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Femi “the DriFish” Lawal: The Clown With No Circus

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Femi “the DriFish” Lawal

The Clown With No Circus

Stinkiface Music

For the better part of the last decade, local spoken-word duo the 5th L has combined theatrical, heady wordplay with a hip-hop vibe and playfulness. The duo, Femi “the DriFish” Lawal and David “Native Son” Ross, has always delighted in shirking the stereotypes of both genres while delivering a witty, engaging amalgamation that, by 2008’s Reset, sounded and felt a great deal like early-1990s narrative-driven hip-hop. Now Lawal (a one-time City Paper guest contributor) has taken that golden-age vibe into full-band territory with The Clown With No Circus, his second solo release backed by the Out of Water eXperience band. The result is an experience as sweeping as Prince Paul’s A Prince Among Thieves but with a more sprawling musical journey.

Circus’ leitmotif is a carny sideshow, with Lawal’s DriFish the barker guide to this carnivalesque tour of the odd, the dark, the sexy, the funny, the real. And the music is just as roaming. A sunny G-funk groove introduces “Sleep Walkers,” where Lawal’s narrator playfully talks about being a kid who “hopes to grow up to be a super hero or do pro wrestling.” Strings come about a minute in to change the mood, right after Lawal lets loose with “punch a clock all your life/ retire and receive a watch/ to remind you there’s no time left.”

And that’s the mood swing of only one song. Circus is a kaleidoscope of schizophrenic moods (“Trapped in My Mind’s” sound collage of anxiety running into an R&B groove punctuated by a screaming electric guitar), many internal voices fighting to be heard (“The Out of Water Experience”), middle-of-the-night fears (“Russian Roulette”), almost emo-sensitive odes to a woman lost (“You Are Not Alone”), and stomping rock/rap hybrids of social survival (“Animals Attack”).

Lawal’s candor holds it all together. Poetry, and spoken-word in particular, can lean heavily on the confessional, but Lawal isn’t merely exposing his heart and mind here. He’s taking a circuitous journey into masculinity, cutting hip-hop bravado with everyday insecurity and familiar vulnerabilities. And it’s often densely packed with allusions. “Animals Attack” unfolds with the dizzying illogical dazzle of Ishmael Reed: “This is what happens when you’re finding Nemo/ you find out who’s carnivorous/ and you are so delicious,” “I’ve got one-liners like bait with a hook like a chorus,” “I’m here to disrupt corrupt/ with my orthodox rhyme style/ spurned from writer’s block.” It’s not always so consistently blithe—“Into the Sun” and “Cereal Killer” feel too one-note—but live this material could be a genuine wild ride.

Femi “the DriFish” Lawal and the Out of Water eXperience play a CD-release show Jan. 29 at the 14Karat Cabaret with Green Tea, Marc Marcel, Native Son, and Kane Mayfield. Hosted by Olu Butterfly.

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