Aesthetically, 911's songs uniformly fit the sound of Northwest hiphop: laid-back beats, smooth samples, and melodic raps. As much as this is protest art, though, there's almost no shouting or aggressive music on the disc; this is a peaceful rally. The lyrical content is the call to mental arms where the arguments are generally divided into two camps. The first is that the events of September 11 were destined to happen because of the U.S.'s ruthless political and economic policies toward foreign countries, especially Afghanistan. The second theme is that these artists refuse to go to war for America because they do not pledge allegiance to what they see as a corrupt, racist, morally reproachful government. The CD's liner notes even post anti-military opinions and statistics, and include contact information for groups like the Committee for Conscientious Objectors.
911 Amerika is jam-packed with politics, and, predictably, the most disappointing raps preach from shaky soapboxes. "Situations Critical" [sic] by Yirim Seck, Monk-Wordsmith, and Tom Gray refers to New York (and the U.S. by extension) as "Babylon," where "we're at the lowest point in history that we've ever been"--a broad speculation that's tough to swallow, given this country's past of nuking the Japanese, prohibiting women and non-whites from voting, and forcing entire races into slavery.
The weaker 911 songs are dulled by generic political wording that results in bland propaganda rather than artful storytelling or self-expression. In "Assist Us," Gabriel raps, "Just because [the U.S.] has the bigger guns doesn't make it right/When will we cherish, uphold, maintain, and preserve life?" In "Centurion," Khalil Crisis asks rhetorically, "Is freedom freedom when it's not distributed equally?/Can any one country prosper over all others peacefully?" The rhetoric here, though perfectly reasonable, is rote leftism. The problem is, the more literal and linear the political expression on 911, the less poetic the song. And as great socially conscious rappers like Ice Cube, KRS-One, and Dead Prez have shown us, a strong poetic sensibility is absolutely necessary for making compelling political hiphop.
Luckily, 911 isn't completely overburdened with dubious or bland political rhetoric. In fact, there are a couple of fantastic tracks that present intelligent concepts in a compelling way. "Karma," a rap by E-Real Asim (from Black Anger) and Surge Spitable, uses hustling city blocks as an allegory for the drama between the U.S. and al-Qaeda terrorists. The first character boasts that he has the whole neighborhood under control, and the second, downtrodden but equally greedy, hides out to plot his revenge. The raps are dynamic and fresh, and the scenes are described in exquisite detail.
"God Bless Humanity" is another standout track, with a lethargic beat providing the groundwork for El Saba's spoken-word rant against a racist United States that's soliciting his participation in war. At one point the beat stops for him to yell, "You ignorant, arrogant white man, why can't you understand?!" He has fire in his belly, and his diatribe evokes a tangled mess of emotions around issues like the war on terrorism, the idea of America as "home," the militarized police force, and the complacent bystander. The song is essentially a middle finger aimed at American society, but because El Saba puts the highest premium on complex reasoning, "God Bless Humanity" is the most effective shout of protest on 911 Amerika.
In contrast, on "The Aftermath" it's not clear who has righteousness on their side. "God's comin' and God's runnin'," raps Silas Blak, over Vitamin D's fantastically smooth, funky, up-tempo beat. Like most tracks on 911, the song scrutinizes U.S. politics, but it also amusingly calls out hiphop itself in the last line of the chorus: "Are you ready for war/The enemy's too close to ignore/Use those fatigues what they're supposed to be for." Battlefield uniforms, from camouflage shirts to cargo pants, have been a big part of hiphop fashion. By calling out the clothing's function over its style, Blak presents a welcome level of self-consciousness amid the self-assurance that dominates the CD.
As a whole, 911 Amerika works because of the tracks that rise above political posturing. None of the songs present irrefutable arguments against the U.S. war on terrorism, but maybe that's not their place. As citizens of a "911 America," we get our fill of reactionary, pro-or-con politics everywhere we look. What's refreshing about this disc are the raw emotions, sophisticated storytelling, and understated humor used to interpret our current political situation. These elements broaden the discussion about our post-9/11 nation with new, interesting perspectives, without dampening the erratic, charismatic imagination that has made great political hiphop so compelling.