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Way down in the asphalt heart of darkness known as Brooklyn, U.S.A., there’s some new stuff going down. The Brooklyn heads, on the humble, have been edging up in the ranks, looking to swipe Harlem’s status as the cultural mecca of black America. Three-quarters of a century after Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston, and Nella Larsen first scribbled their way into the pantheon of black heroes, a new generation of poets and musicians is emerging in the shadowy outer borough of New York, building a markedly modern tradition in the spoken word.
Spoken-word poetry has launched itself into the public consciousness on the strength of hiphop’s cultural dominance, engaging followers in thousands of poetry slams each year. The contemporary scene extends the groundbreaking work of ’60s spoken-word groups such as the Last Poets and the Watts Prophets, but focuses on a more thematically diverse set of poetic concerns. The poet Rha Goddess works among a handful of verbalists who intentionally blur the borders between spoken-word performance and rapping; she creates stylized enunciations that leave the responsibility for determining what genre they belong to solely in the ears of the listener. However, although Rha can turn up on any side of the vocal spectrum, her Soulah Vibe is almost exclusively a hiphop CD.
It would be easy to overlook artists like Rha for the simple reason that she comes to the plate bereft of the boulevard nationalism and the simplified, gum-smacking, neck-rolling, black-girl histrionics that seem to be a prerequisite to getting a record deal these days. Rha is coming from a plane that is a good deal more spiritual; thus, she flies beneath the radar of much of the industry.
In the way she speaks to the quality of life and love, and the everyday struggle to keep one’s head up, Rha is at points reminiscent of her aesthetic sibling (and ex-Brooklynite) Erykah Badu. But Soulah Vibe leaves its own footprints in the proverbial sands. Her “flow-etry” is a mix of wisdom gleaned from motherland philosophy and straight-up mother wit, informed by a social consciousness that is at once as urbane as air pollution and as country as collards.
“The Elements,” the CD’s opener, consists of a funk-descended track and an overlay of metaphor-rich verbals in which Rha crafts a comparison between the four elements of hiphop (graffiti, rapping, breakdancing, and DJing) and the classical idea of the elements. In the arena of metaphor and allusion, Rha is at her strongest.
“Immaculate Conception” is a gift to the listener, an ear-friendly melange of piano flourishes and drums. “Lola,” a tantalizingly short exposition of a private dancer whose trade has all but shackled her soul, clocks in at a mere minute and 16 seconds, and the subtle pulses of Spanish guitar defining this track provide something of an ear-tease. The entire nine-track release, in fact, seems to follow the dictum that entertainment should always leave the fans wanting more. As a listening experience, Soulah Vibe takes up slightly more time than your average sitcom—just long enough to create a distinct aesthetic, but not quite long enough to carry it to term.
An ode to that object of every writer’s fetish, “My Pen” comes in a notch below the other tracks: The lyrics contain a lot of catch phrases, and the underlying track is a tad undercooked. But to Rha’s credit, she catches her second wind on the remix, trading in the basic, uninspired sound of the original version for an infinitely more thumpable, bass-driven track. The off-kilter, elliptical rhythm of this version showcases her skills rendered a degree more raw, establishing Rha as one who can, positive messages aside, step into the arena with the most rugged of word-spitters and hold her own.
But it is on “Canvas,” the charmed seventh track, that Rha stakes her claim as a verbal contender. Pay close attention, or you might miss the song’s underlying theme, an exposition on a tempestuous, violent liaison that passes itself off as love. The haunting irresolution of the vocalist and the echoing question “How many canvases have you painted before me?” leave a message as disturbing as it is subtle. The aural palette Rha employs includes a leaden viola that mournfully places the sound outside the standard roster of hiphop hooks.
By way of exit, Rha Goddess leaves us with “Gangsta Religion,” a poetic essay in which she drops the gem: “Fuck illuminati/Armani’s got your soul and your body/Lexus or Maserati/Spirit twisted, locked up and knotty.” The problem is, the flow on this track comes in with so many RPMs that I never did quite catch what her central issue was. Sounded good, though. CP