This is a crucial rap album that deals with, at least in part, the fall-out of the global markets and what that means to both the person on the street and the average suburban dweller.
I’ll be brutally frank and honest with you, dear reader: rap and hip-hop aren’t exactly my forté. What I don’t want to do is write off an entire genre of music that is always metamorphing and has various facets of expression, but personally, I’m not much into dark twisted fantasies. I tend to gravitate towards rap that is fun, vibrant, and perhaps soulful. A little old-school De La Soul. Some A Tribe Called Quest. A bit of early Digital Underground. That kind of stuff. It’s not that I don’t think that words directly from the street and about a certain lifestyle aren’t vital and important. However, there are some things just doesn’t speak to me personally. The boasting. The glorification of violence and drug-use. The latent misogyny. The gratuitous use of profanity (though I should admit I can curse like a sailor with the best of them, so maybe I’m one to talk). These things tend to turn me off the genre, and I don’t think it’s an issue of not connecting with the music due to race, because I really gravitate towards old soul music and ‘70s R&B, and all of the things I’ve previously mentioned are things that I dislike in what I’ve heard of the work of one Marshall Mathers.
I was going to say that I tend to like music that is positive and uplifting, but that would be wrong, because there’s certainly a forlorn quality to some of those old soul chestnuts that can certainly be spirit crushing. However, with rap, to me, it seems that you have to do a bit of digging to find stuff that doesn’t glorify dope, guns, and running amok in the streets, and there just isn’t time enough in the day for me to really parse the stuff that I’m going to like and the stuff that isn’t going to sit well. (To wit, let me put on the record that I’m not the biggest fan of Public Enemy, either, but I will concede that I appreciate what they were trying to do back in the late ‘80s from both a political perspective and a genre-hopping one, and think they’re very important in the evolution of the rap genre.) Maybe that makes me a curmudgeonly middle-aged white guy with a fear of a certain type of music, but there it is.
Still, I’m all for trying to expand my musical horizons, and that is why I’m putting words onto a computer screen right now about the debut album from London-based MC Ghostpoet (real name: Obaro Ejimiwe), who has arguably delivered one of the most topical LPs of 2011 with Peanut Butter Blues and Melancholy Jam. This is a record that just about anyone can relate to, rap fan or no. It’s an album, at least in part, about the fall-out of the global markets and what that means to both the person on the street and the average suburban dweller. As one line from the album puts it: “Round and round we go / When’s it gonna stop? / I ain’t been paid and I ain’t got a lot / But it’s us against whatever, babe”.
More bluntly, this is simply an album about the ordinary person trying to, to crib a title from the record, “Survive It”, which offers “When you got no cash, got no cheque, got no credit card / Life is pretty hard”. It’s a sometimes grubby collection of snapshots of a particular time and place, and it is generally compelling in its own audacity about the general futility of punching the clock in modern society. (“Gaaasp”, which advises the listener to “Take a deep breath / And live life a little bit”, offers the following: “Working in the job, right? / Is all lies, lies, lies / All day old age pensioners whose stories and white lies / Who moan, moan, moan, moan about all the points they haven’t got / ... Wasting my life away or is this a stepping stone? / I plan to find to find out / Some folk will never know”.) The record doesn’t glorify a particular way of life, either, and, more often than not, the tracks here have a sense of just telling things as they are. Ghostpoet himself raps the following himself in the song “I Just Don’t Know”: “Other MCs want to talk about crime / But that ain’t me / Let’s talk about life”. That’s something I can definitely get down with.
