Putting Their Headsets Together: Northern State merges hip-hop, rock, and politics.

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When the three members of Northern State first released their speedy rap numbers in 2002, they were easy to mistake for a novelty group. Three white girls from Long Island spewing spitfire rhymes over basic backing beats screamed gimmick. But five years, two albums, and one ill-fated stint on Columbia Records later, the threesome has evolved. Can I Keep This Pen? reveals a matured version of Northern State, which has refined its style with more melody, as well as more complex beats and instrumentals. Perhaps it’s the collaborative influence of the disc’s two producers, the Beastie Boys’ Adrock and Shitake Monkey’s Chuck Brody, or simply a result of creative growth, but the members of Northern State—Spero, Hesta Prynn, and Sprout—happily seem to have found their collective voice. Songs like “Sucka Mofo” initially seem ridiculous, particularly when the three rhyme “do-si-do” and “rodeo” in the chorus, but the rest of the song exposes a rare intelligence and engagement, criticizing conservatives, calling for a Democratic takeover in the next election (“But now that we got some real candidates/Can we please come correct in 2008?”) and berating the masses for buying SUVs rather than hybrids. “Cold War” is more personal-as-political, as the girls chant, “Everybody’s talkin’ about getting married/Everybody’s talkin’ about having babies/Everybody’s talkin’ about making money/Everybody’s talkin’ about buying houses,” concluding the attack on conformity with a party chant: “Whatever happened to ‘fuck the police’?” Can I Keep This Pen? isn’t as blatantly political or aggressive as those two songs, though a note of social criticism runs through the disc. The girls’ quieter sensibilities come through on the handful of instrumentals, and each of the three members have surprisingly lovely voices when they choose to sing: “Run Off the Road” is a slower, hushed track that sounds more like Imogen Heap than Lady Sovereign, and “Cowboy Man” pairs a sweetly soaring vocal line with relaxed backing beats. The variety of sounds and messages fits in perfectly with Northern State’s mission: “Complex times call for complex rhymes,” they holler on “Mother May I?” and it’s hard to argue with them.