mensah demary’s previous Liner Notes columns can be found here.
“My restlessness is my nemesis, it’s hard to really chill and sit still, committed to page, I write a rhyme, sometimes won’t finish for days, scrutinize my literature from the large to the miniature, I mathematically add-minister, subtract the wack…” —Yasiin Bey, “Hip-Hop”
The beauty of writing about music is rooted in nostalgia. Nostalgia means there is always material to be found in the past, and reexamined with new eyes in the present. There are gaps within my memory; I have terrible recall; maybe this is the bane of the human mind as it ages. But I consider myself a memoirist of some kind, anyway. I write down elements of my past because it’s all a blur; in reexamination, reanimation is available for access and use. I am an archivist of the gaps between memories.
These gaps require conduits for connection. So two albums from December 2014—Black Messiah by D’Angelo and 2014 Forest Hills Drive by J. Cole—thrust me back into my music collection, and I stand on a train platform in Jersey City, the beginning of an all-too-familiar trek back to Brooklyn. Since its surprising and timely arrival, Black Messiah—an album I will write about in more detail in the near future—has kept a proverbial cobra clutch around my heart for reasons beyond the stunning music, for reasons I couldn’t quite articulate, despite my many tweets.
Same for 2014 Forest Hills Drive, in that I’ve tweeted about it incessantly. It has not captivated me, however. I’ve grappled with the album for weeks. I should like it, I’ve thought, but I don’t like it, or I don’t like it as much as I should. A few weeks ago, someone on my Twitter timeline suggested that 2014 Forest Hills Drive failed to reach the creative or intellectual heights it aspired for itself. (I can’t remember who tweeted it, and I’m paraphrasing as best as I could, so apologies to you if I just mangled your prescient tweet.)
Black Messiah and 2014 Forest Hills Drive are the opposite sides of the same aspiration: success and failure. That both albums aspired for such heights, and attempted to leap as high as possible, was a refreshing sight, and one I didn’t know I needed to see. I’ve long ceased the diatribes on the state of music. Rather than take these two albums and compare them to the rest of the landscape, to place J. Cole and D’angelo on pedestals, my mind went looking for a connection. Which brings me back to that train platform in Jersey City. On the platform, I scrolled until I found the masterpiece Black on Both Sides by Yasiin Bey.
I started to tweet about Black on Both Sides but abruptly stopped; the ability to recognize a topic better suited for prose required for deadline versus the ephemeral tweet is essential. Anyway, Black on Both Sides, released in October 1999, was a timely record in that it was part of a string of, for lack of a better phrase, social-conscious hip-hop albums from 1998 to 2002, a formative period in my personal life, for sure. Following guest appearances, such as “Big Brother Beat” on De La Soul’s Stakes Is High, and the 1998 release of Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Blackstar (or Blackstar for short), Black on Both Sides was the debut, much anticipated solo album by Bey (fka Mos Def, in case you’re lost).
The album artwork remains one of my personal favorites. It is Yasiin Bey. It is, from the moment I first picked up the CD until right now, unapologetically black. It sets the tone, the expectation, for the music. The album’s opener, “Fear Not of Man,” begins with Bey, a devout Muslim, praying, “Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Raheem” (“In the name of God, the most gracious, the most merciful”). The album ends with an instrumental groove, “May-December,” featuring Bey on bass and vibraphone. In between, Bey raps and sings about everything from global surveillance and the proliferation of cell phones as means for a government to track its sentences—a ludicrous idea in 1999—to water conservation, from the perils of bragging about one’s material possessions to the use of the word nigga, and does it all with an effortless flow, with charisma and wordplay, that is unique and remains almost unrivaled by most current emcees.
My brother, upon hearing the album shortly after me, said, “He made a hip-hop folk album. This is folk music.” The statement struck me as a fascinating one at the time, and it still matters to me, but it is, in a way, redundant. Part of the allure of hip-hop is, at least until recently, in its grassroots beginnings and ties to the larger black American community. It is the contribution of my generation, and the generation of my two brothers (my oldest is eleven years my senior) to American pop culture.
Hip-Hop was undeniably, unapologetically black. The front and back covers of Black on Both Sides were hip-hop, and remain hip-hop, despite the growing chorus of voices proclaiming “all music matters,” as it were. All of that is to say, hip-hop is black folk music, and Yasiin Bey created a folk experience that, to this day, oozes soul music and rock and blues and jazz.
When Bey sings the classic track “Umi Says,” he sings with love, with a hint of fatigue, that is almost genetic in its connection to people who look like him, who look like me. Bey sings “I want black people to be free, to be free, to be free/All black people to be free, to be free, to be free.”
Bey sings the way J. Cole sings, “I keep my head high, I got my wings to carry me, I don’t know freedom, I want my dreams to rescue me” on the track “Apparently.” Bey sings the way D’Angelo sings, “Sons and fathers die, soldiers, daughters killed/Question ain’t do we have resources to rebuild/Do we have the will?/Perilous dissidence evening up the score/Do we even know what we’re fighting for?” on the track “Till It’s Done (Tutu).”
So while my reactions to Black Messiah and 2014 Forest Hills Drive differ between one another, they are connected to Black on Both Sides. They connect me to my blackness, to my black period. Once upon a time, I didn’t see color, or I disregarded it with a wave of my teenage hand. The black period coincided with those string of “social conscious” rap albums, from Blackstar to Outkast’s Aquemini to Common’s Like Water For Chocolate. The black period, for me, began with the discovery of Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe and The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
The black period, which has yet to end, and will never end, but has experienced ebbs and flows in intensity, is raging right now. I am angry. I get on Twitter and angrily rant at times, on subjects that might not have anything to do with race, because I am angry, I am black and, as a matter of survival, particularly the older I get, I can never forget these two truths. But—I do not wish to be angry. I wish to evolve. I wish to bridge those gaps between memories with meaningful art, with love. When Bey says, “All over the world, hearts pound with the rhythm/fear not of men, because men must die/mind over matter, it’s soul before flesh,” I am reminded that I am more than my anger, and I am more than my blackness, but blackness is a part of me, and it is a beautiful, heavy weight.
mensah demary is editor in chief of Specter Magazine and a columnist for Fourculture Magazine. His fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Metazen, Little Fiction, PANK, Thought Catalog, and elsewhere. Originally from New Jersey, he currently lives and writes in Brooklyn. Find him on Twitter @mensah4000.