You’re going to want to hear this, America.
To be deemed ‘lyrical’ is both a blessing and a curse; not just in the contemporary hip hop game, but in the music industry as a whole. You’re known for cleverly stringing together metaphors and imagery all in one poetic facet and sparking thought in the listener. Conceiving the pursuit of cognition and understanding is an exciting part of deciphering lyrics, eventually delivering the same sort of satisfaction akin to fitting the final part of a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle in the right spot. But lyrics don’t guarantee sales. The industry doesn’t want prophetic ramblings and the analysis of modern life, it wants a bright smile atop a dance routine and auto tuned vocals for its next summer anthem. 25 year old Kemba, a Bronx-born rapper is happy to oblige by expressing the very opposite, with an unyielding inside look at the black experience in modern-day America in the form of hip hop: ‘Negus‘.
“Please don’t call me conscious / Don’t call it political / Please don’t deem this lyrical / These are negro spirituals” are the opening lines of the track ‘Caesar’s Rise‘, the second cut off of this 12 track-long project. He, like many, acknowledges that the label of being ‘conscious’ is one that many artists today try to avoid; it being an automatic gateway to being called over-preachy and boring. What Kemba advocates through his writtens are what he believes are the deep-rooted beliefs of a young African-American, a theme which is predominant across the whole LP. Formerly known as YC the Cynic, Kemba is an underground artist with a host of critically-acclaimed but commercially-ignored projects behind him. Continuously praised for his wordplay and clever delivery of delicate and sensitive subject matter, it’s almost impossible not to call him ‘lyrical’. The track is driven by the MC’s zealous and punchy rapping; the rigid, pulsating crawl of the drums serving as a militaristic-esque backing track for his call to arms against those that choose to ignore or downplay the struggle that many of the black community are tired of being forced to experience: “Reading through your flag, and your skull and bones / Now the chickens coming home / Roosting on the roof of fucking Fox and CNN / Send reporters to the war so you can watch and see us win“. The imagery of foxes and chickens switching roles while alluding to the American media outlet Fox (which has always seemed to have a bias against people of a non-white persuasion) is a genius double entendre. It sets the tone of the LP brilliantly, especially after the introductory track ‘Fly‘ that sees a Dark Twisted Fantasy-like vocal ensemble outline the perils of giving young African-Americans hope in a world that sees them as second class citizens no matter how far they reach. The tone gradually grows darker and more grim as the opener continues, painting a haunting picture of a life of societal hardship for ‘the boy’. But then it has to, because ‘Negus‘ details the rise to king status that a disenfranchised people must experience to, like all humans, reach their full potential.
While this message is particularly popular in hip hop, there are very few who express it quite like Kemba does. On the track ‘The New Black Theory‘, an unforgiving, relentless lyrical barrage on the views of a divided American society, the MC claims “I could walk outside now and get show down“, going on to claim the civil leaders of the US would act submissive under a hidden regime that would have them turn a blind eye to another black body riddled with bullets marked ‘To Protect and Serve‘. The production here is stellar too, snapping drum kicks laced with a rasping synth melody captures a frantic and heated atmosphere that permeates a tension of constant threat that surrounds the MC and those like him. “Why are we divided / I can’t see the logic” he warbles as the track fades, as he notes how the world will take all it wants from black culture but won’t give any sort of care in return; “Who the new black now?“.
The production is wonderfully composed to reinforce the MC and his scrutiny of America too, a perfect example being the track ‘Hallelujah‘ which utilizes an angelic vocal clip, a lot of ambient sub bass and a bouncing, hi hat-filled drumline to create an instrumental that doesn’t manage to eclipse the rapper spitting on it, but would stand on its own as a grand score to any revolution. Kemba seems to find solace in faith in this track, not forcing himself to be constrained to conventional attitudes that stop him from reaching a higher status, putting it into the most eloquent poetic expression: “It’s hard to be positive when impoverished, I did it / Involving in politics for a profit / I’m searching for higher learning in hopes for a higher living / You open to different cultures, my opus in hieroglyphics“. Unconventional is a pretty applicable word too, especially concerning the experimental feel of the instrumentals (all meticulously produced by Frank Drake). ‘Psyrens (Curious)‘ has this stripped back, simple drum loop that would seem mundane when put into the hands of most underground producers, but here it’s paired with this exuberant piano that compliments the hook so well. This cut also has a hollow, almost melancholy call back to the famous “Back to life / Back to reality” line from Soul II Soul’s classic track, juxtaposing the song’s general sense of optimism.
