Lord Jamar, actor and Brand Nubian alumnus, shows there's more to hip-hop than jewelry and tomfoolery.
Lord Jamar's solo effort, The 5% Album, is a sprawling, ambitious concept album based squarely on the ideology and way of life of The Nation of Gods and Earths (the NG&E). The NG&E, commonly called The 5% Nation or The Five Percenters, was founded over 40 years ago by Clarence 13X Smith, who had physically and ideologically split from the Nation of Islam (NOI) over the NOI's belief in one God (in the person of Master Fard Muhammad) and Clarence 13X's belief that every Black man is a manifestation of God.
Fully understanding that split and the 5% movement requires some familiarity with a cultural context that involves figures and organizations such as Master Fard Muhammad, Marcus Garvey, A Noble Drew Ali, Elijah Muhammad, the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X, the FBI, and the CIA -- and that's just warming things up. Understanding that cultural context is key to understanding Lord Jamar's project. But, to understand the context, you need working definitions for terms like Asiatic, Original Man, Knowledge of Self, Yakub, the 120 Degrees, The Book of Supreme Wisdom, the Supreme Alphabet, Cipher, the Supreme Mathematics, and even the term Five Percenter. Is it all interesting? Absolutely. Is it easy to discuss? Absolutely not. I'm exhausted already.
As you might imagine, there are lots of conflicting stories about the 5% movement. For instance, I once heard some hip-hop heads saying that the rapper Grand Puba called himself a "Five Percenter" because he believes he's God, and he can "beam" his essence through walls like Star Trek particles. Actually, the term "Five Percenter" developed from the teachings and lessons of the Nation of Islam, most notably from the Lost-Found Muslim Lessons that every member was required to recite. Elijah Muhammad taught that the world's population could be divided into three groups: The Ten Percent, the Eighty-Five Percent, and the Five Percent. Since the Ten Percent had hoodwinked and enslaved the Eighty-Fivers by teaching them to believe in a "mystery god", Elijah Muhammad called the remaining Five Percent the "Poor Righteous Teachers" (yep, like the rap group). The Five Percent rejected the Ten Percent's teachings and were instead charged with teaching the Eighty-Fivers about the "true and living god" as well as generally promoting freedom, justice, and equality.
There's much, much more. But, luckily, Jord Jamar has included a 90-page booklet with his release, illuminating his own background, as well as fashioning a cohesive timeline about the NG&E with the help of "The Word", a newspaper distributed by the Nation, and excerpts from Michael Muhammad Knight's book The Five Percenters. You might recall Knight's 2004 novel, The Taqwacores, that explored Islam in the context of punk rock.
Now, I ain't sayin' Grand Puba can't walk through walls; I'm just saying the booklet sounds like a great idea. It also features commentary and photographs that should help separate the facts from the fictions. You can also supplement it with the FBI's file on Clarence 13X, which appears online at the Bureau's website, courtesy of the Freedom of Information Act. In addition, Lord Jamar shares his personal impressions of the Nation's influence on hip-hop, which is a remarkable.
That influence also explains why Lord Jamar's effort here is so noteworthy. Both The 5% Nation and the Nation of Islam have influenced the flavor and culture of hip-hop music, including the rhymes of big time lyrical architects like Rakim Allah, Big Daddy Kane ("King Asiatic Nobody's Equal"), the entire Wu-Tang Clan, Poor Righteous Teachers, Erykah Badu, Busta Rhymes, not to forget Lord Jamar's own impact as part of the legendary group Brand Nubian. In particular, The 5% Nation contributed to hip-hop's vocabulary with terms like "word is bond", "droppin' science", "cipher", and the greeting "What's up, G," which is said to come from "What's Up, God?" In the song "On & On", Erykah Badu is dropping Five Percenter-styled science when she sings, "I was born underwater / with three dollars and six dimes / Yeah, you may laugh, 'cause you did not do your math".
Yet, despite these influences, there really hasn't been a concerted effort by artists to educate the public about the Nation and, therefore, Lord Jamar's work is long overdue. In many ways, Lord Jamar has given us a musical and literary examination of the NG&E and its intersection with hip-hop just like The Autobiography of Malcolm X and C. Eric Lincoln's The Black Muslims in America provided tools for studying and analyzing the Nation of Islam.
There are practical implications as well. Consider the case of Marria v. Broaddus, 200 F. Supp. 2d 280 (S.D.N.Y., 2002). Rashaad Marria, a Five Percenter, brought claims against the New York State Department of Correctional Service ("DOCS") challenging its policy of denying Five Percenters the ability to have meetings and gatherings or to receive materials relating to the Nation. Such a case necessarily involves First Amendment freedom of speech and religion issues and due process questions, not to mention some inquiry into prison culture and the rights of inmates. Consequently, Lord Jamar's concept album about so serious a topic has implications beyond just crafting good music. It raises awareness. (There is an interesting article about the Marria case and the Nation of Gods & Earths in general, at the Boston Globe.)
