[12 March 2006]
Conscious hip-hop is all too often akin to that sweet, well-meaning kid everyone else wishes they liked more: “he’s so nice, but he’s just so boring.” On a bad day, conscious hip-hop can even turn into the spiritually-in-tune, holier-than-thou preachy prick in the turtleneck with an iPod full of neo-soul. The Primeridian, a soulful Chicago duo comprised of the interestingly-named MCs Tree and V, is conscious hip-hop on a good day.
What helps the Primeridian differentiate themselves is that their soulful, pat-on-the-back consciousness is actually backed with tight lyricism (as they put it, they are “on point like porcupines”). They know how to turn a phrase - I’ll take “from the horse’s mouth I got my awkward style” over the stock “my rapping is a gift” boast any day - and when they’re at their best, lines like “you want to be a smart-ass, sit on your brain” can lacerate. It’s rare to hear progressive MCs that actually sound like they enjoy what they’re doing, and love the music as music itself rather than as a pulpit or a direct connection with their choice of bland “spirit-force”.
The accompanying music is almost terminally laid-back: this is not just chilled out music, this is chilled out music, and the “chilled out” must be said as slowly as possible. Slower than that, even; if Da Allnighta were to be drawn, it probably could be rendered relatively accurately with only deep purple and night blue (like the album’s cover). While it’s not always very exciting, it’s at worst inoffensive and at best has some great moments. The chorus on “Yeah, Yeah We Know” is a wonderfully rumbly groove, laced with giddy-tinkly cellphone synthesizer and calmly soulful vocalizations. “Broken Wings” is a keening soul dirge, “Midwest Grit” an irresistibly liquidy violin saunter. Cheerfully ironic recurring beatboxing bolsters the mood, which is sometimes a welcome thing amidst the melodramatic sampled speeches and headier concepts.
They manage to pull off a strong political lesson on “Social Studies Pt. Two” with a clever, extended, and initially remarkably subtle family analogy (complete with well-stated morals like “the president is basically fucking the working class”) that is only slightly soured by the heavy-handed summary for those in the back. This willingness to take risks is another differentiator: even as they name-check traditionally safe role models like Rosa Parks, mere lines later they reference both Malcolm X and Karl Marx (find me another conscious rap outfit willing to drop lines like “I come like a clitoris”). The thin line is overstepped only rarely, tracks like the “Tatuduhendi” reprise grating with blatant political discussion played over beats. If they want to really change any views, they should at least put in the effort and rap about it. On the whole, however, Tree and V do a nice job of balancing the polemics, spirituality and musicality: the chants of “elevate your mind” generally come across as good-natured and friendly rather than the pretension they could so easily devolve into.
In the end, Da Allnighta is a positive, smooth-vibing mood piece of a hip-hop album that you might not even feel bad about letting your kids listen to (this might just be on the promo, but they even helpfully reversed the profanities), a dope salvo against the “MC Toxic Waste spilling musical obnoxiousness”. What makes it all work is that Tree and V are so genuinely earnest that you can’t help but bob your head along with them. If higher-consciousness proselytizing is no longer the absolute height of cool, nobody’s told the Primeridian yet: they act like they invented it, and they make it their own so honestly that it’s hard to begrudge. Come on down and elevate your mind.