Soul Position

Things Go Better With RJ and Al

(Rhymesayers; 2006)

By Chet Betz | 8 November 2007

This is where reviewing turns to shit. Shrugging at an album by hometown artists that you love and respect, good guys you’ve interacted with at album release parties or in the record store down the street. Feeling a responsibility to write the review because you think that these artists deserve the coverage, and you wouldn’t want anyone else having the responsibility – for better or worse, this is your shit to react to – and reacting less than radiantly, and knowing, sighing, knowing that there’s a real good chance that these artists and their lion’s pride of friends, who live all around you, are going to read your lukewarm, bitch-ass critic babble. It fucking hurts to listen to their newest and get that sink in your gut: no, you can’t rave like you did for their first full-length, 8 Million Stories (78%), and it doesn’t touch the best of their solo efforts, Deadringer (87%) and 1988 (see, 77%). You’re sitting on the edge of your damn bed, and you’re pressing valleys into your temples, trying to implant this new album, but you fail. Maybe it’s because you can’t reconcile the disparity between what you wanted and what the artist did; your vision’s tunneled, you can’t circumvent expectations and conceptions, and you can’t erase your own injustice. You leave yourself sullenly staring at a blank page and a cursed blinking cursor. I am so not looking forward to the next time I see Al and RJ round Columbus.

There’s a reason that the Glow never covered Magnificent City, and, believe me, it’s not because we didn’t hear it. Now excuse me as I rip a page from Newell’s Destroyer counterpoint.

My family moved outside of Columbus, Ohio, when I was seven, and on one occasion my pops and I were driving in for a visit, us listening to my recently purchased and signed copy of Celestial Clockwork on the car stereo. We’d just finished with 8 Million Stories. Stuffing the tobacco in his pipe, dad casually asked, “So why do you like this stuff?” My father’s a firmly moral sort and sharp enough that you can’t really pull a fast one on him, so I might have had a tougher time explaining myself if it had been Straight Outta Compton, but Celestial Clockwork, shit, that was easy.

I used the apologetics passed down to me by generations of hip-hop lovers forced to use them. I argued that if rap’s rhymes weren’t exactly poetry, they at least had the potential to be poetic. I pointed out that it’s integral to the art form that rap’s language be blatant and visceral, but when a good rapper like Nas uses the word “bitch,” he’s not using it for its crudeness but because it’s a word that’s lost all shock value in his genre and has become just another part of the vocabulary with its own cultural cache; when Nas says the word “bitch,” it’s just as much saying “bitch” as it is saying something about the way Nas’ community said the word “bitch,” how the men called the women bitches and the women called themselves bitches and how a young kid in NYC comes to a different understanding of what a “bitch” is than what’s in Webster’s or in the mind of your stereotypical suburban housewife. With Celestial Clockwork still spinning, I claimed that the best rap’s neither a condemnation nor a glorification of its experiential roots, but is instead detailed, impassioned observation. Otherwise, rap becomes a hollow exercise in self-righteousness or self-gratification. There’s certainly some pro-life sentiment in Common and Lauryn Hill’s “Retrospect For Life,” but it doesn’t preach because its words are owned on a very personal level, its lyrics the stories of individuals. Illogic’s “First Trimester” is essentially that song’s sequel, the contradictions, ambiguity and depth enriched through Illogic’s perspective switching between the father, the mother and the aborted, who provides the track’s omniscient third person voice and who accepts the decision of the parents, forgiving them as the song closes.

Here be basic principles that, if properly stretched and elaborated upon, can be used to defend the entire Wu-Tang discography to a million dads far more uptight than my own. One of the reasons I love the new Clipse single so much is because while its lyrics seem obsessed with the same sort of materialism and pecking order social politics that define hip-hop to its haters, the music’s some cold shit. Thus, the track neither condemns nor glorifies; the pairing of that beat with those rhymes achieves a full balance. You see, then, nascent hip-hop admirers, that the possibilities for good excuses are virtually endless. This music’s meant to be felt, but that doesn’t mean we have to sit back and bare our chests to the rhetorical darts of those who don’t feel it.

I didn’t need to carry things much farther that day, my content father puffing on his pipe and nodding at me, the present examples of 8 Million Stories and Celestial Clockwork upholding their end of the bargain. Thank God, because my affinity for early to mid-career Kool Keith would have taken a rather long-winded treatise of intellectual maneuvering (not a little of which would have been pure bullshit). On the opposite end of the spectrum, Soul Position’s newest album would have made my argument more easy than it should have been, and I have a feeling that if then had been now, and we’d been listening to Things Go Better, my dad would probably have stopped smoking in order to point at the stereo and say, “Isn’t this stuff a little too obvious for you, though?”

I moved back to Columbus after college, and, boy, here’s another reason I wish I was still in college.

It’s not that I’m against hip-hop with a message, but I look for the delivery of the message to come through introspection or through telling a story of one’s environment in relation to one’s self. On Things Go Better, Blueprint often talks to people, talks at people. After the cinematic string sweep of the intro, “No Gimmicks” is a troubling way to open. RJ perhaps thinks his production here, clinky drums occasionally joined by a shiny loop, embodies the “no gimmicks” concept, but a “no gimmicks” concept is a bit of a gimmick in and of itself. This is just as evident in Print’s lyrics as he runs through a couple verses of all the things this track and Soul Position’s music are not: “No slogans / No twenty-inch rims rollin’ / No gold fronts / No publicity stunts…” Print largely ignores the gimmicks of the underground, ignores that his song concept here is a gimmick, and when he prefaces the titular bark of his hook with, “No limits,” one has to ask about these self-imposed strictures: “No crunk music / No funk music / No contemporary hip-hop jazz fusion / No collabos with wack people who feel what we doing.” I can respect Print’s desire for an unsullied hip-hop ethic, but why brag about it instead of just doing it, and why pretend that the thing proposed is limitless when it actually consists of limitations?

