Gangsta philosophy: does life imitate gangsta rap or does gangsta rap imitate life? And while you're pondering that, should you be having dreams about Harriet Tubman?
"The language of the street is always strong."
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson
""Not everybody went to Harvard. Not everybody gets to get a lawyer who went to Harvard. There's little people out there, hacks with small claims the size of a blackhead you'd go running to your dermatologist to have removed. Nickel and dime people, lookin' for nickel and dime lawyers. I'm happy for you that you don't fit into that category. I do. And I'm sellin' what I got to sell. Forgive me, for embarrassing you."
-- The Practice's Jimmy Berluti (Michael Badalucco), responding to Lindsay Dole's (Kelli Williams) assertion that lawyers who advertise embarrass the legal profession. Berluti's commercial solicits business by referring to Berluti as "Jimmy the Grunt".
It happens every time a rapper gets arrested or goes to prison. I have this recurring nightmare in which I'm trying to sleep, but somebody starts nudging me with an insistent forefinger.
Now here's where it gets weird. In the most recent version, I open my eyes and sit up, startled to see (you'll never guess) Harriet Tubman and Mary McLeod Bethune (see, I told you) looming over me. Even in the dark, I can see the disapproving expressions on their faces. Harriet Tubman, the one who jabbed me awake, is dressed in a long purple robe and she's gripping an mp3 player so tightly in her right hand it looks like it'll crumble in her palm. Bethune has a set of turntables.
Tubman and Bethune are on my case about "today's music", with Tubman demanding, "You're tellin' me I navigated the Underground Railroad so y'all could become gangsta rappers? Y'all must be on some ol' bullsh--"
That's when Bethune jumps in, proposing a cultural reeducation program to heal the community's wounds and to focus rappers on less violent material. "You'll write the manual for me," Bethune tells me, matter-of-factly. Then they proceed to cram spirituals and hymns from the 1800s into my ears from Harriet Tubman's mp3 player, while Mary McLeod Bethune (who insists on being called "M.C. McLeod") works the turntables, "Wicka-wicka-wicka waaaade…in the waaaater…"
The personalities change, but it's always a duo waking me up. The last time a rapper got arrested, the nightmare starred Bill Cosby and Wynton Marsalis, with Cosby whispering, "Hey, wake up, Theo," while Marsalis chanted, "I thought I told you that we won't stop, I thought I told you that we won't stop."
The latest hip-hop artist to trigger the nightmare: Fort Worth, Texas, rapper Tommy "Twisted Black" Burns. According to a press release from the U.S. Attorney's Office of the Western District of Texas, Twisted Black was convicted of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute crack, as well as two counts of distribution. In February 2007, he was sentenced to 30 years in federal prison.
From a legal perspective, I don't know anything about the merits of the case, though I've always found it curious that you can be charged with conspiring to commit a crime and also with committing the actual crime; it seems like the conspiracy should merge with the completed crime. Federal law, not to mention Double Jeopardy jurisprudence, vehemently disagrees with me. At any rate, maybe he "conspired" and "distributed", maybe he didn't.
From the perspective of a hip-hop fan, however, my first response was, "Oh no, here we go again," because the case seems to have all the trappings of a hip-hop cliché:
"Gangsta" rapper. Check.
"Gangsta" album with explicit lyrics and frequent N-word usage. Check.
Rapper has a real life criminal record. Check.
Rapper arrested on a drug-related charge. Check.
"Snitches" testify against rapper at trial. Check.
Rapper's song lyrics are used against him at trial. Check.
Perhaps the conviction gives Twisted Black's latest release, Street Fame, more credibility, although the rapper states he hasn't actually done everything in his rhymes. From what I can tell, he's not even saying he did the crime for which he was convicted. Then again, it's not like he's a newcomer with a desperate need to appear "down" with the 'hood. With a voice that could be compared to Snoop, Too Short, Tray Dee, or Short Khop (take your pick), Twisted Black has been a staple on the independent scene for over a decade, beginning with a 1995 release with his old group One Gud Cide. He moved on to a solo career, dropping Late Bloomer (2003) and The Life of Tommy Burns (2005).
I won't lie -- this cat has, as he says, all ten of his toes in the niche of streetwise rap. It's raw. It's gritty. It's uncut. What do you expect -- it's Texas rap! We don't call it the "Dirty South" for nothin'. But truthfully, if you let the hip-hop cliché overshadow the whole of the album, you'll miss the complexities of his gangsta-slash-hustler persona. There's a humanity to Twisted Black's approach that elevates much of the material above the average street tale and pedestrian pimp strut. For this, the "twisted" in his moniker is well earned, as his narration takes the typical ride through the hood and sends it on a detour. He makes mistakes, experiences missteps, has regrets, wishes things were different -- in short, all the things you'd expect a real person with a conscience to do. Don't misunderstand me, though. There are those songs that stay inside the lines of conventional bluster, those of the I-don't-give-a-f*** variety ("S.W.A.C.") and those that rely on the usual bragging points (i.e. cars and cash).
