For all the destruction it wreaks, war has bred a surprising amount of inspired art: the poetry of Wilfred Owen, the photography of Matthew Brady, and now the rhymes of “Big” Neal Saunders. 4th25 — pronounced “fourth quarter,” as in approaching the two-minute warning, as in putting it all on the line, not to win the game but to stay alive — is a rap collective headed by Saunders that pulls a reverse USO, exporting art from the war zone in an effort to present a soldier’s reality.
Founded on the frustrations of serving in the Gulf, Live from Iraq presents a soldier’s perspective unclouded by the spin and censorship of politics and the media. This has earned 4th25 nods from the very same media, with Newsweek and ABC taking note in addition to the usual music rags. But just as the media fails to capture the war, it cannot contain 4th25. Only Live from Iraq succeeds at this imposing task.
Written and produced “in country,” Saunders spent every paycheck to ship over recording equipment, and it shows in the message and the character of the recordings. The candid vignettes that top the spare beats call to mind the frontline confessions and 16-bit production of the Streets’ Original Pirate Material and his grime-y British countrymen. Like the insufficient armor on the Marine’s Humvees, the compellingly simple beats on Live from Iraq leave Saunders and his comrades exposed, their raw emotions pouring through like a spray of M-16 fire. With all the money going toward recording, the album is sample free — except when the battlefield spills into the studio on “Lace Your Boots” — producing an unfettered sound that harks back to the grittier, less polished days of Public Enemy and A Tribe Called Quest, with whom 4th25 also shares a militant spirit.
When Big Neal picks up the mike, he would be hard-pressed to “fight the powers that be,” considering he is working to establish them in Iraq, but the struggle proves just as difficult — and even more deadly — than that of Chuck D. He even bashes street thugs on “Testament of a Soldier” for calling themselves soldiers and acting like warriors. As in war, the attacks are ceaseless and far-ranging, from insurgents and IEDs to peaceniks and cheating girlfriends. 4th25 delivers an apolitical yet aggressive message befitting both rap and war. When Saunders proclaims, “I don’t feel for this nation, no one gives fucks about ’em./ They shoot from a mosque, then I’m blowin’ them out it,” on “24 Hours,” the line might be hard for some listeners to accept, but this will always be the case with rap music. And unlike the belligerence of its gangster fellows, 4th25 presents some of the most challenging issues of any rap group to date. After all, as the title track admits, “we gamble with our lives everyday./ And there are no blue skies here, every color’s gray.” 50 Cent would be hard-pressed, bullet wounds or no, to even come close.