Amir Sulaiman is socially aware, yes, but that doesn’t make him or his music cool, compelling, or the least bit exciting.
On his fourth album, Like a Thief in the Night, Oakland-based Amir Sulaiman remains a spoken word-smith, true to form. This is despite the presence of nominally hip-hop architecture. The once freestyler-turned-impassioned-poet trades in markedly political and social commentary, all very intelligible and heated, but not conducive to exciting beat-craft. Or, at least, Sulaiman chooses it not to be. The rhythms and sonic structures of Thief are static, under-dressed, and wearily shaded in darkness – more a formality than an enabler of his incensed state-of-the-union. This design is Sulaiman’s crucial miscalculation. He wants the bite, bluster, and martyr’s bravado of his language to aurally dominate, not the beats. Thief’s end effect should be that of a spoken-word jamboree, and it is. But, in all its drummed-up sanctimony, the man emerges as uncompelling as the music.
As a practicing Muslim in post 9-11 America, Sulaiman comes equipped with a non-majority, non-WASP angle on all the news that’s fit to lament. His outcry, indubitably bolstered by being included on a “no-fly” list in 2004, fails though on its potential for unique engagement. In tone and sense of proportion, the politics of Thief match those of petulant college demonstrators. On the incongruously titled “I Love You”, a rampaging Sulaiman employs “Patriot Act”, “Palestine”, and “JFK” as verbs signifying the government’s meting out of injustices. Heavy-handedness only trivializes the targeted ills. He even glibly boasts “We are the revolution” on the track of the same name. This rallying assertion, once a vessel of luster and romantic naiveté, has since fossilized. Partisan persuasions aside, the haymakers are as trite as they are tired, and the sloganeering, just burnt-out relics. Like a Thief in the Night quickly sheds its veneer of originality and devolves into an overstated, copy-and-paste collage of Howard Zinn and Chuck D.
This excessive commitment to sermonizing and devaluation of sonics makes for haphazard terrain. Only artists with a preternaturally dynamic flow – Hove, ‘Lil Wayne, even Kanye – could overcome these twin missteps. Sulaiman badly under-qualifies and even admits to such a non-emphasis. On “When I Die”, which Mos Def feloniously steals, he instructs, “You can ignore the flow / Just hold onto the soul”. The latter is out to lunch, just an enticing illusion, while the former is an unpalatable blend of abrasiveness, religiosity, and grasping affection. Sulaiman’s vox is simply unnatural to hip-hop’s theatricality, too breathless and dour to find the balance by which master practitioners thrive. Serious subjects, even those confessionally motivated, need not breed joy-less listens, like this one. With last year’s beloved Hell Hath No Fury, Clipse crafted a decidedly dark work. Street decadence rarely has come so fateful and plight-riddled. It still was a blast to partake of, owing in large measure to the duo’s sly vocal flexings. Not long after, Nas even proclaimed the passing of this genre. For an ostensible funeral, Hip-Hop is Dead was a thrill ride – bathed in sinister hues, yes, but also bursting with colorful flows.
Sulaiman delivers on his album’s titular murkiness and doom, and does so gloomily, almost oppressively. Thundering indignation is present, though not compellingly channeled. Thief’s bluntness and its melody-immune packaging leaves no room for vitality, even less for thrills. The chorus of “Head To the Sky” is perhaps the most uninviting stretch, a dual layer of vocals all marshalling and muffled with didactic rage. Awareness: raised, sure. Fighting spirit: still dormant. The stabs at graceful reflection, like “How Beautiful Are You” and “Make It Through” are the intended counterpoints, yet don’t display proper range. Limp and over-emoting, they’re just more overt spoken-word pieces, the preferred medium.
The damage assessment of Thief is indeed dire. The beats: bereft of invention, life, and snappy pop appeal. The subject matter: Sulaiman’s po’ed indictment of America under Bush, sentiments always available at Daily Kos and Democracy Now! The delivery: frothily worked up and, worst of all, absolutely no fun. A quick, misplaced “Bitch I’m trill” would’ve been an effervescent slice of heaven. But no: Thief is all dogged outrage, consumed only with hearing and echoing itself, drearily again and again. To his credit, Sulaiman is on fire for justice, equality, maybe even the audacity of spoken-word poetry. These passions, transmitted as they are, flat-out bore on the order of monastic piety and can’t obscure the absence of sound hip-hop fundamentals.