Brand Nubian, a charter member of rap’s old Afrocentric vanguard, has chosen to evade the seemingly ordained fate of rap groups that dare to make comeback attempts. Foundation, the release that ends the group’s four-year absence, doesn’t rely on vanished glory for its edge. Instead, the quartet returns seasoned, mature, and thoroughly capable of moving in new artistic directions. With this release, Brand Nubian has reached the rarefied circles of Lauryn Hill and A Tribe Called Quest in producing genuinely profound sentiments within a genre cluttered by fatuous palaver. This is what sets Brand Nubian apart from most of the contemporary field: Lord Jamar, Sadat X, Alamo, and Grand Puba are grown men, and they sound like it.
Nostalgia was once a nearly foreign sentiment within the confines of hiphop. But rap is no longer a youth music, or at least not exclusively so. The deft practitioners of the verbal arts that asserted dominance in the early ’90s are days away from their 30s. The members of Public Enemy can be accurately described as middle-aged men, and KRS-One is nearly old enough to run for president. The old school is actually getting old, and rap has now existed long enough to have a bona fide generation gap. For every young gun with tales of gold and glory, there is now a wily older hand ready to speak reflectively on the nature of our days on this imperfect planet. Ergo the transcendent vibe of Foundation, which comes as close to a flawless release as anything you’ve heard in 1998.
With the original Brand Nubian collective re-assembled for the first time since the Bush presidency, the smart money would’ve bet on another moment of musical underachievement. In Foundation, however, the group manages to surpass One for All, its most formidable previous accomplishment. In the wake of Grand Puba’s departure in 1992, it became clear that the group’s success was based on the peculiarity of group dynamics; Sadat X and Grand Puba produced records that neither critics nor the public liked, and the last Brand Nubian release recorded by Sadat and Lord Jamar, 1994’s Everything Is Everything, was pitifully lethargic and themeless.
Brand Nubian has never trafficked in the mundane tales of urban adventure, choosing instead to lace its lyrics with references to its 5 percent philosophy and mysticism. Its early work was marked by didacticism and a tendency toward self-contradiction: the sounds of four black boys growing up in public. This time out, the members come across as consistent and world-wise. Like the recently disbanded A Tribe Called Quest, they reckon with the karmic consequences of lovewhich suggests that rap music is finally connecting with the transcendent, life-sustaining virtues that animated its ancestor musics and literature.
In the extended wake of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G., two prematurely dead rappers, gleeful tales of self-annihilation might be giving way to a more vital narrative, the kind that has been infused in black cultural expression since slavery. “My ways and actions manifest in my way of thinking/I can’t just stand around and do nothing while my people is sinking,” says Grand Puba on “Maybe One Day,” three decades after James Baldwin wrote, “Some of us know how great a price has been paid to bring into existence a new consciousness, a new people….If we know [this] and do nothing we are worse than the murderers hired in our name.”
With matters of content taken care of, Brand Nubian turns to the matters of sound, knowing that musically bland wisdom is wasted wisdom. And here the selections are well-made. The band employs a roster of name-brand producers, and, for the most part, gets its money’s worth. The blistering “Straight Outta Now Rule” features a sinister, minimalist bass line and a violin overlaya much developed sound from producer Lord Finesse, who previously favored blunt sounds stripped of nuance and seasoning. The seductively fluent guitars and high-end keyboards of the self-titled cut “Brand Nubian” form the perfect counterpart to sublime lyrical contributions. Never one to deliver the expected line, Grand Puba uses this as an occasion to showcase a new and thoroughly unorthodox form of enunciation: He waxes Freudian by narrating his own conception and birth with detail in the extreme.
The group’s evolved social consciousness finds expression time and again on Foundation, but the moment of zenith is “Sincerely,” a lyrical apology to the women run through and run over in the days of youth. This is not music business as usual; rappers do not typically apologize to women they’ve disrespected. Lord Jamar moves the depiction of black women by rap artists light-years forward when he articulates that “some raise seeds all alone/with no father in the home/but they still find the strength to continue on.” He speaks of seeing women as more than “a piece of something that I’m trying to get in my bed.” The honesty of the song caught me off-guard becauselet’s be real for a momentsincerity is honored neither in our politics nor in our entertainment.
The same social themes permeate “Probable Cause,” a track that those of us who’ve been convicted of DWBdriving while blackwill understand all too well, and “Love vs. Hate,” an impassioned injunction against black-on-black crime and the culture that glorifies it. Grand Puba steals the cut with the line “Niggas swung from trees/Like a breeze through summer leaves/Swaying back and forth/failed a chance to make it north.” Lord Jamar returns the favor on “U for Me,” contributing a first-person narrative of escaping slavery with Harriet Tubman. Brand Nubian is digging into historyboth personal and collectiveand bringing forth a prospectus for the future, which, if we are wise enough to recognize it, is the basic purpose of the past. CP