By J. Quintella, Soulsandsounds.com
Shocking album covers are nothing new for Bay Area activist emcee Paris. Going back nearly 20 years to his debut The Devil Made Me Do It, they are sometimes provocative, sometimes disturbing...or both (2003's Sonic Jihad's rendering of a jumbo jet headed for the White House is one glaring example). The visuals for his latest effort, Acid Reflex, do not disappoint that legacy. The looming, slightly out of focus figure of Uncle Sam eerily beholds his tragic prize: a grenade-bearing Black infant in his open palm. The connotation here is immediate and literal; Black folks have been in the clutches of the American social and economic system for over 400 years now--and as poignant and uplifting as an Obama presidency promises to be, a good chunk of America's Black people still face a volatile existence that includes police brutality, miseducation, self-inflicted crime, and economic strife that seems as bleak as ever.
Paris' 15-cut sonic assault on these injustices gets crackin' right from the album's opening track. "Don't Stop The Movement"-- a danceable stepping number with it's low, buzzing synth bass, Zapp & Roger-style melody at the bridge, and a tempo-matched sample of cheerleading protesters is almost worth the price of admission by itself. But the goodies keep coming--and Paris is in fine form throughout most of the disc.
Vocally, Paris' presentation has remained virtually unchanged in 20 years: his clean, lispy baritone growl is in full effect. Although thirty-something diehards may find themselves at times wishing for tracks that employed the edgy, frantic loops that were the hallmark of early Afro-centric rap (restrictive sampling laws and licensing fees have all but ended this style of beat-making), Paris --- handling all of the production duties himself --- manages to serve up satisfying helpings of what is basically mid-tempo, updated and refurbished West Coast g-funk.
But purists shouldn't fret; his trademark ominous soundscapes make a timely return on several cuts, such as "Rebel Without a Pause", â€œBlap That Ass Upâ€, and the album's title track. On "Winter in America" Paris and Public Enemy frontman Chuck D give a verbal lashing to buffooning rappers and the media executives who pump and dump them--"Just coons on the tube, jiggaboos and pimps/ act a motherfuckin' fool while labels makin' a mint." Police brutality is dealt with on "So What?", as weary ghetto communities rise up to even the score. "Get Fired Up" is a shot across the bow to Paris' silly bling-bling colleagues rapping about tired contemporary themes.
While the blueprint for any self-respecting Black Power hip-hop obligates you to sprinkle in a few well-placed Farrakhan snippets, the 2008 version of this technique would substitute fiery segments of Reverend Jeremiah Wright's vitriolic "Goddamn America" speech. "Silence of the Lambs" receives exactly this treatment--and to great effect. The foreboding, melancholy funk/rock backdrop enhances Wright's brilliant monologue with a grave and chilling relevance.
The set concludes with a dynamic remix of "Don't Stop the Movement". It features the master funk-a-teer himself, George Clinton and a surprising saxophone solo (when's the last time you heard live sax on a rap record!?). The only quibble is that this remix begs for a new arrangement: you have to sit through the original mix in its entirety before it reveals the newly added elements.
Co-signing on much of the CD is the talented rapper/radio host T-K.A.S.H. He's used heavily across the album's choruses and backgrounds; sounding very similar to Paris, he is effective most of the time--albeit a bit overused. What might have worked better in some spots is the sorely missed cutting and scratching from the breaks of Paris' early releases (next time, call The Coup's always dope DJ Pam the Funkstress).Â
It's really a predictable commentary on our state of affairs that Paris' topics of discussion have not changed much since his debut nearly two decades back. But that time has given him a wiser, reflective take on this material. Like his late eighties comrades who are still in the game, such as Chuck D and Ice Cube, Paris is now squarely in the "grown-ass man" camp--digging deeper for his lyrical tirades and giving insight on the ills of society that only comes from time spent living in it. Acid Reflex is a cerebral album that grows on you--revealing little nuggets here and there that you missed the first few times around (like quick jabs to Dick Cheney and the Federal Reserve). In this conflicting era of America's history-making election on one hand, and unprecedented uncertainty on the other, the Black Panther of Rap and his Acid Reflex may be the last bastion for Hip Hop that tells it like it 't-i-is'.