David Banner has taken a winding path to this latest release. Death Of A Pop Star is uncharted territory for the rapper, who normally self-produces, as production duties were handed entirely to 9th Wonder. Pop Star was originally intended to be released as a mixtape regarding contemporary music’s demise, but the collaborator’s resulting sessions exceeded expectations and the project evolved into an album. The endeavour adopts the uniformity and cohesiveness of an LP whilst keeping the swift pacing of the mixtape format. Clocking at a shade over thirty minutes, Death Of A Pop Star takes the GZA’s famed “half short and twice strong” axiom and creates an impressive work of art.
9th Wonder delivers a musical palette as bright and varied as anything he’s produced since Little Brother’s Minstrel Show in 2005. The signature sound is present; “No Denying (Channel 3)” has a dusty soul sample looped over pleasant kicks and snares whilst previously released singles “Slow Down” and “Be with You” are both pulsing and lively with tinkling keys and timely horns.
Album opener “Diamonds On My Pinky” is made of hi-hats, murkier boom-baps and stifled choral chants and “Mas 4” is a repeated thumping piano. However, the album’s standout is “The Light”, an incendiary Southern Baptist church stomp with a flaring reed organ that perfectly captures the almost biblical temperament of the music. The listener can envision David Banner as a Moses or Harriet Tubman figure when he pledges to lead his people to the light. In fact, Banner’s contribution is every bit as stunning, if not more so, than 9th Wonder’s.
Those who remember the rapper’s more explicit work such as “Like a Pimp” or “Play” would be forgiven for not recognising this as the same man. The raspy Southern drawl has been replaced by a clearer and enunciated voice that Banner effectively uses to teach, admonish and entertain with equal aplomb.
Banner is obviously more focused at the age of 38 and has worked to bring the alter-ego in line with the man. David was one of the few people to testify before America’s Congress about media’s stereotypical portrayal of African-Americans, an act that defines hypocritical considering the imagery in his earlier videos. But he begins to address these issues and more on “No Denying (Channel 3)” with the line: “and my past is a blur / a child heard “Play” and asked if I was talking bout her / the bad thing is she really wasn’t sure if she was a hoe or a queen and I’m really not sure if I’m a n*gga or a king.”
There is a sense of conviction in every rhyme that David utters. The lyrics feel as personal as a diary or a Catholic confession and it is precisely that humility that brings the music to life. He shows you the environment he was born into when he informs, “I’m from Mississippi where ya let ya nuts hang and where the white folks let my ancestors do the same.” The smoky shirt collar pervades the track as he imagines “running through hell with a match and sprinting fast”. The charisma is captivating.
The lack of meaningful lyrics in Hip Hop music has long been lamented by fans and lampooned by cynics. As recently as 2007, American politicians called for congressional hearings, demanding answers for the questionable content and blatant exploitation of sexism and violence in rap. Albums are burned in the streets. Bans on the controversial musicians’ output are planned whilst the world condemns rappers as agents of the anti-Christ. However, there is a delicate balance in the universe that forces a pendulum to swing from left to right and from darkness to light. For every hardcore, gang-related Wacka Flocka Flame there is a Mississippi-bred, Visionary Award winner born Lavell Crump championing change and vowing to lead his people toward brighter days.