It’s been four years since the last proper release from the Cornel West Theory—2011’s excellent The Shape of Hip-Hop to Come—and, lo and behold, the crew is back with a new full-length album. Coming From The Bottom, which came out last week, is everything you’ve come to expect from the politically abrasive, unapologetic hip-hop group: old school boom bap beats; frantic instrumentation; verses that teeter between tight, traditional flow and spoken word; and a whole host of curious yet impressive guest collaborations.
So why the long delay? “Basically, we were dealing with a lot of things—life issues,” frontman Tim Hicks tells Arts Desk. After The Shape of Hip-Hop to Come, the band was at a bit of a crossroads with the business side of things. They had released their first record, 2009’s Second Rome, on the now-defunct local art-rock label Sockets Records, but made the business decision to self-release The Shape of Hip-Hop To Come. “It was a different playing field at the time of the first and second records,” Hicks says. “Some of us wanted to split with management, some of us wanted to stay.”
Ultimately, the group decided to stick with its management and spent the intervening years dealing with life issues—all of the Cornel West Theory’s members are in their 30s and have families—while quietly writing and recording its next album.
At a time when hip-hop is dominated by mixtape culture, the Cornel West Theory has just put out a relic of the past: an honest-to-goodness album. “People barely release albums anymore,” Hicks says. “Everything is a mixtape. Everything is a collaboration.” And yes, while Coming From The Bottom has about as many guests as there are tracks on the album, Hicks explains that each and every collaboration isn’t just showing off how many different artists they know.
The album’s intro track comes with a ferociously political verse from Public Enemy‘s Chuck D followed by a warm introduction to the group: “Ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, friends, foes, allies, and adversaries, the very, very groundbreaking, game changing, the Cornel West Theory.” Other more inspired collaborations include a brief spoken word piece by filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles, a Latin-inspired track featuring activist and community organizer Rosa Clemente, and a track that features D.C.’s most well-dressed punk Ian Svenonius, whom Hicks met after a gig the group played with Svenonius’ Chain & the Gang.
But Coming From The Bottom isn’t just a collection of creative collaborations. The album makes a statement, one that, in case the listener can’t pick up on, the group made sure they know: “This album was conceived with everyday people in mind,” a note to listeners states. Hicks adds that the album is about “this feeling of struggle… having to rebuild [after] pain and let downs.” But most importantly, he says Coming From The Bottom is an album that’s a sort of antithesis to the “narcissistic and self-serving” nature of many of today’s hip-hop artists.
“We wanted to do something that’s straight ahead hip-hop but also speaking truths,” he says. “While people are [rapping] about their jacuzzis and stuff, there are kids going hungry in war-torn areas.”
Album art courtesy The Cornel West Theory.