One of the key elements about rap music is something I frequently adore and just as frequently abhor: the focus on the words. In a rap album, the words are the music. This brings forward all of the inherent possibilities of sound-play in words that are frequently hidden or passed over as secondary, decoration, fancy-pants gimmicks of assonance and alliteration wrapped up in a rhyme. Rap music, when used to a certain potential, is the stuff of poets who need not a beautiful singing voice to loudly proclaim their talent; anyone who can read words on a page can let the letters sing for themselves.
The downside of this is the monotony of melody that can manifest itself within rap music. Many rap artists can fall into a pattern of speech that is characteristic of their music, letting the whole production like dust no matter how many times some catch phrase is stressed, the still rhythm leaving a gloss over all the fancy word-workings of the artist. In an attempt to save the emcee’s lyrics, the DJ will often only play a second fiddle made to add emphasis to the words that no longer sing forth shining, trying to scrub away the dust by adding a big beat onto this word, onto this rhyme, onto all these little bits of repetition, diving into the same pitfall his buddy fell into.
Serengeti & Polyphonic’s new album, Don’t Give Up, is a rap album devoted to keep from falling down such pits, Serengeti using words in a different way on each track, Polyphonic never submitting to simple loops. Serengeti is not only capable of making a nice line rhyme, but devotes a much of his efforts to diction, phrasing, vocabulary, and even something simple as speed. This is all best exemplified in the album’s second track “Puppydog Love” where he keeps the vocabulary minimal with a very half-hearted tone that is kept on repeat for in a short amount of time, expressing the shallowness and repetition of love. The next track, “Lately Haven’t Been Feeling Well,” starts with a substantial lead in from Polyphonic that sets an off kilter feel for the rest of the song which Serengeti then seems to play off of, reversing the common M.O. of most rap artists: the words are the music. That notion seems to be booted from the album in many tracks, or at least in the sense that is usual to me.
I think this usual sense is the tendency of many rappers to try to fill the small space of a song with as much sound-play as possible, flashing the words by me in cracks in pops to leave me in awe at the possibilities that have been wheedled out these words. In tracks like “Eleven,” “2 Times 2” and “Waste of Time,” this is still how the words work, but the beats produced by Polyphonic often play an equal or overriding role in these songs, words no longer shouting at me to listen to them. I am instead given even choice over which part of the track to lend my ear. “Waste of Time” exhibits this especially, wherein much of the words are drowned out by Polyphonic’s beat, only little sounds coming through here and there, morphing the words into something a bit more like music. Only the key words are heard clearly, “It’s just a waste of time,” suggesting to me a sentiment that all of the words spouted under the beat are just that, a waste of time, some futile attempt at explanation or communication of some “truth” that can be ultimately be passed off as some song on a CD I got to review. “Praha,” suggests something similar, but on level more personal to the performer.
With a last word, I would say that Serengeti & Polyphonic try to find all of the usuals of rap music on Don’t Give Up, and purposefully go against them in varying degrees, from many different angles, turning more rap into music, and more music into rap.
Serengeti – Noticeably Negro
Brother Reade – Rap Music
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