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Spoken-word albums usually don’t warrant repeated listening. Good prose is too often marred by horrendous performances, and even if the reading is decent, the music underneath is so distractingly awful that the combination becomes unbearable.
The tendency for spoken-word to be disastrous on disc explains why the whole urban-poetry renaissance that ignited during the early-’90s acid-jazz scene fizzled so quickly. Spoken-word artists such as Reg E. Gaines, D-Knowledge, and Maggie Estep received their 15 minutes of fame and their highly publicized record deals and subsequently flamed out, becoming perfect candidates for the “Where Are They Now?” section of urban-culture magazines.
Even the once-ubiquitous grand diva of ’90s poetry slams, Dana Bryant, whose poignant, gut-splitting prose and ingenious Southern-flavored storytelling made her the most likely contender for staying power, sabotaged her career with the release of her dreadful Wishing From the Top. She never bounced back from that embarrassing release and has since descended into obscurity, making cometlike appearances on lukewarm records by Herbie Hancock and Laurent de Wilde.
Because it coincided with hiphop’s apex, the spoken-word craze of the ’80s and ’90s never had a chance. Who wanted to hear Reg E. Gaines’ didactic tantrums when Public Enemy was fighting the power and rocking the party, too? Why settle for D-Knowledge’s inchoate “Jazz Is Is” when A Tribe Called Quest was coming up with its own Low End Theory? Did we really need so many updated versions of Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”?
To judge from her smart debut, Supa Sista, Philly-based Ursula Rucker has learned a lot from the mistakes made by the denizens of the earlier spoken-word scene. She established credibility in both the poetry and hiphop communities before coming out with a solo effort, and her emotionally gripping performances on discs by the Roots, 4 Hero, King Britt, and Josh Wink no doubt impressed upon her the importance of making a good-sounding record. And to ensure that her prose reaches the masses, Rucker has leaned on many of her previous top-notch collaborators—including 4 Hero, King Britt, and Alexkid—to create bewitching hiphop, drum ‘n’ bass, and nu-jazz soundscapes for her CD.
Rucker has the verbal skills to be a masterful combat rapper. She articulates like a hardassed speech therapist, but she filters her crisp attack through a mellifluous voice that seduces as soon as she utters her first syllable. Rucker also relies on an unruffled, rhythmically agile cadence and a keen use of verbal space, firing her words with the precision of a sniper.
But, steeped as she is in a hiphop sensibility, Rucker isn’t a rapper at heart, and only on one of Supa Sista’s tracks—a lethal commentary on hiphop called “What???”—does she come close to actual rapping. Nor does she rely on street-poetry clichas, such as stressing every third syllable to ape the Last Poets’ now-tired cadence. Rather, her prose unravels very much like alto saxophonist Greg Osby’s solos—deliberate and no-frills, but chock-full of uptempo rhythms that zig and zag around phrases. There’s an economy to Rucker’s work; every word, every syllable, every rhyme has purpose.
Among Supa Sista’s best qualities is its candor. Rucker’s record is 100 percent bullshit-free. In fact, it picks up right where her guest appearances on other albums left off, expanding on the laser-sharp observations and somber commentary she delivered on the Roots’ “The Unlocking” (which dealt frankly with gangbanging) and 4 Hero’s “Loveless” (an apocalyptic vision of a decaying ecology).
When Rucker is pissed off about America’s socioeconomic injustices, the exploitation of women, or the banalities of contemporary black music, she is merciless. Scampering through 4 Hero’s baroque drum ‘n’ bass groove on “What???,” Rucker demands reparations from the hiphop nation for all the “fake mogul/crap musicmakers and movefakers” and then shoots a line at point-blank range: “Your bad examples could kill my children’s future.”
Rucker reprises the wrathful Mother Earth persona she adopted on 4 Hero’s “Loveless” for the jazz-inflected “Woman Song,” which celebrates the virtues of womanhood and explains to “ungrateful, ungracious” ogling men that she “ain’t your doormat, your sugar tit/your own personal supply of bliss/your in-house ass to kick.” Her Earth Mother voice takes on an even more subversive tone on the evocative “7,” a duet with rapper M.A.D. that finds its verbal hook in the evolution and destruction of a romance as reflected in the story of its first seven days.
Sexual violence is among Rucker’s most-essayed topics, and she brings home its truths most skillfully on the disturbing ballad “Song for Billy”—a horrific story about a crack-mother prostituting her infant daughter to a gang of child-molesting drug dealers to get her fix. If the story itself doesn’t give you chills, Rucker’s raw and vivid imagery certainly will, as she clinically describes the child in the song as an “innocent orifice/too young to produce woman’s juice/still tiny/still dry and clean/just weaned off mama’s withered, weathered tit.”
The CD’s title and its emphasis on women’s issues might lead some casual listeners to believe that Rucker is an angry man-hater. Yet there’s a depth and nuance to Supa Sista on tracks such as the passionate “Brown Boy,” which flips the gender coin and offers an unexpected and refreshing look at the pathology of black runaway fathers with lines such as “You might leave too…/if you were beat in front of your woman and sons/helpless as sons swung/from ungiving trees/under the southern…sun.”
If this were a four-star rating review, Rucker would automatically get three-and-a-half for not annoying listeners with her own cheap sentimental retooling of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” But Rucker can’t resist her own take on the power of the medium and on Heron’s Big Brother paranoia on the stark “Digichant,” on which she poses the question “Are we going to utilize it or become it?” Her words pin the blame for the recent rash of high school violence in this country to violent computer games with this cynical observation: “Well/more than a nation of our children have become violent/start buckwildin’ in quiet town schools/fool parents and neighbors with that nice kid bit.”
As intelligently provocative and musically astute as Supa Sista proves to be, there are some chinks in Rucker’s armor: a lack of humor and self-reflection. For all its clever, hard-core, and much-needed prose stylings, Supa Sista rarely finds its bliss—or its vulnerability. Rucker hints at her own personal imperfections on a bonus track called “I Keep Secrets,” but for the most part, she is content to play the literary Wonder Woman, saving urban black America from its own self-destructiveness. Supa Sista is one of smartest and hippest spoken-word album to drop in years, but its predominantly serious tone prevents it from being everyday listening. CP