Lyrically, this is not the Lord Jamar we first met on Brand Nubian's 1990 opus One For All. Lord Jamar's verses from that album's "Drop the Bomb", "Ragtime", and "To the Right" are among the best of the genre. Here, we find an older, more reflective Lord Jamar, who is attempting to synthesize hip-hop and NG&E ideology, along with his own stature in the business. On "The Corner, The Streets", as he rhymes about the trials and tribulations of street life, he refers to the Supreme Allah character he played on HBO's Oz, saying, "This is not HBO / this is real life / and it's real trife". Lord Jamar's delivery, then, is more akin to his verse on Brand Nubian's hit song "Slow Down" than his other, more flowing works. The upside to this approach is you can tell that he took his time and crafted his words to say exactly what he wanted to say. On "Supreme Mathematics", he takes us verbatim through some central NG&E lessons. On "Deep Space", his slow drawl is captivating. The downside is the potential for being upstaged, as with The RZA's nicely executed verse on "Deep Space" and 40 Bandits' mic-trading skills on "The Cipher".
Musically, Lord Jamar's artistry is, as he explains in his liner notes, a "labor of love". The labor is intense, with Lord Jamar handling production work -- on the intro, four of the six interludes, and the songs "I.S.L.A.M.", "Advance the Game", "Givin' Up", and "Supreme Mathematics ("Knowledge Mix)" -- in addition to his primary role as emcee. Production contributions also come from Preservation ("Original Man", "Supreme Mathematics (Born Mix)", and "Deep Space"), Bronze Nazareth ("Same Ole Girl"), Big Throwback ("The Corner, The Streets"), Reality Allah ("Revolution"), Young Justice ("Young Godz"), and Gensu Dean ("The Cipher", "The Greatest Story Never Told").
The variety here keeps the record fresh, adding spice to the album's lyrical and thematic unity. It also adds a communal spirit to the record, further evidenced by the album's guest appearances. Raekwon and Kasim Allah grace "Original Man", while Lord Jamar's Brand Nubian associates show up on the cautionary "The Corner, The Streets" (featuring Grand Puba) and "Study Ya Lessons" (featuring Sadat X and Queen Tahera Earth). The RZA shows up for that spectacular verse on the haunting "Deep Space", Prodigal Sunn works his magic on "Same Ole Girl", and "Revolution" -- one of the best songs on the set -- features Reality Allah & Horse. Likewise, the aptly titled "The Cipher" highlights Jasik Allah, Ralo, Nat Turner, and Rated G of 40 Bandits. Lastly, "Young Godz" features the sons of our favorite rap legends. GZA's son Young Justice, Old Dirty Bastard's son Young Dirty, and Young Lord J (guess whose son he is), team up to show us the perspective of the next generation.
Two songs, "Advance the Game" and "Givin' Up", find Lord Jamar in fed-up mode, launching into full length criticisms of the state of rap music in general. He doesn't point any specific fingers, but his words are precise. Peep the hook:
Yo, let's advance the game
How many times can we rhyme about cars and chains?
How many bricks can a ni**a really sell?
How many times can a ni**a really go to jail?
How many murders can you do on one album?
Put 'em all together, must've did about a thousand
I'm just sayin', let's change it up
If not, ni**a, hang it up
And later in the song:
I ain't mad that you got whatchu got
But you sing about this sh*t, a whole motherfu**kin' lot
Do me a favor, keep it to yourself
Gimme information that could help, keep the bullsh*t on the shelf
Lord Jamar formulates a compelling argument for striving to be more creative in crafting one's music. While he insists he isn't concerned with offending other artists, it doesn't seem like anyone would get offended anyway. Hip-hop has seen the "let's be more creative" mantra many times before, and everyone always jumps on the bandwagon, largely because everyone seems to think someone else is the problem -- usually the ubiquitous and much maligned "Sucker MC". However, in the context of Lord Jamar's concept album, he demonstrates -- I'll even say "he teaches" -- his points on most of the album's songs, rather than just being content to take aim at other rappers.
Considering the massive scope of this release, there are bound to be some slips. For one, there are too many interludes. Hosted by Kasim Allah, these interludes are set up like excerpts from a radio program. But, like most interludes, they are disruptive and sometimes downright insulting. One of them, called "P.S.A.", invites those of us who have "thoughts of being America's next top model" to "come on down to Allah's school" where "your silly a** will be civilized, you savages." Similarly, on "W-G.O.D.", we're told to "clap your hands, you savages".
Perhaps the word "savages" could be analogous to X-Clan's Professor X and his use of the word "sissy", but enough is enough. I might be an "Eighty Five Percenter", but at least I'm trying to get "knowledge of self" so I can "become civilized". Picking on me while I'm in the process won't earn you heavy rotation. Besides that, it's not even Kasim Allah's album. That's like showing up for HBO Boxing to watch the top contender challenge the heavyweight champ, only to find out you have to sit through mini-brawls between commentators Larry Merchant and Jim Lampley between rounds.
Two more nitpicks. One is the change in the track list from the promotional version to the released version. The promo featured a track called "The Sun" which was one of the best songs on the album. Somehow, that song was eliminated from the final set. While the additions, "The Cipher" and "Study Ya Lessons", were wise choices, I wish "The Sun" had remained on deck. The other nitpick is the placement of "The Greatest Story Never Told", arguably the album's masterpiece, which appears at the end of the album, but could easily have been the opener. Here, Lord Jamar masterfully narrates the life of Clarence 13X Smith and puts the album's booklet into rhyme form. As the first track, it would have brought the album's concept immediately into focus.
Nonetheless, The 5% Album is a mammoth project that at once informs us, entertains us, and adds a much needed addition to hip-hop's legacy. Thematically, Lord Jamar manifests his knowledge over a variety of tight beats and with a group of talented guest stars. Now… if we could only get Big Daddy Kane to come out of retirement, the world would be closer to being right again.
Brand Nubian - Hold On