Hiphop's Nowhere Men
The Sonic and Spiritual Legacy of P.M. Dawn’s Landmark Debut
August 6, 1991
Gee Street Records
PEAK BILLBOARD 200 CHART POSITION
To paraphrase De La Soul's Posdnuos, fuck being hard—P.M. Dawn were complicated. They debuted with 1991's Of the Heart, of the Soul and of the Cross: The Utopian Experience, an album that far surpassed the most hippie-dippy indulgences of the bohos in the Native Tongues clique, such as A Tribe Called Quest and Jungle Brothers. In a genre lousy with materialism and machismo, P.M. Dawn dared to be introspective, spiritual, and soft. Check out the cover to Of the Heart: Prince Be and DJ Minutemix (in real life: Jersey City brothers Attrell and Jarrett Cordes, respectively) wear androgynous, African-styled attire in various shades of purple and lavender while in poses of supplication and wonder... in a barren polar landscape. WTF? Just chillin', y'all. You couldn't get further away from the rugged streets of New York without leaving Earth. (And if you're looking for avatars of the current wave of "cloud rap"—Lil B, Main Attrakionz, Clams Casino, G-Side, etc. for whom ethereality is the new reality—P.M. Dawn were about two decades ahead of the curve.)
Of the Heart may be the most spiritually questing and existen-tialism-infatuated hiphop full-length ever, on the order of rock albums like Nick Drake's Five Leaves Left and funk records like Sly & the Family Stone's There's a Riot Goin' On. It also contains some of the most intensely navel-gazing lyrics ever to be spit on a mic. All of which would be almost unbearable if the music were sappily mediocre and the lyrics were jejune. But that is far from the case.
Prince Be may be self-involved to an almost comical degree (granted, most MCs are, but usually on a more superficial level than P.M. Dawn's master of ceremonies), but he's never boring or hackneyed in his verbosity. He also rarely misses an opportunity to elevate his personal tribulations into the cosmic realm. In P.M. Dawn's worldview, the cerebral almost always outweighs the physical in terms of attention and importance.
At a time in rap—the early 1990s—when the hard reality of "the streets" was exalted above all, P.M. Dawn came out of the gate with perhaps the softest image and aesthetics imaginable, which paradoxically took enormous balls. Amid a soundscape populated by tough—and often smart, to be fair—mofos like N.W.A., Public Enemy, Ice Cube, Ultramagnetic MCs, 3rd Bass, Brand Nubian, EPMD, X-Clan, and KRS-One, P.M. Dawn flaunted their feminine side. Remember how much shit LL Cool J took when he released "I Need Love" in 1987? Rap fans weren't comfortable with their icons showing so much mushy emotion. (P.M. Dawn's only other aesthetic allies were the Native Tongues crew and outliers like Canada's Dream Warriors. But even those brohemians didn't really delve as deeply into the human condition—however solipsistically—as this New Jersey duo did.)
With this in mind, let's examine the peak moments of a labyrinthine landmark hiphop album whose subtitle—The Utopian Experience—is fraught with contradictions and possibly sarcasm, although musically it's accurate.
Sounding like he just snapped out of a meditation session, Prince Be intones on "Intro," "I'd like to welcome you to the Utopian Experience," as a frisky, sinuous keyboard sample from Chick Corea's "Imp's Welcome" coils like incense smoke around a funky break. Be sincerely adds, "I'd like to say, 'What's up' to God." Right away, P.M. Dawn plunge you into a realm far removed from most of the era's hiphop. Nobody was really sampling minor Chick Corea's mid-'70s LPs back then and the dozy, introverted delivery was novel, too. The aura here somewhat recalls the beginning of "Condition of the Heart" from Prince's 1985 album Around the World in a Day—a work that bears similarities to Of the Heart, particularly that of African American artists dabbling with white psych-rock tropes.
The LP attains an early zenith with "Reality Used to Be a Friend of Mine." The way the rolling, R&B/gospel-inflected piano motif and the super-soulful female "oohs" lock in is so wonderful you shiver. When the clipped, hand-clap-enhanced funk beats enter and Prince Be starts in with his most alpha-male-mode rapping about the cruel mistress Reality, your shivers get goose bumps. Mr. Be tussles with the eternal existential difficulties Reality poses for sensitive-artist types, a notion that is anathema to hiphop's "keepin' it real" mafia. Be's rap blasphemy peaks on the track's last line: "Take your mind off Reality and leave her alone." As an overweight, emotionally overwrought, somewhat effeminate black male, Be must have been an outcast in his youth, which probably drove him to peer intensely into his heart, soul, and religious beliefs.
"Paper Doll" continues the album's spiral away from reality. Beginning with a fantasia of pensive strings and (synthetic?) vibes, "Paper Doll" slinkily advances with that laid-back shuffle-funk rhythm that was nearly ubiquitous in the early '90s (see especially Soul II Soul). The vocal arrangements of this song are intricately layered and silky, adding to its luxuriously dreamy feel. The titular subject evokes the tenuous nature of belief, identity, and reality itself, motifs that also appear in "A Watcher's Point of View" and "In the Presence of Mirrors."
"Even After I Die"—buoyed by a glistening guitar riff from Dennis Coffey's "Garden of the Moon"—is a mellow meditation on what happens when life ends. A gentle, galloping rhythm propels the song and angelic "ahs" shadow the existential doubt. Be confesses, "Think I'll still be scared even after I die"—which is such a powerful expression of cosmic despair (and such a betrayal of gangsta rap's No Fear/"ready to die" ethos) even the blackest-hearted punk would have to appreciate it.
"Set Adrift on Memory Bliss" was most people's introduction to P.M. Dawn, as it topped the charts in 1991. After you get over the shock of hearing bits of Spandau Ballet's "True" in a hiphop context, marvel at the subterranean, ominous keyboard burble from Bob James's "Take Me to the Mardi Gras" that periodically tries to subvert the sugary love-songness of "Memory Bliss." Sampling fey British new romantics Spandau Ballet instead of an American R&B artist for the hook (that saccharine "ah ha ha ah ah") was a bold move that rejected rap orthodoxy with a postmodern flair. Prince Be revealed another facet of his uniqueness by dropping perhaps the earliest example of "hashtag rap" with "You're probably alone... solitaire." Nevertheless, the excessive syrupiness makes it Of the Heart's weakest link.
"The Beautiful" is a suitably grand finale through which a female vocalist sings, "How does it feel to be one of the beautiful" in homage to the Beatles' "Baby You're a Rich Man." A poignant flute motif wafts in the distance, a bass lightly arpeggiates, a Hendrixian guitar hiccups staccato punctuation while Prince Be stoically recites contemplative poetry about the nature of appearances. Reality here is distorted, but it's "exceptionally beautiful," too, in Be's eyes. If this is indeed Utopia, it's flawed. Who else in rap would ponder, "In a quest to become colorless/I exalt my eyes with a most profound trust/Yet they are masters at deception"? Nobody. And that's yet another reason why P.M. Dawn's Of the Heart stands as a unique document in hiphop history, an existential epic wrapped in a nimbus of conflicted poetry and transcendentalist funk. Don't sleep on it, but do dream to it.