Now that George W. Bush is in the White House, we’ve seen environmental commitments dishonored, workplace-safety regulations repealed, and abortion rights threatened. Could this finally be the appearance of a nemesis who galvanizes hiphop and R&B artists to park their Benzes, take off their ghetto-fabulous attire, and get down to some more meaningful, grass-roots matters?
Maybe, but hiphop’s decadent disco days certainly aren’t over for everyone, as demonstrated by Puffy’sI mean P. Diddy’smaintenance of his cult-hero status after beating a made-for-HBO shooting and weapon-possession rap. Not nearly as glamorous, but just as charismatic, San Francisco-area alternative rapper, singer, activist, and composer Michael Franti and his band, Spearhead, offer a much-needed breather from the shake-yo’-ass, watch-yo’self chants of mainstream urban music with their third album, Stay Human, a groovy, fist-pumping song cycle that recalls hiphop’s golden age, when both the music and the content were inspired and, at least occasionally, insightful.
Stay Human pushes two political hot buttons: the death penalty and medical marijuana. The album’s fictitious story line concerns the pending execution of herbal healer Sister Fatima. Franti and Spearhead, along with a cast of othersincluding actor and medical-marijuana activist Woody Harrelson, who plays the redneck governor of an unnamed statewrap chocolate-coated funk, rock, rap, and disco around an underground radio program that sounds not unlike something that would be broadcast on Washington’s own WPFW.
Fatima is set to be executed for the murders of the wealthy married couple who owned the building housing her medical-marijuana officeeven though there were no eyewitnesses to the murder, and witnesses who claimed to have seen an argument between Fatima and the couple have since stated that they were coerced by the police. Sound over-the-top? It is, but all hiphop, from the inspired to the insipid, is built on hyperbole and the suspension of disbelief. And the band executes the mock-radio-show so convincingly that by the middle of Stay Human, you’re damn near ready to send a tax-deductible donation.
Franti’s left-wing messages can be as heavy-handed as Public Enemy’s black-nationalist rhetoric, but he’s not afraid to address such touchy topics as homophobia and sexismtwo subjects that turn even the most righteous Afrocentric rappers into dodging pussies. On the breezy retro-groove “Do Ya Love,” Franti sings, “I say do it at home or on the street/With a drag queen don’t matter to me” after cooing the track’s chorus: “It ain’t about who ya love…see it’s all about do ya love.”
Of course, “alternative rap” is often a euphemism for poor quality, and it’s true that Franti has never been a particularly gifted MC. His pedestrian flow and mild, overearnest braggadocio are tough to take seriously. And for all of the album’s organic funk and compassionate stance, Stay Human could use a few Timbaland beats, some James Poysner lovesexy vibes, or a better-than-competent rapper to give it a more streetwise sound. Even when Spearhead cranks out the aggressive, West Coast-flavored “Rock the Nation,” Franti sounds like a poor man’s Chuck D, flinging such incendiary lines as “Fuck the constitution/Are we part of the solution or are we part of the pollution?” with remarkable politeness.
He compensates, however, by fronting a crackerjack band that effortlessly shifts gears from barrio rock to blissful disco, from rare groove to samba. The Roots astonish many heads by playing their own instruments, but their efforts to maximize East Coast minimalism result in overstreamlined arrangements that fail to explore the full range of their instruments. Spearhead, on the other hand, sounds like a band that could actually get away with playing an instrumental, and it provides the perfect foil for Franti’s casual, singsongy deliverywhich is, somehow, at once Sly Stone and Mos Def, Gil Scott-Heron and Speech, Terry Callier and Bob Marley.
Lacking the verbal acrobatics of, say, Busta Rhymes, Franti delivers his messages clearly and simply, and his preference for writing incisive, graceful verses rather than shuffling together stacks of incongruous words that merely rhyme makes Stay Human an invigorating listen. On “Oh My God,” Franti sets up the story of Sister Fatima against a plaintive groove, reflecting on everything from legalizing marijuana to the American school system, from cloning to conspiracy theories: “‘Cause you gave cash to the feds, left your school district for dead/Fucked you up in the head, but still they sayin’ nothin’s wrong/Sellin’ firewater but outlawing the bong/Still believing the system is workin’.” But Franti manages occasional flashes of optimism amid the gloomy worldview and thorny issues. On the laid-back title track, he positions himself as a groovy messiah for “all the freaky people out there,” rhyming, “I’m bringin’ food to the people like a widow/Bringin’ flowers to a grave in the middle/Of the city isolation is a riddle.”
Franti is even more persuasive when he leaves the rapping to the pros and just sings. His most poignant piece on Stay Human also happens to be the album’s quietest: On the soul-kissing ballad “Every Single Soul,” he delivers a haunting political tone poem on par with anything by Scott-Heron or Curtis Mayfield. Against a smooth, jazz-inflected groove that could have come off a Steely Dan album, Franti offers a bittersweet meditation on human compassion within an inhuman capitalist system: “‘Cause everything in life can’t be nice and/Everything you want can’t be got/But the lessons on being patient be causing the pressure to rise/And make some people suicidal/Oh no! Another soul has lost control/We pull him back into the fold/He got strung out on the material/All the superficial initials/Upon his clothes.” And against the thumping disco stomp and Weather Girls-like background vocals of “Thank You,” Franti delivers an infectious slab of escapism that soars higher than most of Stay Human’s other material simply because it’s not weighed down by overwrought political angst.
Stay Human isn’t perfect, but it’s vital. It would have been interesting to hear Franti struggle with his own sense of humanity, as Meshell Ndegéocello did with her homophobia on “Leviticus: Faggot” or Marvin Gaye did with his drug problem on “Flyin’ High (In the Friendly Sky),” instead of so doggedly fighting the power. Nonetheless, it’s refreshing to hear a hiphop artist who has risen to the challenge presented by the new Bush era, when staying human will undoubtedly be one of our greatest difficulties. CP