By Mark Abraham | 23 June 2008
Branding herself one voice on the frontier of American urban development and decline (she terms it the “edge of destruction”), Ilana Weaver masterfully turns the Detroit area into a laboratory of political discourse that is, frankly, fucking amazing. Imagine a hip hop artist rapping from the union pulpit, advising that sledgehammers (a central metaphor) are both a symbol of the displacement of the urban population and employment for the urban poor and a means of active resistance. But “fucking amazing” isn’t just the result of Invincible’s politics; her social activism; her cutting dissections of racism and sexism; her self-owned fair-trade, cooperative economics-based label; her ability to contextualize gentrification and urban decline in a global context without being reductive; her ambitious and novel willingness to rap about people, rather than herself (mostly); or her endless undercutting of academic lingo that shrouds a lot of the issues she discusses with non-populist language. All of those things are awesome, and fuel the sheer immediacy of the music here, but they’re icing on the cake of just what an amazing rapper she is. Like, best period, since…I don’t even know. The album is introduced as a remedy to a “State of Emergency”; her first lines on the album are: “Since last warning I showed you I’m transforming / like the grains that pass through hour glass / shaped by sand storm winds.” Transforming hip hop to fight hip hop and social ills, and doing it brilliantly.
Her conceptualization here is breathtaking: the Detroit area of “Locusts” and “Deuce/Ypsi” is the Israel of “People Not Places” is the America of “Spacious Skies”; the dislocation of people through language, the wrecking ball, economics, or intolerance is a shared experience for the urban poor and dislocated ethnic groups across the world. The music industry is the same, for the same people; she starts off lead single “Shape Shifters” by saying, “music’s not a mirror to reflect reality / it’s a hammer with which we shape it.” And it’s more complex than that, even; she notes on “Looongawaited” the tension between embracing her artistry and working carpentry for women’s AIDs shelters: “at least I’d have some benefits / and I could see a dentist quick.” That this is a central tension for potential artists who face economic disparity is central to Invincible’s politics, and her demands for free citywide wireless on “Ransom Note,” her Quality Control events (profiled in “Recognize”), and her community work are part of a greater whole. I say this to ignore the elephant in some people’s rooms, since Invincible is already telling you over and over: she’s not the only she who is making incredible music like this; she’s a novelty only because both the mainstream and underground music scenes hold women down. As she says in the liner notes for “Ransom Note,” “if I had a dollar for every time me, my crew, and other dope female emcees have been asked, ‘Do you write your own rhymes?’ I’d buy a satellite for us to transmit all the incredible music and media we create.” In other words, her more straightforward period/period juxtaposition that has been quoted all over the internet isn’t a punch line to let men off the hook.
But whatever, right? Let those confused for piddling reasons that Invincible is such an amazing emcee piddle on; the rest of us are too busy embracing this wallop of an album. We get Black Milk doing his thing, weighting the brief “State of Emergency” with guitars and early 1970s synth washes and coloring the wonderful “Recognize” with thick synth basses and spiraling strings while Invincible and Finale trade The State of Hip Hop declarations about space suits and Carlton in a cardigan. Both rappers have wonderful chemistry; both on “Recognize” and the entirely different “Locusts” the two feed into one another, alternatively creating a brilliant portrait of the power of independent hip hop and a tragic one of urban decline. One is suture to the other, and “Locusts” is an incredibly affecting track mixed with samples of community members discussing the problems of Brush Park and Detroit (or, on the video included with the album, song-breaking interviews). Finale and Invincible underline the critical and conflicting interests embedded in urban development, in this case behind the veneer of Eminem’s stardom. Workers hate demolishing buildings in their community, workers need to feed their families, businesses forcibly move people out of their homes to make room for freeways and strip malls, Detroit becomes the illusion of American failure; “The D” is left to fend for itself as a lost cause that only vaguely tarnishes the image of North American progress. Especially haunting is when Finale rewrites the Biblical tale of Lot’s wife into an inversion of societal rejection; people who leave the community yearn for their roots, but if they return they’re ostracized for leaving (except for the developers who return to buy all the buildings for dirt cheap). Invincible’s verses are no less affecting and far more literal as she chronicles the entire complex history of gentrification in a couple of minutes: staggering.
Similarly, her dissection of the Israeli government’s efforts to erase the history of Palestine in “People Not Places” reduces complicated histories (and her own Jewish heritage) to the immediate results: “this used to be the Moroccan quarter until we stopped them short / and now their grandkids is the ones that’s throwing rocks at borders.” Vaughan T’s Arab pop production is, perhaps, a bit obvious, but it works given the purpose of the song: Invincible’s quickfire spitting presents, for example, 3 ex-villages in the place of Ben Gurion Airport, Palestinians barred from local clubs, olive grove agriculture uprooted for highways and walls, and the importance of the way “hummus” is pronounced to the legitimacy of Israel as a nation state. (Uh…that’s a small sample. Invincible’s an incredibly dense spitter.) But anyway, why shouldn’t the music itself retaliate against this dislocation, right? Further, the song becomes a personal mission; the chorus riffs on her mother’s casual conclusion: “I miss people, but I don’t miss places.” Invincible concludes in turn that it’s easy not to miss places when you know they still exist. This idea is central to her dissection of urban America as well: the displacement of people from places doesn’t simply leave people homeless or economically hurt; it erodes the sense of community that provided any number of not-always-quantifiable-or-obvious support networks. Therefore, Apex’s quick, synth-rising “Spacious Skies” follows “People not Places” as a relocation; Invincible chronicles her youth in the Middle East being enraptured by American television and her disillusionment once she moved there. She then invites Buff1, SUN, and PL to dissect Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti in the same way. Ann Arbor, the quaint university town, becomes a hotbed of racial and economic dissent. And it’s not even like they’re raising the veil—the GLF, the Radical Lesbians, SDS, and the Black and White Panthers told us that in the 1960s and 1970s—so much as presenting the complex way Ann Arbor feeds into Detroit, feeds into America, feeds into people and places. Hell, Invincible even gets the wonderful Grace Lee Boggs to provide an interlude. Greatest guest spot ever!
Other tracks are equally political though often feature more levity. Waajeed builds the gorgeous “ShapeShifters” out of flamenco-ish guitar, knotty high organ pitch ambiance, and shuffling percussion. The song is a dissection of everyday interaction, offering music as a crucial method of social change. “Sledgehammer,” by 14k and Haircut, plays with a barrage of floats, orchestra hits, and simmering percussion; in the center, Invincible out-rhymes herself, stuck in quick cyclic lines that barrel into one another. Combined with the relatively light hit of the track, the tension is built by the way the track winds up into itself. Invincible declares “we are the leaders we’ve been waiting for”; she samples Dilla to frame the song as an attack on emcees who only discuss their problems; she compares the spitting of crappy emcees to Orville Redenbacher popcorn. Hilarious. But even though this is often a funny, funny album, Invincible carefully navigates between traditional rap pose, her own message, and trying out innovative beats and delivery. In a way, that keeps this from offering a new direction for rap (y’know, beyond making good albums again), but her insane ability to balance it all makes this a culmination of sorts. I certainly haven’t heard a better hip hop album this year or last year. Just astounding, is really all I can say, which is why I’ll stop expounding on the shit Invincible already says fabulously throughout Shapeshifters. Stop reading and listen.