According to the underground, rap is in a state of crisis, where corporate puppets sell gangster mythology to a society unashamed of the fact that it finds vice more alluring than virtue. The mainstream, on the other hand, is mostly silent on the state of indie rap—it’s too busy defining the terms of the culture to worry about the ideologues lobbing pious salvos from its fringes. And the notion that the mainstream is screwing up rap is difficult to reconcile with the aesthetic advances and stylistic evolutions taking place there—crunk, snap, trap, hyphy—while much of the underground stagnates in muzzy beats and amorphous polysyllables.
The main problems with hip-hop’s political underground (think about Sage Francis if you want to embody it in a single figure) are its isolationism and its parasitic relationship to what it rails against. Its self-righteousness is disingenuous, serving to reassure white liberals that their politics are sound. What should we make of the fact that these self-proclaimed saviors of rap spend so much time lambasting “phony” gangsters while all but ignoring the uncomfortable cultural realities that allow them to thrive? Why do so many white people love The Sopranos, but suddenly turn into Tipper Gore when violent expression emanates from black urban males? Could it be that the anti-mainstream underground is less about morality than fear and racial hysteria?
I’m broadly generalizing about a complicated issue—shit’s not all sweet in the mainstream, nor is the underground hopeless, as Pigeon John attests. Being a product of the underground, he’s obligated to take a couple potshots at corporate rap. But he mostly gets them out of the way on “Do the Pigeon,” which vividly illustrates the inefficacy of holier-than-thou snarking—no one’s going to put aside their Young Jeezy records to listen to someone rap about watching Friends. If you want to topple vice, in other words, you have to find a way to make virtue compelling.
And John does just that, by ranging out over more diverse and self-lacerating lyrical territory for the remainder of the record. On “Money Back Guarantee” (which is built around the bassline and “dying to meetcha” intro of the Pixies’ “Hey”) and “Freaks! Freaks!,” he’s a nice guy trying (mostly unsuccessfully) to meet women who go for thugs (hailing from Inglewood, John has something of a complex about his decidedly un-gangster sensibility, which he handles with wit and humility). On “As We Know It,” John’s Christian faith manifests as incredulous anger at a supposedly just God presiding over a ?awed world. “I Lost my Job Again” is self-explanatory, while “Growin’ Old” is a lovely elegy for John’s formative years in hip-hop.
But what really makes John shine isn’t his often-clever lyrics; it’s the vigor of his overall prosody—his flow is supple and melodious in the vein of Eminem or Peedi Peedi, and his beats are concise and kinetic. The frantic funk of “Higher?!” pushes ever upward, as John’s tightly coiled sing-song follows suit. On “Weight of the World,” the clipped bass and piano explode into a mighty eighth-note throb for the chorus. John and guest star Brother Ali spit hard over ominous synth smears on “One for the….” Here’s to Pigeon John and the promise of a political underground that defines itself more by what it is than what it isn’t.