The first few times that I sat down to write this review I felt uneasy about it. All the words I’d put down felt awkward, and I couldn’t pin-point what it was that felt different about Def Poet Shihan’s debut album. The album’s identity was escaping me.
What it comes down to is that it’s difficult to judge The Poet within the typical strictures of hip-hop. Artists with a poetic background like Shihan have a completely different approach to music than the likes of Kanye, Jay-Z, or even ‘conscious hip-hoppers’ like The Perceptionists. For Shihan, his lyrics are the true art of his work, and are meant to stand-out so clear that the music that surrounds them is rendered unnecessary.
That’s not to say that lyrics have no importance to any of the artists I previously mentioned, but their work comes from different mindsets. The broad majority of hip-hop artists assemble their work as a total package, with their rhymes working in harmony with the DJ or producer that supports them. The artistic beauty of an album like A Tribe Called Qwest’s Low-End Theory is not diminished in this sense — just constructed on a different frame.
Shihan is a poet first and an emcee second, and The Poet is modeled to reflect that. Low-end production lightly supports Shihan as he champions the ‘return of the word’. With few exceptions, The Poet carries a very organic and free-form feel to it. Shihan’s support comes mainly in the form of beat-boxing, jazz horns, live percussion, or subtle backup singing, creating a gentle and unobtrusive atmosphere that gives his words room to shine across the 43-minute long album. The female vocals and soft percussion on The Poet’s final track, “Follow Me”, are an excellent example of this. The vocals create a satin-smooth bed for Shihan’s lyrics to lie on, providing support where it’s needed and retreating when necessary.
His lyrics are thoughtful and unpretentious; creating a verbal landscape that drips with sincerity and is refreshingly free of any calls for hip-hop’s rescue from whatever intangible force that is seemingly always pummeling it into submission. The same sincerity is also the one thing that works against the album at times. Pitted against tracks with more pronounced and bombastic production like “Give It to Me”, Shihan’s voice sounds awkward and out of its element.
Conversely, the album sports a number of spoken word tracks where Shihan’s poetic background is showcased. “Auction Network” is a satirical jab at stereotypes of African-American culture and behavior where Shihan advertises the sale of a “premium five foot ten young negro buck brought to you by any-ghetto U.S.A.” The spoken word tracks not only lend a more personal, intimate feel to the album, but are also a nice alternative to the use of skits to break up a record.
More often than not, poets that try to add the element of music to their work find themselves knee-deep in an experiment that culminates in a product that shows them to be clearly out of their league. It’s refreshing to see an artist with the natural rhythm and flow to his work that can transcend artistic boundaries while remaining effective. While not perfect, Shihan’s debut is a bold step forward for the young poet, and an uplifting change to the hegemonic standards in the realm of ‘conscious hip-hop’ today.