And there is a sense of optimism and hope here, throughout the 12 tracks. Littered among its many dark moments of criticism of a discordant nation, there are moments where Kemba speaks directly to the African-American youth, such as in the track ‘Kings & Queens‘. Over a particularly powerful instrumental he implores the young to not just throw his music away as background noise, but to use it as a tool for guidance, a tool that warns of a system that will lead them into a false consciousness that forces them to accept the illusion they can’t be anything more; “That’s how a leader do / So before you go home and believe the TV / About how you should see your people / Just know who’s speaking the truth“.
Like I said before, there are an abundance of dark moments across ‘Negus‘, as with a message of hope also comes a damning report of the society that tries to hold it back. The tracks ‘Already‘ and ‘Greed‘ are perfect examples of the MC going in on America and the twisted values it holds dear. The latter is a masterclass in wordplay and vivid imagery, as Kemba full unloads his criticisms, ranging from TV news institutions: “Fox news call me ape, well if I’m an ape imma be the apex” to the black community itself: “Niggas stumbled on the fountain of youth / Turned around and bought a Sprite though“. Matching the intensity of the dark, atmospheric synth bass, he makes one hell of merciless account for the number one moral driving force that America seems to worship; greed.
So how do you finish an LP like this? One more verbal attack on modern day society or one last message of hope to youth? Well, in Kemba’s case, he does both. The outro, ‘Brown Skin Jesus‘, wraps these subtle directives in self-appreciation and bravado that the MC has pretty much put off for the entirety of the album. Over a sleek, velvety guitar melody and percussion pulled straight from a blues record he claims to be on a higher level than that of most other rappers , portraying himself as a leader rather than a simple poet: “Time to lead the people from the wretched/ It’s getting hard to see through the debris that’s in the wreckage / Teach ’em to protect themselves from demons and their precious false deities and heathens / False freedoms and oppressors“. It has a lot more attitude than any of the previous tracks, but Kemba approaches it with just as much vigor and lyrical confidence as before. Then, just as you sit satisfied with ‘Negus‘, the LP comes full circle as the Dark Twisted Fantasy-like vocal arrangement returns to repeat the message it delivered in the intro. Except this time, the story of ‘the boy’ doesn’t slip into hopelessness, but rather it tells of how the boy learned to fly and rise above the restraints of society to achieve a higher greatness. It’s a wonderfully positive end to an album so full of anger and bitterness, expressed over the sweetest of guitar solos that slowly fades out into silence.
This album was made by two guys; Kemba and Frank Drake (with additional vocals from Cole King) over 3 years and with what I can only imagine was a fraction of the normal budget for a hip hop record. Yet ‘Negus‘, like its subject, rises above the commercialization and tropes of the genre to treat the listener to a wonder-show of experimental hip hop that asserts its message in poetic genius and lyrical prowess that matches some of the greats in rapping history. It’s far cry from what you’ll find on the radio, but that’s what makes this record so special, all of its raw moments put together so well to craft an underground gem. It’s an incriminating look at America, yet it’s also an album of faith and ambition that was desperately needed in such trying times for a community that’s told it’s the same as any other when it’s treated so different. ‘Negus‘ is an incredible achievement for its creators, a diamond among the rough; and it really reminded me why I love hip hop so much.
Highlights: The New Black Theory, Brown Skin Jesus, Greed, Caesar’s Rise, Kings & Queens, Hallelujah, Already