Deeper Than Hip-Hop
Labtekwon and Wordsmith, two brainy, hard-spitting islands unto themselves, drop deeply contrarian albums
Published: November 20, 2013
Recent rap records from abstract punk-funk MC Labtekwon (Evolutionary: The Omar Akbar Album) and Talib Kweli-tinged, working-class Christian rapper Wordsmith (The Blue Collar Recital) allow us to entertain the notion of what rap might sound like unfettered. Both records provide a vision of hip-hop stripped of its tendency to pander to any number of codified fanbases, be they lamestream radio listeners, tedious “real hip-hop” types, clenched-fist Waka Flocka moshers still wishing it was the year crunk broke, or weed-toking Tumblr surfers looking for the latest weirdo to LOL at for a little bit.
Evolutionary: The Omar Akbar Album is 21 tracks of political rabble-rousing, professorial lecturing, and tinfoil hat-sporting dots-connecting that dances atop fragments of Funkadelic screech, bass lines from bebop, Baltimore Club breaks, and lonely soul drumming. A cult hero putting out records since 1993, Labtekwon’s career is one entirely free of compromise. His style remains dense, jazzy, and thoroughly intellectual: Afro-futurist rhyming rants that pop like the verbal equivalent of, say, a Charlie Parker sax solo and bring with them the rhetorical power of a Watts Prophets LP. He is not smart-for-rap-lyrics smart; he’s a hyper-poetic, grad school-level pontificator with a microphone.
The ambitious beat for “Soul Dance” sonically tells the story of African-American dance music, shifting from jazz to soul-funk to house in just four minutes. And Lab bends his delivery to the molting production, rapping, singing, and intoning his desire to “dance alone,” further cementing his conflicted, aggressively individual reputation and acknowledging the perpetual outsider status of the black visionary. On “Evolutionary,” he boasts and perhaps bemoans, “Too black for white folks/ Too black for negroes/ But they all know, you can’t touch these flows,” staking claim to being the one fighting the good fight while also telling everybody to just get out of his face, old school-style.
“Fcuk Gentrification” folds time, locating the white desire to control the black narrative, whether it’s during post-Civil War Reconstruction or via white hipsters on the internet putting their grubby paws all over hip-hop culture and claiming expertise. And it ends with a zinger: “We can be neighbors but fuck gentrification.” Perhaps Lab should have bigger fish to fry than eager white nerds (like yours truly) who care about rap, but there’s something admirably contrarian about diverting a gorgeous slab of time-traveling space rap to fire a few shots. And it’s inarguably in the tradition of rap’s dozens-oriented origins, a quality which has been a significant part of Labtekwon’s appeal going on two decades now. He takes the radical route to uphold hip-hop traditionalism.
Wordsmith is playful and didactic, with a bold, open-hearted rapping voice, and a deep-rooted humanistic vision of Christianity. The Blue Collar Recital’s rhymes are compact, meter-obsessed observations and confessions, and his content comes from regular-guy experiences like watching in horror news reports about the Sandy Hook shooting (“When Your Faith Is Tested”) or the communal importance of getting drunk after work (“Happy Hour The Universal Blackout”). On the self-deprecating “Living Life Check to Check,” he details doing a free show 10 hours away for close to nobody with brutal, hilarious honesty. Then he hammers the indignity into a “win” with inspiring rhymes: “The way I hit the stage, you’d never know it was an empty room/ It was five, six people who made the crowd/ Two of them my boys, so it’s three to four now/ I don’t sweat it, regret it, I got pride, I’m gonna spread a new message/ I’m gonna touch a couple lives.”
That’s the trajectory of Blue Collar Recital: life’s workaday disappointments turned into minor victories so that you can keep going for another day. In a more just world, Wordsmith would occupy the role currently occupied by conscious hip-hop colonialist Macklemore—a white MC who picked up and ran with the lecturing and occasionally self-effacing spirit of indie hip-hop and injected some silly fun into it. Wordsmith delivers uncontrived rap without ego, backed up by catchy, friendly-to-everybody boom bap. Sure, he values good, old-fashioned “skills,” but it’s devastating honesty that truly fuels his rhymes.
Superficially, these lyrically attentive veterans fall under that increasingly antediluvian category of “conscious rapper” or “underground rapper” or “backpack rapper.” But spend any time with their knotty new records and you’re privy to two MCs in complete control of their talents, towing no party line and making few concessions—even to the incremental vagaries of the underground. Labtekwon and Wordsmith suppose a climate where hip-hop might mature and mutate, free of commercial concerns and subgenre expectations.
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