In 1994, when I was in seventh grade, a hip-hop duo called 5-0 came to my middle school as part of our Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.). Comprised of two former narcotics officers, 5-0’s set list included gems like “Books, not Meth” and lyrics like “Hip-Hop Hooray-ho/say no/say no/Don’t freebase!” (These were probably not the actual song titles or lines, but they might have well have been.) 5-0, while perhaps an extreme case, serves to demonstrate the potential pitfalls of “positive” rap. While MCs trying to educate their audience as to the dangers of drugs, misogyny, and promiscuity and the advantages of peace, tolerance, and piety no doubt have their hearts in the right place, they risk coming across as preachy, condescending, and sterile.
Still, my intent is by no means to dismiss progressive hip-hop. There are a lot of rappers who have made their names through brilliant consciousness, but these types do not stake their success on positive message alone. Whether it is Tribe’s abstract humor, Talib Kweli’s unsurpassable wordplay, Mr. Lif’s apocalyptic paranoia, or KRS-One’s IQ, the best knowledge-droppers put that extra something in their work to set it apart from the 5-0’s of the game.
Khalil, on his recent major release, “The Calm Before the Storm,” occasionally stumbles upon these moments of uniqueness and brilliance, potentially placing his progressive stylings above the fray. On the “Intro” he spits pure End-of-Days revelation, framing his sociological concerns in dark biblical prophesy. “How long before He says enough,” Khalil pontificates, “before it’s over into dust?” The LP’s title track, similarly, finds this D.C.- Baltimore b-boy genuinely afraid for the world, as he uses global warming as a metaphor for a society spinning out control. These more ominous tracks allow Mr. Ismail to espouse his commentary while not patronizing or boring his audience.
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Music Vibes: 4 of 10 Lyric Vibes: 4.5 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 4 of 10
Originally posted: September 1, 2009