigg Jus and Orko are still, for the most part, angry. And where Woe to Thee… asked questions, Imperial Letters promises to provide answers, begging the question: is it fair to be dissatisfied with a lack of answers when the questions are this hard?
The concept behind NMS (short for Nephilim Modulation Systems, if that helps at all) is that Bigg Justoleum and Orko Elohiem are space aliens, descended upon the earth “like fallen angels” to spread the truth. And at first listen, they do sound dauntingly like super-intelligent aliens: the rhymes scatter almost impossibly fast, making it easy to believe that these rappers are be beyond human comprehension. After a few play-throughs, though, it becomes easier (if still not easy) to understand more of the words, and these themselves aren’t half bad. If a lot of reviewers have quoted the brilliant couplet “So every nuclear winter the Bin Laden and George exchange Christmas cards / Why do you think Saddam most trusted warrin’ regiment’s called the Republican guard?”, it’s because it merits the repeated quoting.
These are not the wild-eyed preachers that grab you by the wrist on street corners to shout their frenzied gospel; these are the aliens that grab you by the throat and press their megaphone right up against your temple, forcing you into submission. They decry, they plead, they proselytize, and frequently in their breakneck speed they sound eerily like auctioneers gone absolutely, brilliantly insane. As they put it on “Beast Vision”, “This is black nigga state of the union,” and when they turn their powerful lenses toward the real modern world, they frequently justify their self-importance.
The problems come when they lose this focus – they still flow nicely and consistently fast throughout, but the content at points lacks the immediacy of their debut. Lines like “Scan on the surface, walk on water / Kill a slave master for African manslaughter” paste together powerfully visceral political imagery, but often with no easily discernible specific intent. If you still liked that one, try to rationalize this: “Universe parliament chocolate nipples dipped in Hershey / I’m comin’ harder than throwback Rodney L jerseys.” I’m not against abstract rap, per se, but on an album that’s supposed to be providing answers to the problems of the world, Jus and Orko spend an awfully large amount of time resorting to simply acting cryptic.
Even when the lyrics aren’t up to par, however, the strong production carries it through. Imperial Letters of Protection may not be an easy listen, but that’s because it doesn’t want to be: this isn’t an easy world, and what better for the angry gospel of world change than to wrap itself in equally urgent, often chaotic beats? “Strike Back” sounds like exactly the kind of dark prophecy NMS thrives on, the ominous, grandiose orchestral beat swooping darkly behind the rapid-fire, stuttery lyrics like a future gone dystopian. “Beast Vision”, with its dramatic electric guitar, droning machinery and disturbing monster noises, sounds like…well, the end of the world, and I mean that in a good way.
The beat on “Seraphim Revolver” is a beautifully melancholy, slow piano loop, shored up by a dustily staggering break on drums. Most brilliantly, after the groove establishes itself, the drums cut out, leaving the vocals stranded amidst the meandering piano tones – it’s a great musical moment, and it’s not alone here. NMS excel at the art of the sound collage as well. “Evacuate the White House” builds perfectly to a fever pitch, creepily pairing children stumbling over the words of the Pledge of Allegiance with unnerving alien sound effects, and when an unidentified vocal sample announces gleefully on “Hold the Atmosphere” that “this is only the beginning…victory is ours…today has been…our glorious day,” before the darkly pensive beat cuts in with a dexterously-rapped expression of uncertainty, it’s a perfect aural representation of the Bush administration’s premature victory announcement in the current war.
So while it may not provide the most difficult answers, at its best moments, Imperial Letters of Protection is a smooth continuation of the first album from the bizarre, sci-fi Public Enemy of the underground. As long as Bush is in the White House and, you get the sense, on into the future if America doesn’t wake up and move for change, Bigg Justoleum and Orko Elohiem will still be here, screaming into their megaphones over hard-hitting beats and agitating for the truth. Eyes wide, “we will bitch-slap the media!” and beads of sweat, fists raised. In the background, the