Yet, while I never caught myself thinking, "Word, I hate it when my coke deals go bad," there are moments that are entertaining as well as enlightening. It's like watching an episode of The Shield -- you can't say it helped you evolve as a human being (well, not with a straight face), but there's still something gripping and insightful about it.
Unfortunately, you've got to survive the first six songs before Twisted Black begins to peel back the layers. That's not to say those first six songs aren't good; they're entertaining. They're basically club tracks: the anthem "Throw It Up", the dance-themed "Shake", the pimp walk of "What Y'all Wanna Do", the very hardcore "S.W.A.C.", the all-too-obvious setting of "The Block", and the T.I.-resembling "How You Feel About That". The beats are decent and the lyrics are straightforward (for instance, "The Block" is really about hangin' out on the block). Twisted Black and his guests rely on the skill of their deliveries to carry it off, which isn't a bad thing either. Shoot, just think of all the people who do this without skills.
But, at the same time, you've heard it all before, along with a few lines you might not want to ever hear again -- I suspect I could blame the "whoopin' n*ggas' asses like slave masters" line in "How You Feel About That" for conjuring up Harriet Tubman in my dream. And on the opener, when the hook says, "If you'sa hustlin' ass n*gga / Throw it up / If you'sa gangsta ass n*gga / Throw it up", I have to admit I felt left out, as I'm neither "gangsta" nor "hustler" (which invites the philosophical question, "If I 'throw it up' but there are no "gangstas" or "hustlers" around to acknowledge it, do I still get props for it?"). On the positive side, female rappers like Chyna Whyte are welcome additions to what would normally be a club exclusively for bad boys (on "Throw It Up" and "What Y'all Wanna Do").
Starting with the seventh track, "Broke Street", the mood becomes sadder, increasingly somber, a byproduct of more reflective content. The lyrics are pensive, aided by soul-infused R&B hooks, a couple of which are borrowed from popular music's databank. Remember Janet Jackson's "Anytime, Anyplace" and its quiet, smoldering sensuality? In "Hustler's Prayer", Twisted Black appropriates its melody and hook for street consumption. Where she sang, "I love you now", Twisted Black's hook goes, "I love hustlin'". Meanwhile the lyrics convey sadness and remorse, the hallmarks of a person who feels trapped and suffocated by a do-or-die mentality.
Those same vibes inform "Walk a Mile in My Shoes" and the tale of betrayal in "Coldest Summer Ever", not to mention the play on words in the single "I'm a Fool Wit' It". On the one hand, it's "I'm going to fool with it" or "I will fool with it" ("it" being the drug game, the pimped out ride, or whatever); on the other hand, it's "I am a fool", as he implies near the end of the song, "If you're runnin' 'round robbin' 'cause your cash ain't right, then you a fool wit' it".
Twisted Black excels in adding the details to his storytelling, whether he's sharing the experience of being molested by his father, his father's death, or losing half of his jaw from a gunshot to the face (all true!). Perhaps that's the asset that allows him to execute a compelling narrative like "New Boot". In this song, Black rhymes from the perspective of an inmate who writes home to his family. Unwilling to risk his future release from prison by getting tangled up with a "new boot" (the slang for a young, new prison arrival), Twisted Black's character writes home, desperate to keep tabs on his family and share a few words of wisdom so his 17 year old son can avoid the call of the streets and a resulting stint in prison ("I don't ever want to see you in this place," he says).
The twist in the story is the way the perspective shifts, in the second verse, to the son's point of view, delivered with voice distortion that sounds at once juvenile and robotic. Far from acting traumatized by his father's absence, the son has big plans for his street career, "I'm gonna be all right -- I got hustle, Daddy". The irony is that he's experiencing the trauma on a deeper level than he realizes, as he writes back to his dad, "Consider me your clone".
Here's the clincher: After writing several letters without getting a response from his son, Twisted Black begins to worry. At the same time, a "new boot" arrives at the prison. When Black joins the informal welcome committee, he finds that a fight had broken out and the "new boot" sustained a broken neck. And guess who the "new boot" turns out to be. Yep, you got it.
It's this type of writing that distinguishes Street Fame from the crowd. That doesn't mean a "remorseful" song about the streets is better than a "vengeful" song about the streets -- hell, it's still about the streets -- although I think we tend to lean that way as consumers. It's easier to defend a song where the narrator just says "No" to crime and "bad" behavior (even if the song itself is musically and lyrically weak) than where the narrator, as Ice Cube said in the late '80s on "Gangsta Gangsta", is "too busy sayin' YEAH!". There's also nothing wrong with club tracks or party songs. But it's nice to have some variety, and it's even nicer to see a balance of "positive" and "negative" elements, if for no other reason than it makes it easier for some of us to sleep at night.