Underground Rapper of the Week is a new feature designed to raise awareness of rappers from all over the world who, if that world were a perfect place, would be more famous than they are. It will be updated every Tuesday before the sun goes down. Feel free to email suggestions of slept-on rappers from your city or wherever to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Minnesota’s Hip-Hop scene has a reputation for being “all backpackin’ and hippie,” in the words of Minneapolis’ own Muja Messiah, who embodies the opposite of this stereotyped emo / conscious vibe. However, Muja also can’t be pigeonholed into the gangsta stereotype, either, transcending expectations with the revolutionary but gangsta style of Dead Prez mixed with the raw, hardcore energy of M.O.P. Muja has been consistently one of the very best guest verse assassins in Twin Cities Hip-Hop for over a decade before releasing his back-to-back masterpieces, the MPLS Massacremixtape and Thee Adventures of a B-Boy D-Boy, his full-length solo debut, in 2008.
Muja Messiah has been a local hero for a long time, but started gaining wider attention with his song “Patriot Act,” a politically minded collaboration with fellow Minneapolis legend I Self Devine. Muja balances his socially conscious wordplay with intensely gritty and personal tales of his life running the streets on tracks like “The Madness,” as well as stories of the good life like “Get Fresh,” on which he indulges his love of clean, new clothing and the triumph over poverty it represents. in other words, Muja’s music covers many of the tropes for which Hip-Hop is known; what sets him apart from so many other rappers covering the same ground is his ridiculous flow, sporting an enviable vocabulary without ever coming across as a know-it-all dictionary rapper. The way he mixes obvious intelligence with hardcore street smarts makes him one of the very most exciting rappers in Minnesota.
Though he remains decidedly underground and unafraid to stay that way rather than compromise his integrity, Muja has made some big moves since he began rapping over a decade ago. The most famous rapper in Minnesota, Slug of Atmosphere, appears on both MPLS Massacre and B-Boy D-Boy, and Black Thought of the world-famous group The Roots appears on “Give It Up,” from the latter album. Muja’s take on the M.I.A. song “Paper Planes,” featuring Minnesota by way of Ghana rapper M.anifest, also made big waves when his mixtape dropped, as did the internet favorite “Amy Winehouse,” which has nothing to do with the late singer other than a brief cocaine reference early in the song: “You know I got that white girl, that Amy Winehouse / Give it to the right girl and she gon’ dyke out.” With his new collaborative project, Villa Rosa, featuring fellow Twin Cities rapper and singer Maria Isa, Muja Messiah is definitely an emcee to watch out for.
I guess you have to hand it to Maya “M.I.A.” Arulpragasam for not taking the sound of her breakthrough pop hit “Paper Planes” and repeating it 12 times over the course of her new album (which we are calling Maya from here on out, because trying to type those symbols out is annoying as hell). Although “Planes” wasn’t the most obvious candidate for pop ubiquity, it was certainly one of M.I.A.’s more accessible tunes, buoyed by a chanted kids’ chorus (offset by gunfire as it was) and a Clash sample. Unfortunately, 12 slight variations on “Paper Planes” might have actually been an improvement over what we wind up with on the Sri Lankan-born Brit’s just-released third effort. Maya is a fairly dissonant, disjointed affair on which M.I.A. practically plays a secondary role to the production.
M.I.A’s signature sound-featuring elements from various kinds of world music, as well as some more traditional electronic sub-genres, gets a slight makeover here. Tracks like “Born Free” (of controversial “video featuring redheads getting slaughtered” fame) and “Meds & Feds” have a more abrasive, rock-oriented sound. Taking the opposite tack, closing number “Space” has a more ethereal feel. Chalk this expansion up to M.I.A. working outside of her usual producers Diplo and Switch for a few songs and expanding her musical palette. However, the points she gains for opening her sound up are quickly squandered when you realize how crappy the songs are.
Most artists who tackle sociopolitical themes in their music have voices powerful enough to get the points they’re trying to make across. On Maya, M.I.A.’s vocals are buried under the production, and while the music is certainly chaotic and abrasive, her lyrical message (whatever it is) is completely obscured. Profundity has never been M.I.A.’s strong point, but too many songs on this album seem to consist of random chanting. Strangely, the album’s most affecting (or at least most listenable) songs are the ones where she seems to be gunning for Top 40 radio. Tracks like the reggae-scented “It Takes a Muscle” and the abrasive but melodic “Tell Me Why” could very easily compete on the charts with songs by Rihanna, the performer M.I.A. sounds most comparable to when singing instead of rapping.
If you loved “Paper Planes” and you’re expecting an album of copycat songs, you’ll be disappointed. If you’re a fan of M.I.A.’s politics and you’re looking for some Public Enemy-style rabble rousing, you’ll be disappointed. While it’s great that M.I.A. looked superstardom in the eye and didn’t sell out, the least she could have done in the wake of her success was make a good album. “Maya” ultimately turns out to be as messy as trying to type out the symbols that spell out her name on the album cover. (XL/Interscope Records 2010)
N.A.S.A.’s 2009 debut, The Spirit of Apollo, was one of the freshest, most creative hip-hop records to come out in years, a high-proof blend of booty-shaking beats (courtesy of partners DJ Zegon and Sam Spiegel), dizzying rhymes (from an astounding list of guest MCs that included Kanye West, Chuck D, Chali 2na, Gift of Gab, and Del tha Funkee Homosapien), and sharp pop hooks (with help from guests like David Byrne, Tom Waits, Lykke Li, Karen O, Santigold, M.I.A., and George Clinton). Those are some stuffed parentheses, but they only touch the surface of what Apollo has to offer; in the post-mashup era, it illuminates the fertile possibilities of cross-pollination and a healthy disregard for genre boundaries.
It’s therefore unsurprising – though still disappointing – that N.A.S.A.’s follow-up represents such a substantial comedown. The Big Bang is a remix project, and as such, it presented all kinds of strong possibilities; after all, we’re talking about a subgenre whose best-selling titles include Bobby Brown’s Dance!…Ya Know It! and Paula Abdul’s Shut Up and Dance, so the bar is set pretty low. Unfortunately, although The Big Bang is every bit as danceable as anyone could hope, it’s crippled by a narrow focus: Rather than remixing all (or even most) of Apollo, Bang‘s 17 tracks include four versions of “Gifted” and three of “Whachadoin?” – and it completely skips some of Apollo‘s strongest songs, like the David Byrne/Chali 2na/Gift of Gab collision “The People Tree.”
Still, it’s worth noting that all the songs being remixed here are solid; if you’re going to chew up most of an album with different versions of the same stuff, it’s definitely better to start with strong raw material. And of the two new tracks, the Maximum Hedrum/Barbie Hatch collaboration “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” with its breathy vocals and Tom Tom Club synths, is nearly worth the price of admission by itself. During the lead-up to The Big Bang‘s release, Squeak E. Clean has been in Ethiopia, recording traditional music for the next N.A.S.A. project, which suggests that even if this curious piece of between-album project represents a creative lull, they haven’t run out of barriers to ignore. (Spectrophonic Sound 2010)