Mike Ladd has made avoiding the obvious something of a career choice. A concept album about life in a dystopian sci-fi future ages before Dan the Automator got round to it, followed by two parts of a saga depicting the struggle between the underground freedom fighters the Infesticons and their champagne-swilling, jiggy-capitalist opponents, the Majesticons. The latter album was a well-observed and just plain fun hip-hop album that sought to subvert mainstream hip-hop from within via glossy production, party beats, and the odd R&B number. Sadly, very few people got (or bought) the joke, and Ladd vanished for a while only to pop up on art-trip-hop outfit Edition, Terranova's album for two tracks last year, branding himself "the high art Eminem" and doing "pink cocaine" over electro basslines. Now he's put out a recording of his Asia Society-commissioned collaboration with jazz pianist Vijay Iyer, the latter's band and three actor-narrators, for which he wrote all the lyrics and produced "electronics". It's about culture, travel, history, and airports, loosely based around an incident involving an Iranian filmmaker at JFK. Well, obviously.
The filmmaker in question was Jafar Panahi, innocently in transit between film festivals in Hong Kong and Buenos Aires, who was detained by the INS, shackled to a bench for hours and then sent back to Hong Kong in handcuffs. The album's title is a quote from his internet-circulated attempt to deal with and describe the ordeal (how could he adequately describe his anger and innocence across the borders of tongue, race, and culture?) and the album takes the form of 17 tales of life and travel in an attempt to answer, or at least examine, this question. The accompaniment to these snapshots of global life in transit ranges from the calm, floating "Taking Back the Airplane", which brings to mind Ursula Rucker's work with Jazzanova to the harsh, frantic drum 'n' bass-driven "The Density of the 19th Century", similar to Saul Williams's "Coded Language". Over and around the percussion, Vijay's improvised piano lines and motifs hold sway, supported by some fine playing by a melting pot of cello, brass (sax, trombone, trumpet and flugelbone), guitar, and bass. As in keeping with the migratory theme of the project, tempo and mood often change within a track, adding emphasis to the lyrics whilst occasionally distracting focus from the protagonists' stories.
Whilst the instrumental side to this album is more than accomplished enough to be worthy of stand-alone listening, the subtle nature of the spoken word compositions (and it is all spoken word, even if occasionally speeded up and rhythmic, never rapped) means that their impact would have been a lot more immediate if performed unadorned. As things are, a measure of concentration and repeated listening is required to pick out Ladd's colorful and varied vignettes from the flow of the music (though one could argue that this emulates the background fluctuations of airports, I suppose).
The cast range from Karen from Trinidad, working as security at some unnamed airport, missing "the touch of warm concrete / painted smooth under my toes"; to Calcutta-born Rishu who works in a New York porn shop, living for the day he can return home to his "pious" wife; check-in desk worker Nadine from the Ivory Coast, now working in Paris; Yemeni cornershop staff, a Muslim from Mumbai driving a cab in NY and a Sierra Leone asylum seeker. The latter's tale depicts painfully the vulnerability and terror of a woman "stripped naked and bound", because "I can't say "I'm terrified" in American tongue", because "My skin is critique / A word for a volume of indictments / Five hundred years long". Violence is also the focus of the "Iraqi Businessman", where a World Bank worker is tortured brutally in an allegory both of the Iraqi dictatorship and the US' relationship with Iraq; an apparently innocuous "I love mob movies" in its second line is echoed by the ghoulish "he shows you who's boss" at its end, Hollywood entertainment and global implication being juxtaposed chillingly.
Whilst Mike Ladd's characters are often less than happy with where their journeys have taken them, or the cultural conflicts that result, flight itself is gradually revealed to be a promise of freedom and unity: a way of overcoming all borders, its airports "temples of the sky", its empowering mobility a glorious gift, for "there's a million dance moves in the sky". On "The Colour of My Circumference II", he has "a skywich with my sky Drink"; literally drunk on the celestial in a manner similar to Michelangelo's hopes for his doomed flying machine. He counters the question of the title, as well as the causes of imposed exclusion (the lists, names, and borders of "The Density of The 19th Century"), with the declaration "And no answers will emerge, only music, food and family in the air", for "we are the vegetation that will subdue the lobby". A wonderful vision emerging from a wonderful, if occasionally overly tasteful, work; let's hope Mike Ladd eschews the obvious for a long while to come.