The most pathetic branding exercise in the history of hip-hop was the low rent Hatfield and McCoys of the East Coast/West Coast divide. Sadly, its practitioners were the kind of people stupid enough to believe that an accident of geography and marketing was sufficient enough to create a mortal enemy. This form of hip-hop rewarded mediocrity with incandescent praise while exaggerating the murderously artificial division that eventually led to a spate of inexplicably pointless deaths. Several tributes and murdered Police songs later, and it's still wholly taboo to suggest that people moronic enough to invest energy in record-sale generating feuds are simply playing with karmic fire.
The broader battle in hip-hop has always been the one for its heart, kept alive by the acolytes on its periphery, while its most successful artists (with notable exceptions like OutKast) wallow in sexism, homophobia and dull-witted materialism, churning out the stalest cheap shot tripe but still unfairly managing to garner more credibility than Britney Spears when in fact, they are easily artistic equals.
What's been most disheartening for me this year is watching the people in the margins so readily succumb to the temptations of mainstream gullibility. Atmosphere gets sadly pathological about women on his latest release, becoming a guileless indie playa in a desperate grab for refracted Eminem glory and MC Jean Grae pathetically opens one of the best hip-hop releases of the year with an obligatory jab at "faggots". That's precisely why listening to T-Love's Long Way Back makes me nod along and breathe a sigh of relief that there are people out there who still believe hip-hop has potential to do things other than move product and glorify ignorant malice.
Like Lauryn Hill, T-Love's greatest strength lies in her vocal agility, an ability to effortlessly slip through genres and boldly redraw their borders. Unlike Hill, who excels in R&B but not so much in rap, T-Love flexes in both genres with stunning prowess. On "Swing Malindy" she sounds like Cassandra Wilson, stretching her voice in both French and English over the thick vine-climbing stand-up bass. Whereas Missy Elliot straddles the hip-hop/R&B divide on her slower tracks by turning down the lights and churning out rather typical radio-ready couch booty seductions, T-Love's singing aspirations are more firmly planted in jazz scats, smoky downtempo drifts that emphasize muscular control over theatrical overkill. Not that she doesn't have a taste for the epic, as the nine-minute "Oh-So Suite" clearly shows by fluidly drifting across jazz and deep soul with her sing-rap rhymes bridging the chapters. It's a show-off centerpiece of shifting tempos, moods and styles that amply document T-Love's polysyllabic vocal agility.
But the real joy of Long Way Back is kickin' back for an entire album with an intelligent human being who can tell a story and draw subtle political and social inferences from it. My measure of a hip-hop album's greatness is translating it into conversation and deciding whether or not I could stand getting stuck talking to the person at a party. Given that most pop hip-hop is just some fool jawing about the commodified pussy or luxury items that he or she collects, it's refreshing to see someone with a conscience who doesn't practice the zero-sum trade-off between intelligence and listenability that happens sometimes in underground hip-hop. T-Love's beats slink and zag, dropping hooks that spiral their way into your head slow and hazy-like without resorting to catchphrase repetition. Long Way Back plays like the lost connection between Blowout Comb and Baduizm fusing politically progressive hip-hop with neo-soul in an entirely novel and future-flung concoction.
On "Intellectual Proptease", T-Love takes aim at the sexual politics of the music industry and its players, rapping with her words on a chain, pulling them back, flipping them around, and contorting the flow in a feat of unbelievable syncopation. T-love tends to circle a topic, approaching it from several angles, before giving her advice, which is usually apt without being easy. She spends a lot of time meditating on the politics of female sexuality, creating sketches of prostitutes, gold-diggers, strippers, and mislead women that are brutally honest without being judgmental. Her music seems to be about building philosophical connections between institutionalized racism, sexism, and thug violence, dissecting pseudo-rebellion by exposing the rather typical shit that it often supports. If that sounds like something that you "should" like, but clearly won't be able to stay awake for, don't fret. T-Love's cadence alone baffles in its multi-level pacing, all smooth pauses, tempo flips, internal rhymes and a decadent love for poetic word chemistry. She seems as in love with the most tactile manipulations of language, the lost hard art of hip-hop that came in the form of gritty words thoughtfully sculpted. It's not just politics that she snares with photographic elegance, but childhood, her neighborhood, the betrayals of her friends, really good sex and her mother's pearl's of wisdom.
"Don't call me a bitch if you're mom isn't one" she says on "Witch-Bitch?" before launching one of the most entertaining ex-boyfriend disses ever recorded. I wish I could wholly convey to what a total pleasure this record is. There's no reason that enjoyment and intellect can't co-exist and come from the same muse. T-Love is everything impressive about hip-hop as an inventive and inspiring musical genre with none of its recent sail-dragging baggage.