A Pipe Dream and a Promise

(Interdependent Media; 2009)

By Clayton Purdom | 13 March 2009

Here’s some more of that new Detroit shit, 2009’s first after a 2008 that saw the city release records containing the year’s best traditional emceeing (Invincible’s impossibly dense Shapeshifters) and its most forward-thinking production (Black Milk’s tronic Tronic), and, as with the aforementioned records (along with Elzhi and anything else from the city that comes our way) CMG is all. the fuck. about it. Without reservation. I got the record and was like, “Hey, guys, listen to this record,” and Colin went to the back room to fuck the disc (I think) and Betz in his lotus stance muttered something like, “I have foretold that this fire would be brought. I have burned my feet upon its promise,” and everybody else was just like, “Yep, this is real good” and kept it on repeat on my battery-powered boombox. We love this shit.

Do you? I have this pet theory about the State of Hip-Hop that you can like or not: the Golden Age was the Golden Age because the most popular artists were also the best, right; Nas and Wu-Tang and Mobb Deep had people talking for their artistry, not sales potential or mixtape-shit-talk swagger. And then in the late-‘90s a divide occurred between the mainstream and the underground, where the mainstream took all the braggadocio and the underground took all the intellect and artistry, and both resented the other; hence, Jurassic 5 and Master P. This was a bad time in the empire. In the past few years, double helix-like, these qualities have switched again, such that vaunted intellect and melancholy dominate the mainstream in figures like T.I. and Young Jeezy and fuck-everything freshness dominates the underground via the Cool Kids and Wale and Charles Hamilton et al, with a couple of titanic figures named West and Wayne straddling this divide entirely, functions, products, and benefactors of both scenes and their according ideas and their recent cultural inversion.

Question being, where does CMG’s sweet Detroit fit into this? No-fucking-where. Detroit’s scene, largely ignored by popular media, seems to likewise largely ignore popular culture, acting like nothing changed but production techniques and politics between 1996 and 2009, acting like great hip-hop is made by the alchemic confluence of good drums woven into interesting samples and synthesizers with an emcee rapping about their life and the lives of those they love using things like metaphors, wit, flow, narrative, rhyme scheme variation, and so on. Strangely, this formula still works.

It can be unflashy to those not invested in such things. Invincible may seem like a very good rapper to a lot of people, but that might not be enough. She is decidedly not, after all, Lil Wayne. But she sounds different to those of us who listened closely this long past decade, wanted to like Talib Kweli and his ilk but only heard potential squandered by preachiness and ultimately unimpressive linguistic pyrotechnics. She seems more like the actualization of the conscious emcee than, like, “another conscious emcee.” “Produced by Black Milk” may not ever be a unit-shifter like, say, “produced by Polow da Don” (I see you, Rich Boy). But he sounds different to those of us that drank up every Jay Dee and Quasimoto pressing during hip-hop’s darker days, finding notes of the Golden Age in the bouquet but without the follow-through we remembered and still found corked in older vintages.

All of which is to maybe concede that what’s going on in Detroit right now is sort of the rap fan’s rap scene, and that, furthermore, Finale’s debut record may be the rap fan’s rap scene’s fan’s rap record: really, really unflashy, and really, really good. The beats are all really, really good, particularly Dimlite’s sanguine “Issues” and V-Tech’s already(?) post-Tronic “Arrival & Departure” and Waajeed’s outrageously successful Wire-biting “The Senator.” The rhymes are all really, really good, too, particularly (um) all of them. I feel like naysayers could call Finale faceless but then I’d point them toward the slick charisma of the hook on “Style,” the gasping assonant second verse of “Motor Music,” or be like just listen to the appropriately named, fundamentally hook-less “Heat,” a four-minute rush of battle emceeing imbued with the weather and economy of Detroit but covering Barry Bonds and Iraq, casual sermonizing and preteens making out. These Detroit emcees: so unashamedly out of step with the radio and the internet, so serious and self-conscious, so good in a solid, unwavering always-good manner largely unprecedented in hip-hop. There is no mercurial talent here: just talent.

Where have we seen such consistent quality before? Well, the factories of Motown for one, but that implies a forthcoming What’s Going On (1971) or Songs in the Key of Life (1976), feats for which I’ll make no claims. But the legacy is felt from this city and on A Pipe Dream and a Promise. The solemnity of the record’s final third (leavened by “The Senator”) is capstoned by a bonus track, “Paid Homage (R.I.P. J Dilla),” that points, in the smart, subtle manner so characteristic of Detroit rap, toward some sort of future for the scene. Perhaps this is paradoxical for a track so eulogistic. But over Californian Flying Lotus’ inimitably warm synth bubbles, with a few jazz notes bouncing overtop, the record begins to settle at last into a mood of red-eyed late night truthfulness, sorta lost but in nice weather all the same. Like its predecessors, the record can be manic and disjointed in places, striving too hard to be hard, but in the simple answer to his album-closing demand, “Tell’em what love got to do with it”—answer being, loose and emphatic, “everything”—we hear the beginnings of all this talent settling into its own skin, worrying less about proving its worth and more about reaching toward the roots of its community and its sadness and creating the art for which it was so obviously born.