A bound surpassed was never really a bound; it’s all about working within one’s parameters or creating a new set of them. RJ does the former on “Hand-Me-Downs,” his mastery of horns in four-step arrangements making the track’s start very promising and familiar; and, indeed, this first single is one of the album’s moderate successes. The hook’s all blare, but the way the verses slink over the subdued guitar is nearly as fetching. Heaven help me, I can applaud the content when Print says, “Rap nowadays is by a bunch of ignorant cats / No young, gifted and black / Just guns, bitches and crack… If you let the TV define what black is / You think ice and violence is all we think that matters / I guess this is what happens when rappers look up to thugs / And kids look up to rappers.” The problem is that the content’s medium comes off a little artless; where the first Soul Position LP offered one of eight million stories to illustrate the point, Things Go Better stitches on some narrative morsels and fractured anecdotes here and there, like personalized patches on a didactic newspaper column.

This applies to the goofball tracks, as well, the random quips and churlish insults culled together for “Blame It on the Jager” lacking the long set-up follow-through of “Jerry Springer Episode.” And at one point Print actually uses the lines, “Girl, let’s make like a tree and leave / Girl, let’s make like a ball and bounce.” I know, blame it on the jager, right? Still, I enjoy my friends’ raps after they’ve been drinking even less than their sober attempts. It’s difficult to know what to make of a track like “I Need My Minutes,” where all the straightforwardness serves the message that Print needs his cell minutes (so lay off groupies and Weightless fanboys). A proper response to my head-scratching: “Man, just relax and enjoy.” That’d be a lot easier to do with some great beats and hooks, a couple necessities that find “Jager” and “Minutes” in short supply. The former’s keys are disgusting, no compliment intended, and I can’t see the latter’s hook, a surly grumble of the title, catching in any head. Soul Position’s done this fun shit before with more flair, and far better tracks to be found on the second side of 1988 wore out Print’s average-joe-at-disadvantage/
advantage shtick. Sorry, mildly clever humor-rap with mediocre production probably peaked in ‘88 with The Great Adventures of Slick Rick (70%, at best), and this stuff’s way tamer than Slick.

“Keep It Hot for Daddy” and “Priceless” owe much of their strength to RJ’s production (though “Priceless” confusingly moves from imitation Avalanches to a recycled piano loop back to the disco clap on to… is that outro segue Talk Talk?), but it’s not a lot to cling to when the album divides and surrounds with material that’s lost to Bluerint’s laser-guided purposes. In “The Cool Thing to Do” Al’s coaching his niece on guarding against boys who’ll one day want nothing but her body; it’s probably a fine track for young girls, but what about Print’s actual demographic? “Sex, Drugs, Alcohol, Rock-n-Roll” continues the after-school special, Print spitting stories of “sex” and “alcohol” that spell tragedy for their protagonists, “drugs” and “rock-n-roll” apparently covered by the murky jam RJ drops at the end. The end’s also the only tolerable part of RJ’s worst beat ever, the majority consisting of junk synth and two widely staggered hits with a downbeat in the middle.

Even on “Keys,” where Print writes a steady, less educational thread and RJ accompanies it aptly, the results feel short-sighted. The tale’s in second person, leaving it removed from narrator and audience, and the conclusion amounts to an Alanis-ironic back-slap: losing your keys can sometimes suck the big one. It’s doubly frustrating because you can practically hear the record winding down, and soon you’re on the closer, the title track, and RJ punctuates a Glass-esque string cycle with solitary brass blasts and wood whistles, and you’re hopeful that here, finally, will be the song that gives the album its resonant core, like when the beat switched up on “Share This,” and Print’s voice tore his throat, clipped cries about the “ways of the tribal,” the suicidal, the homicidal, “the crack fiends that walk around my block in denial,” and you knew his block and its natives, saw them right there at that moment, and you watched as that image came crashing down under the stunning rays of RJ’s brazen, instrumental hook. And you felt that shit in the very marrow of your soul. But on “Things Go Better,” the music never reveals, and Blueprint gives a Soul Position origin story, and, again, Print did this concept better for Greenhouse Effect with “Square One” on Columbus or Bust, did a final track at his best with “Liberated” from 1988, and… fuck, I’ve got to get out from under the weight that I place on everything these guys release.

If Soul Position intended to craft a wholly direct, musically and lyrically and conceptually simplistic piece of positive rap, like a modern day Arrested Development album, then I think they did that well enough, and I guess I don’t fully appreciate because I’m too caught up in my own gangly mental schematic of what it is that makes good hip-hop good. I bothered to write this piece and risk the ire of them and their collective posses, though, because I believe my point of view’s worth some consideration by the artists and our readers, even if Print and RJ are almost sure to engage their definite right of flatly rejecting what I’m saying – and then, like, never speak to me again. I just hope they know that it’s no accident this review is so gargantuan and self-conscious. Take it all as token of a fan of both Soul Position and hip-hop, and one who cares way too much.