The Blog

C-Dub Is Not in the Hizz-ouse

With neither gats in holsters nor girls on shoulders, Cornel West makes a rap album.

11:01 PM, Nov 22, 2001 • By MATT LABASH
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MAKING HIP-HOP records is a bit like making love: Anyone can do it, but it takes a special knack to do it right. Consequently, history is replete with those who have scribbled rhymes on a napkin, booked studio time, then barreled headlong off the high-dive only to do an artistic belly-flop.

Recall "The Super Bowl Shuffle," performed by the 1985 Chicago Bears, whose linebacker Mike Singletary proved that black men can be as rhythmically retarded as their white counterparts. Then there was the unfortunate "Wham! Rap," in which George Michael, still in his leg-warmers/silk-gym-shorts phase, attempted to boost his street cred by rapping "Give a wham / Give a bam / But don't give a damn." But the "Ishtar" of rap disasters came from Warren Beatty, who in 1998, delivered "Bulworth." It is hard to see how anyone, even under the influence of powerful hallucinogens, could think that a political satire in which a United States senator takes to campaigning in rhyme would be a swell idea. Indeed, watching the title character, played by Beatty, rap about universal health care ("You can call it single payer or Canadian way / Only socialized medicine will ever save the day") accounts for the single most uncomfortable moment I've ever witnessed in a film.

To be an embarrassing rap-dabbler, it helps to be self-infatuated, tone-deaf (both figuratively and literally), and to have absolutely no sense of one's own ridiculousness. So it comes as little surprise that Harvard professor Cornel West has teed up with what is being billed as his first rap album, "Sketches of My Culture."

To best understand what kind of rapper West is, it is helpful to understand the kind he is not. West evidences none of the sexual braggadocio of the late Eazy-E, who fellow Niggaz With Attitude enthusiasts will remember was a "brother who will smother your mother / And tell your sister that I love her." Nor, mercifully, does he employ terminology like "H-to-the-izzo, V-to-the-izza"--that nonsensical brand of rap Esperanto favored by Jay-Z and others for whom English is no longer adequate.

Amazon.com's house review promises that on this album, "the ivory tower gets jiggy wit it." But West's style actually recalls the '70s era spoken-word artistry of Gil Scott-Heron, who performed songs like "Home is Where the Hatred Is" over lots of congas and funky flute solos, ensuring that his music would age about as well as fondue pots and macrame hangers. Not that West was averse to impersonating more conventional MC's. When he entered the studio, he told the New Yorker, "They only wanted me to speak. But when I got in there, I got involved in the rapping direction. It just came forth." But Clifton West, his brother and executive producer, added, "We had to stop you from rapping. We were busting up."

This hasn't discouraged West from reaching out to a new audience, the one that may have missed his 20 or so books, despite enchanting titles like "The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought." West has signed a three-record deal with Artemis, making him label-mates with Baja Men, popularizers of the booty anthem, "Who Let the Dogs Out?"

Ever the intellectual name-dropper, West has said his prose-poetry lies somewhere between "Eliot and Swinburne." Lest one think one is in for rhymes being busted about objective correlatives or mid-Victorian poetic revolts, West further confounds by saying he is "taking it back to Chekhov and Tennessee Williams. It's intellectual without being cerebral." Likewise, it is audible, without being listenable.

With inflections of blues, jazz, gospel shouts, and just about anything else you can name, the actual music can be summed up thusly: The mellower tracks sound like the midnight-love-me-down-faux-soul-syrup that passes for R&B on urban radio these days. The up-tempo stuff has the sort of straining-for-authenticity vibe of a Schlitz malt liquor ad. Both varieties are tinny and synthetic, as if they were mixed on a Casio keyboard.

But the music is an afterthought--white noise behind West's Baptist preacher/Black nationalist delivery. His lyrical flow, even with the added punch of somebody named Waynee Wayne, could use some help, as it sounds like he's reading his old lectures, which are lathered and slathered in the kind of academese and hot-buttered hokum that might impress undergrads into the sack, but that aren't of much use otherwise.