How should I unpack Late, a local hiphop album that was released in the middle of February, the last full month of winter? I shall begin with the beginning, which in hiphop always means the beat. Before the rapper, there is the beat; before scratching, the beat. In Late, the beat, which was crafted by the gifted and young 10.4 Rog (Roger Habon), the producer behind THEESatisfaction's masterpiece "Cabin Fever," does not kick or pound or boom. Instead, much of it is composed of soft thuds, quick snaps, and taps with a kiss of dub. The bass has most of the substance and is widely spaced, leaving lots of room for what often amounts to a suggestion of a beat.
As with several of the remixes 10.4 Rog has released over the past two years, the beat on Late is ornamented with delicate dub effects and lightly rippling/meandering keyboards. The result of this mode of production (hinted beats, elegantly elongated bass lines, dreamy echoes, pretty melodies) is a hiphop that's emotionally sensitive. I must now bring up humpity-and-bumpity crunk (a music that has almost no sensitivity) and a local crew called dRED.i. (This digression will hopefully not be a waste of time.) Back in the early '00s, dRED.i came up with the idea to make a revolutionary crunk, a crunk that was politically charged. A crunk that would speak to your mind (rap) and behind (beat). The idea was brilliant, but it didn't catch. Why? It's not that dRED.i lacked talent—the crew had scores. No, it had to do with the fact that the music and content have to be one and the same thing. Revolutionary raps need revolutionary beats. This was indeed the essence of Public Enemy—innovation all around. If, however, the music is regressive, which is the case with crunk, then we cannot expect anything different from the raps. The MC will reflect the condition of the beat. End of digression.
Back to Late, a project that was slowly and carefully developed during the second part of 2010: The sensitivity of the music is reflected in the sensitivity of the rapper, The Good Sin (Kellen Herndon), a 24-year-old man born and raised in Seattle. The Good Sin is never loud or angry, but always at an emotional tempo that encourages thoughtfulness. There are angry thoughts, intellectual thoughts, and thoughtful thoughts—The Good Sin is defiantly about thoughtful thoughts concerning his world (working class), his relationships with women (which tend to be tender), and his spirituality (a kind of experimental theology). There is no meanness in The Good Sin's rhymes, but neither is he simply positive about life. He recognizes the reality of social and historical problems, but he never lets these obstacles cloud or distort his humanism: "I'm counting on the sea view to tranquil the pain I'm having/Hoping love spreads through the year when the hate is happening/But I ain't focused on the negative/It's a blessing to know just how much to give..." ("All for You").
Another digression is in order. Commercial rap usually presents the rapper as the object of indirect desire. What I mean by this: The ideal subject for this kind of rapping is a young man who wants to be the rapper because the rapper has such easy access to so many desirable things, particularly women with big butts and breasts. This is the essence of mainstream rap videos. The rapper is in a world you want to be in, and so the subject of this video and music, you, wants to be the rapper, the one who gets to fuck all of these beautiful and curvy babes and drive all of these big and environmentally destructive automobiles—the rapper as the object of indirect desire. (Few rappers are the direct objects of desire—Lil' Kim comes instantly to mind.) In the underground, it's more about identifying with the listener. The rapper presents his/her reality as having commonalities with others in the world of ordinary happenings. Few of us in the world often find ourselves surrounded by a bevy of horny and ass-heavy women or with the funds to keep a massive car fueled. But we do find ourselves dealing with what The Good Sin deals with: trying hard to be faithful to the one you love.
"Usually, I try to find whatever is going on in my life," The Good Sin explains to me over the phone. "I then hear the music, the beat, and then just work out the rest from there. For this project, I was initially inspired by 'Winterlude' [the fourth track on the album]. It contains the map for the entire project." And this brings me to my concluding comment: Still to this day, a late day in the 30-year history of hiphop, the best work to be found out there usually results from a collaboration between two people. This type of unit (what C. L. Smooth and Pete Rock once celebrated as "just two"), the rapper and the producer, the poet and the musician, has proved to be the most fertile ground for this type of art.