Lord Jamar was never so much a rapper as he was a lecturer, both in measured vocal tone and self-righteous philosophizing. In fact, I can only think of a few pairs of his lines that actually rhyme, and they’re all from “Punks Jump Up to Get Beat Down.” Among his Brand Nubian brethren he had the best voice but lacked the breezy wittiness of Grand Puba and the starched lyricism of Sadat X; in effect, he was the weakest link. That’s not saying much, though, when you consider how amazingly well the group’s early-to-almost-mid-’90s output has aged — still brick-tough and totally leftfield. But really, were people holding their breath for a Lord Jamar solo album?
It was never easy to enjoy a Brand Nubian record — something always marred the brilliance. The check-yourself intellect of the group’s 1990 debut, One for All, was dampened by Puba’s sex boasts and vapid “white devil” racism (as was the cop-out back then); In God We Trust (1993) was a richly textural tribute to blackness until its gangsta-hard moments took over, with Sadat and Jamar bragging about stealing the next man’s hoes and shooting faggots (although they refused to eat pork). Not that these albums didn’t break other ground — few groups balanced unwavering allegiance to the Five Percent movement — in bald theory, if not in practice — with riveting sonics and a general sense of entertainment.
The 5% Album isn’t groundbreaking; it’s hardly listenable. At his best, Jamar struggled to come up with things to say. At his worst, he was vitriolic and scornful, often unprovoked. On The 5% Album, he’s empty and uninspired, talking circles around himself and trying to pass off multi-syllabic vocab as wisdom and intellectual superiority. What’s worse, it hides behind the teachings of a popular social movement with a fiercely loyal following — essentially making any bit of criticism of its content unwarranted, practically blasphemous (as if that’s going to stop me from putting my foot in this record’s ass).
I’m not fooled. The 5% Album is repetitive beats and pseudo-cerebral posturing, smoke-and-mirrors bullshit that reads like a reality-divorced mantra. Surface is the order of the day, friends; only a few dope beats (“The Corner, the Streets,” featuring an exciting if equally retread Grand Puba; “The Sun,” which flips “Here Comes the Sun”; “Revolution,” which borrows the driving bass line from Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4”) are descript enough to be welcomed back, and even then you’re wondering what a more capable emcee could do with the opportunity. Jamar feels mostly sluggish; his once-rocksteady flow is buried underneath a thick sludge of boom-bap basics, gasping to be heard, desperate to feel relevant. Poor execution is everywhere: half-baked ideas; tracks that barrel out the gate before losing steam; generic calls for unity and knowledge and building and blah blah blah. Papa Wu shows up on a pair of rambling interludes. (Fuck’s he been? Who cares?)
Moments that are focused are rare and just as pointless. “Advance the Game” shrugs off coke-rap-gun-talk but offers nothing in its place. (The argument against hustlenomics is now more baseless than the one for it.) “Givin’ Up” is at least vulnerable and semi-human. Here, Jamar acknowledges what he’s up against, a force with so much momentum in the other direction it’s hardly worth fighting (“It’s just no use,” the soul sample adlibs). Still, there’s a light, a reprieve. Then it bows out, unceremoniously, at about three minutes, and it’s back to class, or the cell, or whatever nameless, faceless system we’re supposed to feel oppressed by. Stagnant. If we’ve learned anything while listening, it’s that the greatest oppressor is the mind that won’t let it go.
Lord Jamar Web site (streaming audio)Babygrande Web site (streaming audio)