A classic or not? It’s tempting to shove Diamond District’s March on Washington through that well-worn binary hip-hop filter, given the D.C. trio’s rep for quality, its members’ worthy output as solo artists, and the reality that they operate in a subgenre—neotraditional boom-bap—where striving for perfection is always near the top of the syllabus. Striving is indeed fundamental to every sound on March on Washington, but sizing up the album for instant-colossus status might be beside the point.
Where Diamond District’s 2009 debut, In the Ruff, seemed to swell up with a backpack full of charm from somewhere along a pregentrified Georgia Avenue, March on Washington bangs its own muscular drum in a changed city where no beat is primary. It’s like one of those deep-catalog jazz LPs that captures some midcareer legends bringing the heat, but with their own criteria for success in mind.
Can’t blame ’em, really. Over the past five years, members Uptown XO (the orator), yU (the craftsman), and Oddisee (the aesthete) have individually released enough noteworthy music to earn a well-curated retrospective, but those albums and mixtapes have been serially underappreciated beyond the community of heads who root for labels like Mello Music Group, Diamond District’s stable.
“I’m prepared for the fame or the flop/The flame or the frost,” Oddisee raps with his trademark twang on “The Back Up,” one of several tracks on the first half of the album that thoroughly lay out the “hardworking rappers” theme while showing off his sumptuous approach to beat production. Song after song rolls forward with expertly fired percussion, highly refined keyboard riffs, and crisply edited soul samples. Appropriately, all three rappers choose to counterpunch the rhythms; even yU, whose style has more slide than the others, spits phrases like “Time spent ridin’ that brittle middle line” (from “Working Weekends”) as if he’s literally on his toes in the booth.
Things loosen up sonically during the second half, and if one MC dominates, it’s arguably XO. “Gave you the first testament/Wonder what’s comin’ after?/Resurrection and the rapture for you bastards/‘When is this supposed to be happening?’ so you ask us/Why don’t you ask them weak rappers you think passed us,” he raps near the front end of “Say What You Mean,” which revisits some of the soul-infused optimism of In the Ruff. Every time XO opens his mouth on March on Washington, Diamond District’s point of view solidifies.
Other successes on Side 2: “Ain’t Over,” where Oddisee flips Marvin Gaye samples with the same virtuosity that he brought to his redux of “Ain’t That Peculiar” on his Odd Renditions EP; “Erything,” an undeniable head-nodder with a dramatic, blaring horn sample; and “Lost Cause,” a trunk-rattler featuring this keeper by Oddisee: “This is why my hustle’s strong/I grew up watchin’ Huxtables/My mama grew up watchin’ kids/Her mama grew up washin’ clothes.”
More personal or narrative-centered moments like that—especially on Side 1—would’ve made the album feel less lyrically insular; all the technically dexterous rhymes about pushing and surviving within hip-hop ultimately put Diamond District in a tight frame, even though the beats are universally musical. If March on Washington is anything, it’s a great-sounding node connected to a much bigger story.