I haven’t quite been able to get my head completely around Common Market’s latest album, a few years in the making, Tobacco Road. For one, it’s expansive. With 18 tracks spanning over an hour, Tobacco Road gives the listener a lot to digest. That’s all well and good when the lyrics are sparse, but with RA Scion, sparse isn’t even in the vocabulary. Scion and Sabzi (who also moonlights in one of Seattle’s other hip-hop treasures, Blue Scholars) have challenged not only themselves, but also their fans with this latest release. Repeat listens are not only recommended, they are necessary.
Tobacco Road was nearly the best lost hip-hop album of all time. The recording was supposed to be completed in September of 2007, but things fell apart. Thankfully, they got it together and released the album albeit a full year later, it being not only one of the best hip-hop albums of the year, but possibly of all time. Yes, it’s that good. I mean, after all, its been since KRS-One’s work or Public Enemy’s Nation of Millions that a hip-hop album needed footnotes and a bibliography. (Common Market actually provide those footnotes as well as much needed lyrics on their website). Take the first proper track, “Trouble Is,” a song that finds Scion deftly alternating between measured verses, rapid-fire bridges and plantation song style choruses over Sabzi’s church organ atmospheres. All the while, the song is an incisive analogy between Common Market’s finding their way in the Seattle hip-hop scene and a vagrant starting his own tobacco crop in the Carolinas.
The duo that make up Common Market seem particularly prescient with this album release. Not only does it present the usual and expected fiercely political points of view, but it is also an allegorical parallel to a time of struggling farmers and dust bowl dearth, a depression that we seem to be reliving in our own times. Scion’s rhymes are incendiary, spitting such invectives as “This has got to be a joke, ` cause it’s not what we were told / is in the promissory note of the draft the forefathers had crafted / your fathers ain’t mine, boy – I’m a bastard,” in “Gol’Dust” or “Seein’ fam fallin’ through the cracks in the variance / famished on a barren land of AIDS and malaria / one percent could fix it with a tenth of their inheritanc”” in “Nina Sing.” But, as I said, these lyrics are only half the story and half the enjoyment of this album, though an incredibly complex one.
The other half is the beat and music provided by Sabzi, proving he has more up his sleeves than can be housed by merely one hip-hop duo. Both groups are street-smart and college literate, but Sabzi takes a different musical tack with each project. While Sabzi’s Blue Scholars tracks seem rooted in the history of hip-hop, his work with Common Market seems more rooted in the collective consciousness of all types of American music of the past. And that is the other reason why Tobacco Road is so rewarding. Word, message, beats, history, politics, convictions, protest and celebration all seem to meet at a crossroads on this album, which makes it mighty. This is far from the mindless hip-hop inhabiting the charts. With Tobacco Road, RA Scion and Sabzi provide something more, an album both listenable and able to be studied at length.
Common Market and Blue Scholars have put Seattle back on the hip-hop map in the last few years, but with the release of Tobacco Road, they’ve made that pushpin at least as big as nearly every other city, save for maybe New York, Los Angeles and Atlanta. That might be about to change. Heck, give Seattle enough time and even those powerhouse urban music spawning grounds be taken down by the Emerald City rhymers, because if other Seattle residents can make something as intelligent, as infectious and as relevant as Tobacco Road, then, like our economy, there’s nowhere else to go but up.
Public Enemy- Nation of Millions
Boogie Down Productions- By All Means Necessary
Bruce Springsteen- The Ghost of Tom Joad