Ghostpoet has been gradually making a name for himself in the UK rap scene. He appeared as a guest on the 2009 Kwesachu Mixtape Vol.1 by musician Micachu, and, a year later, dropped his first EP, The Sound of Strangers, which The Guardian felt compelled to write about and, in doing so, named Ghostpoet a Best Band of the Day (“band” being a relative term, I guess), comparing him to Dizzee Rascal “on mogadon, or a half-asleep Streets” (mogadon being a drug used in the treatment of insomnia.) It’s a fairly apt comparison, as there is a hazy, dream-like quality to Ghostpoet’s rhymes, and there are times on Peanut Butter Blues and Melancholy Jam where the vocals have a slurred quality, as though the rapper were nodding off in the studio as he was laying down some tracks. There is also a soulful and jazzy backbone to the record, making it destined to be played in chill-out rooms in dance clubs as a downbeat soundtrack to coming down.
However, in the rap genre, Ghostpoet is a little hard to pigeon-hole. Being from Great Britain, one would be tempted to throw the grime tag at him, except that he doesn’t talk about violence and criminality as those rappers do. There’s also the trip-hop label, but Ghostpoet often doesn’t utilize the bass-heavy drumbeat or the female vocalists of said genre, save in the latter’s case on “Survive It”. And in terms of rapping skills, Ghostpoet comes across more as a slam poet than someone who has been influenced by American hip-hop acts. In that sense, I guess you could tap the “experimental” or “underground” label on him, but even that doesn’t seem to do him any justice. At the best of times, Ghostpoet seems to occupy a sound that is unique and distinct from a lot of what little I know of the genre. I could go as far as saying that the triumphant final track, “Liiines”, isn’t even hip-hop at all. With its use of backing band sounding a little like something out of the ‘80s (Simple Minds comes to, ha, mind), the song could pass for rock if you ignored the rhymes throughout the verses. (It’s worth pointing out, too, that sometimes final songs show the way forward to what to expect on the next album, which leads me to affirm that the future looks very bright for Ghostpoet in that he’s trying to break down some conventions, notably in eschewing the use of sampled music, though I know he isn’t the only one.)
Despite some of the dark themes of the record -- for instance, the lead single “Cash and Carry Me Home” is about the powerful and addicting effects of alcohol -- there is a refreshing sense of hopefulness that permeates throughout. On “Survive It”, Ejimiwe offers that “I know / That that times are hard / You’re against the wall / And your head is down / ... Just have a little faith, mate / It’ll all turn out great”. Though it might sound like a platitude, there’s “Life is too short to store our grudges / Life is too long to make no plans” on “Liiines”. Elsewhere, there’s a sense of self-reliance (“I ain’t coming here to change your life / You can if you choose to”) and an overcoming of obstacles thrown into one’s path. There’s also a refreshing sense of questioning the hyper-masculinity of rap in the track “Runrunrun”: “Run away / Be a real man and fight another day / I heard that in a TV program / So it must right / Right?”
There are a few tiny flaws with Peanut Butter Blues and Melancholy Jam, and the most egregious thing that can be said about it is that it is consistent -- a little too consistent. Particularly, there is an overuse of glacial beats and jazzy vibes, and the album could use a little bit of musical variation to liven things up a little bit. The intro mic-check and mid-album pause, though brief, seems more like filler than any association with the standards of the hip-hop genre. That said, this is a strong statement from an MC who definitely has an individual voice that those who have turned against rap, for the reasons outlined above, should really check out. I would even go so far as to note that, with the harshest word on the record either being “damn” or a garbled use of “shit”, I wouldn’t feel uncomfortable giving this album to a mature young adult who is curious about rap music.
Overall, Ghostpoet is talking about a way of life that the average, common person living a middle-class lifestyle can relate to. That is, perhaps, the genius of this recording. This isn’t a record about the fantastic, of pretending to be a pimp or a ‘ho, this is simply a testament to those who just want to settle down, start a family, and lead a law-abiding life. Again, that’s not to write off an entire culture or genre of music, but if rap music is a little like the old saw that gets trotted out about pornography (“I know what it is when I see it”), I can paraphrase from it by saying that I know what I like when I hear it. And I happen to like Ghostpoet’s values, perspective, and general way of living a lot. Check that. An awful lot.