Review ·

Ma'at Mama. The Egyptian word for truth, "ma'at," is the basis for the precise set of musically inclined spoken word on Philadelphia wordsmith Ursula Rucker's third album. Whereas acts such as Floetry incorporate spoken word into their music, Rucker begins with the word and forms music around it. And what words they are. Rucker does not hold back on Ma'at Mama, spitting knives off her tongue with razor-sharp precision. Every topic is up for grabs, from sexuality and love to politics and the media. And whether completely a capella or riding a chunky break, her words ring true. Wrapped in an exotic blend of jazz, hip-hop, electronica, and world music, these words will remain long after the CD has ended.


That said, Ma'at Mama is more than just spoken word. Rucker's gruff yet feminine delivery is musical, acting as the main instrument in a rather ambitious project. A capella tracks such as "Church Party," which finds Rucker reminiscing on hip-hop's early days, are full of vivid images and boundless rhythm: "They all stand in a buffalo stance/ B-boy posin'/ Skin and style pressed up against church hall wall/ 3-D graffiti hit/ Somebody say, Exotic! Exotic!"


But it's the tracks that directly deal with current affairs that leave the biggest imprint. "Rant (Hot in Here)" finds Ursula discussing a range of topics - poverty, war, gun culture, Aids in Africa - and asking "Where the fuck is my privacy?" Her words are strong but precise. "Children's Poem" deals with the plight of black youth and how the media uses them, digests them and "shits 'em out." The album's conscious energy is definitely of the black-pride variety, but it extends beyond those confines on several cuts. "Libations" finds the poet shouting out fallen warriors in black history, from entertainers Dorothy Dandridge and Biggie to political figures Malcolm X and Harriet Tubman, but also extends it to symbols of peace and tolerance such as Gandhi and Matthew Shepard.


But Ma'at Mama succeeds as a work of music thanks to its eclectic productions. An album of fifteen spoken-word tracks could be a bore, but Rucker wisely uses a diverse soundscape to accompany her scathing rhymes. Hip-hop beats drive "Poon Tang Clan" and "I Ain't (Yo' Punk Ass Bitch), and neo-soul grooves provide the backbone of the soothing "Uh-Uh" and world-music-influenced "Broken." The history of African music is celebrated in every track, from the ancestral sounds of didgeridoos and African drums right through to jazz on the explicitly sexual "Black Erotica" and finally into contemporary sounds.


Ma'at Mama successfully and creatively combines poetry with music while addressing many of today's pressing concerns, paying homage to the past, and looking with hope to the future. These themes can be felt through every aspect of the recording, from the lyrics right down to the choice of instruments. In representing her truth, or ma'at, Ursula Rucker has opened the door to musical possibilities and maybe opened some minds to the truth around us.


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