MELAPHYRE / “Wonderful”
Source: Ugliness (Fight For Us/Ayo Inc. - 2006)
I don’t know if Melaphyre recorded most of the first half of his new CD, Ugliness, with a different audience in mind than the second half, but it sure sounds like it. I like the second track, “Wonderful,” but by the time I got through track seven, the near-halfway point of the album, all the sung hooks and R&B-ish beats were started to grate my nerves. As anyone who reads BoL knows, I listen to all types of music, but when I listen to rap, I want to hear rap – in other words, beats and rhymes.
I was especially disappointed because I’ve had Melaphyre’s first album, L.O.T.U.S., since it came out back in ‘02. While it was never an easy listen, it was a good one. If that album had a weakness, it might have been too dense and lyrical. As much as I like hardcore hip-hop, I sometimes listened to L.O.T.U.S. actually wishing for a catchier hook or an easier beat. For the first half of Ugliness, it sounded like Melaphyre had overcorrected, like he’d gone from too difficult to too easy. But starting with song #8, “Make It Out,” he hits his stride and the album achieves that elusive balance between listenability and complexity.
At his best, Melaphyre is the type of MC whose lyrics remain fresh no matter how many times you hear them. The reason is, you’re not listening to just the words. Like nearly all talented rappers, Melaphyre is interested in the way certain words fit with others, the way certain syllables form patterns that please the ear and the mind. Alliteration and sibilance aren’t just terms one memorizes for Literature 101, they’re also what makes one MC’s words sound rich and deep and full of life while another’s may sound bland and stale. Check how Melaphyre begins “Wonderful”:
The magnificence of wonderful life
Whoever saw me on the road
To holding four kids and a wife?
My mother used to speak these words of advice
Shared with an abundance of love
Now it’s in the songs that I write…
Somehow, forgiving us all
I thank God for this wonderful life
They say it’s wonderful like
Rainfall on summer nights
Pain’s just a part of it, right?
And so my outlook on the future is bright
‘Cause all I want is my people’s love,
God, and this wonderful life…
Even if you never heard the song itself, just saying the words out loud, you can feel the makings of that peaceful rhythm Melaphyre has sketched out with all the S sounds (‘some’ ‘us’ ‘this’ ‘it’s’) and F’s (‘for’ ‘-ful’ ‘fall’) and all the long I’s (‘like’ ‘night’ ‘right’ ‘bright’). It’s no accident and it’s not ‘just rhyming.’ It’s sound-smithing, it’s rhythm-ing, it’s MCing. It’s an art and it’s a craft and it’s part of what separates someone like Melaphyre from a lot of what you hear on the radio. (Although, truth be told, a lot of the radio cats are skilled technically too. Their problems lie elsewhere.)
For those (like me) who think the whole guest appearance thing has gotten way out of hand, there are only a few other MCs on the CD and most of the appearances are cohesive and unobtrusive. One of the more noticeable guests is K. Gates, Melaphyre’s brother. Years and years ago, in New Orleans, I went to school with Melaphyre and although I lost touch with him when I went to high school, I knew he was a rapper and I knew he was good. But I never knew his younger brother Kwame (AKA K. Gates) rapped, so it was an eyebrow-raiser to hear “Walk Alone,” where baby brother’s incendiary verses damn near steal the show. “I’m trying to grow a tree,” Gates says about the music business, “But I’m swinging on a branch in it.” (I’ve since found out that Gates is signed to a major label and has already put out a few mix CDs and singles. And by the way, the sample on “Walk Alone” is from War’s “That’s What Love Will Do,” which we coincidentally featured in February ‘07.)
To close out, I’m going to include two of my favorite songs from Melaphyre’s first album, L.O.T.U.S. The first one is “Sunflowah,” an unusual ode to femininity in that it Melaphyre doesn’t only touch on the usual subjects (romantic love and/or one’s Mama), he also extends the metaphor to Mother Nature, Mother Earth and the passing seasons. The second is “Thee Origin,” which I like both for Melaphyre’s intense and complex rhyme schemes and because the entire second half of the song is given over to DJ Jamil, who puts on an old school scratch clinic. This is independent hip-hop, y’all. If you dig it, support the artist. Ugliness is available at Amazon and on iTunes. Or you can order directly from the artist at www.fightforus.com.
—Mtume ya Salaam
All our children
These young men are literally part of our now far flung, extended New Orleans family. I won’t do that embarrassing adult thing: “I remember when….” But I do remember. I always wondered: what would they do? Meaning, what would they become? How would they carve out their niche in the world?
Rap & basketball are the chosen pursuits for many of our male youth. Both are professions they can easily get into and don’t require money or connections to get started. I think both professions are unrealistically attractive. For every success, there are literally thousands who don’t make it. Those daunting odds notwithstanding, there is something there beyond money and fame attracting our youth.
I think part of it is peer respect and recognition, plus we are now talking about a worldwide phenomenon. But regardless of why Kwame and Kwesi are doing their griot thing, I want to support them and encourage them.
On a personal level, rap is not my musical preference. While I can listen to and appreciate a broad range of rap, I’m not a fan. I don’t listen to it for pleasure. I seldom sit down and put on rap while I’m working at the computer and almost never when I riding in the car.
Part of my aversion to rap is that rap is not the music of my youth and is not the base reference for my musical tastes. I’m wondering will rap be a lifetime pursuit. That phrase that Melaphyre uses when he says what people’s reaction would be if he changed his flow: “That’s not the Kwesi I know.” On the political level I fully understand, but on the aesthetic level, I’m not so sure.
I have a wide range of career interests. Some people know me primarily as a poet, others as a playwright. There are those who see me as a historian and don’t know anything about me producing music. Over the last five years I have been making movies. All of which is to say, I’m curious about the end-game of this rap profession.
At sixty, will Kwame and Kwesi still be rapping professionally or what will they be into? Will they still be the men that I knew?
Meanwhile, I’ll keep listening and keep encouraging them. Ashe.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
This entry was posted on Sunday, May 20th, 2007 at 12:34 am and is filed under Contemporary. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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