Akua Naru's first album, the "Journey Aflame" showcased her status as one of the most profound and inventive hip hop lyricists of her generation, whose flow, imagery, word play and a sense of history brought her listeners to a place few artists could take them. Lyrically, "The Journey" was going to be a tough act to follow, with at least five songs "Nag Champa" "The Block" "The Journey" "The World Is Listening" and "Poetry; How Does It Feel" becoming instant classics.
Her next album, which was a compilation of songs from "The Journey" backed up by live singers and musicians displayed a side of Akua Naru that I had come to appreciate from watching her perform-- an exquisite sense of timing that allowed her to complement great musicians with her poetry almost the way Billie Holliday did with her singing.
However, her latest album, "The Miners Canary" was for me an even bolder, dare I say shocking expansion of the hip hop tradition because it marks her emergence as a producer and composer as well as a lyricist. "The Miners Canary" is as much a jazz album as a hip hop album, with some numbers being almost entirely instrumental, and with two of the most powerful hip hop numbers " (Black&) Blues People" and "Toni Morrison" having instrumental passages that are unbearably moving, including horn and keyboard solos that can bring you to the edge of tears. There are also beautiful vocal solos juxtaposed throughout the album, with the final number "Fly" being almost entirely sung.
To be honest with you, I didn't know quite what to make of an album from someone I view as perhaps the most talented lyricist in hip hop today, that begins with an instrumental number "The Mine" and ends with a beautiful and soulful vocal solo! There are only two songs on the album "Heard" and "Boom Back Bap" which have your head moving and your hips shaking the way the best of hip hop can do. Akua Naru is clearly a virtuoso in that genre and these jams are going to get a lot of airplay, at least in Europe and get lots of hits on youtube.
But what is Akua Naru doing in the rest of the album, which has an array of musical genres I have never seen in combination quite the same way?
Here, I think I have to go back into jazz history to the origins of Be Bop, when artists like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane, in rebellion against what they considered the staleness and commercialism of big band jazz, started creating music that was cerebral, rebellious, inventive, atonal, and difficult to predict, much less dance to.
Is this what Akua Naru is doing? Creating a sonic universe of such complexity and richness that it not only complements the hip hop lyricism she offers, but at times transcends it, in the process rejecting the mass commercialized hip hop played in clubs and on the radio all over the world. Don't get me wrong, the imagery and historical narratives that she weaves into her songs are unmatched anywhere else in popular music. But the instrumental musical component of this album matches the lyrics in variety and power.
And there may be a message here. Namely that all of the African American tradition must be reclaimed, that it cannot be separated and compartmentalized; that jazz and blues and soul have an emotional power that, if combined with hip hop, allow hip hop lyricism to reach even greater heights. That sometimes, a trumpet solo has more power than words in conveying difficult emotions. And that to substitute electronic beats for what an instrument can do is to cut an artist off from the most powerful of roots.
I felt, in this album, that I was transported back to the jazz clubs of the 50's and early 60's listening to an Amiri Baraka ( then Leroi Jones) poem with jazz playing in the background.
That something precious was being reclaimed. Even more powerfully because it was under the direction of a woman artist.
The "Miners Canary" is the product of a lyrical and musical genius discovering her power and creating a voice which allows us to become musically whole.
There are moments of beauty in this work which are worth cherishing and returning to over and over again. How many "hip hop" albums can you say that about?