On the face of it, David Banner and 9th Wonder might appear to make an odd couple. Banner is known for raunchy, raspy-voiced odes to Southern crunk culture like “Play” and “Like a Pimp” and for producing trunk-rattlers like T.I.’s “Rubberband Man.” As a rapper he has a blistering, huff-and-puff-and-blow-you-down kind of presence. 9th Wonder got started as the producer for the mild-mannered conscious North Carolina act Little Brother; his beats rely on muffled percussion and scratchy soul samples and are better suited to headphones than to car stereos. The same kind of people who might have held up Little Brother circa 2005 as the epitome of what rap should be might have held up “Play” as exactly what it shouldn’t.
But even as David Banner made toasts to “my thug niggas, all the thieves and the drug dealers, the pimps and the motherfucking killers,” as he does on “Lost Souls,” the opener to his 2005 album Certified, or gloried in the pleasures of rough sex, the political was never too far away. He’s always been as interested in the causes of the African-American poverty as with its cultural effects, as comfortable trading lines with M-1 of Dead Prez as Pimp C of UGK. But unlike say, Kanye West, who spews his contradictions in a constant, rainbow stream of on-the-one-hand moral superiority, on-the-other unrepentant nihilism, Banner seems to go hard on his “player” songs and then go hard on his “thinker” songs. Unfortunately for him, the “player” songs have gotten the most attention.
So Death of a Pop Star, Banner’s mixtape-cum-album with 9th Wonder, offers Banner the opportunity to focus on the part of his artistic persona that is more concerned with truth-telling than ass-shaking. The production is the sonic equivalent of a preacher’s pulpit — slightly ominous strings here, muted horns there, bass lines that can either be ridden or be disregarded — and as a rapper Banner handles his frontman duties well. The guy may not be in the major leagues of rappers, but he comes with a wild-man passion matched by few. Plus, his manic energy proves an unusual mate to 9th Wonder’s plush production, usually the venue for smart, low-key emceeing.
The first three tracks of Death of a Pop Star serve as hookless platforms for Banner’s agitated emceeing. There aren’t a lot of quotables here, per se, but at the same time it’s hard to stop listening. You never know what Banner’s going to say next, where a certain line of thought is going to take him, as on these lines from “No Denying”:
The richer that you get the more you turn away from God
And the more poorer that you are the more you steal cause it’s hard
We hope for the precious like Smiegel living regal
We love Jay’s life but we omit Beanie Sigel story
And I’d rather be Robert Horry when I’m shooting the last shot
No triangles over my head where folks live rock to rock
There’s the surprising shift on the second line — you expect him to say that poorer people are closer to God, but he throws the rhyme on its head by cramming in “the more you steal because it’s hard.” There’s the culture-hopping from Lord of the Rings to Jay-Z to Jay’s begrudging protégé Beanie Sigel to NBA clutch-hero Robert Horry before finally coming back to crack. It’s a verse that offers the distinctly hip-hop pleasure of hearing someone unloading their varied mind with skill and passion.
After these first songs which are nearly free-associative and raw enough to be freestyles, Banner and 9th tack toward the conventional. The rest of the songs on the album employ standard verse-chorus-verse structures. Hooks by R&B singers abound. Each song follows a theme. “The Light” is a highpoint, as 9th Wonder finds a beat that is slower, funkier, and more confident than anything else on the album and Banner borrows the “ah-ah-ah-ah” cadence from Three 6 Mafia’s “Stay Fly” for the chorus. It’s a song that could inspire you to light a blunt or say a prayer –an appropriate outcome considering the street-preacher persona Banner is going for.
Elsewhere are more polished products like “Be With You,” a standard if enjoyable come-hither featuring a Ludacris appearance, and “Silly,” a tame slice of jazz-rap with Eryhkah Badu on the hook and a serviceable verse from 9th Wonder’s rapping alter ego, 9thmatic. This chunk of the album may be better tailored to gain airplay, but after the first three tracks, it comes off as buckled down and reigned in. These songs feel less like a collaboration as such. They sound David Banner guesting on a Little Brother record.
Death of a Pop Star’s problems are partially due to sequencing. The record starts with blistering battle-rhyming, retreats into tepid alt-rap, and finishes with melancholy social critique. Banner and 9th Wonder probably could have improved the album by weaving these thematic threads rather than separating them. But that probably would not change the fact that Banner seems a little hemmed in here, as if he’s trying to fit into the mold of the important, serious rapper who declaims about a wide variety of issues over interesting, uncontroversial beats. That is not what Banner is about — the album after all is only thirty minutes long, half as long as every album he has put out, signaling that Death of a Pop Star represents only half of who Banner really is.
At the end of the album’s final song, “Strange,” Banner goes into the kind of valedictory, signing-off speech that’s fairly typical for rap albums. “When the South’s time is over,” Banner says, “I want ‘em to know that we were more than just gold teeth, more than just white tees, more than ass and titties…but I love titties!” It’s the kind of tongue-in-cheek, could-give-a-fuck line that I could have used more of on Death of a Pop Star.