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Afu-Ra - State of the Arts

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Artist: Afu-Ra

Album: State of the Arts

Label: Life Force / Decon

Review date: Sep. 26, 2005

Never one for humility, Afu-Ra calls his new disc State of the Arts a paragon of hip hop. Beyond the grandiose title, however, this record is of little avail. Once considered a scion to DJ Premier’s then-limitless wealth of jazz-sampling beats, Afu-Ra has been perpetually stalled in the aesthetic trappings of a decade ago, where verses meander like a Judiciary Committee hearing and a DJ’s scratching plants itself in the space where now one expects the hook. Together, Afu-Ra and Premier are fixed in popular music’s purgatory, a strange limbo of unhipness straddling between fresh and retro. To be anachronistic (yet not anachronistic enough) – this contradiction must vex Afu-Ra every time Def Jam apes another Marley Marl beat, while Buckshot and Jeru the Damaja have quietly slipped into obscurity. Sympathies aside, State of the Arts, like much of Afu-Ra and Premier’s work of late, is only gossamer lining the hip hop canon, easily overlooked and brushed aside.

It is perhaps unkind, if not unfair, launching into a critical pugilism with a rapper who does seem to genuinely care about hip hop as an art form. Afu-Ra has been an underground stalwart for some time now. He flared with promise on his first record, 2000’s Body of the Lifeforce, and his early freestyles, captured on mixtapes and on underground hip-hop websites, were impressive in erudition and rhythm. At times his delivery even evoked Big L’s snaking, nasal tones. Big L was, of course, far superior to Afu-Ra. But at his best, Afu-Ra parses his words like the late Harlem kingpin; effortlessly interweaving verse with the beat, Afu-Ra could give his songs swing where they were rigid, and supplement his punchlines with timing. On “Livin Like Dat,” Afu-Ra, pushed by Masta Killa’s husky somnolence, rises to the level. Yet, on the whole of State of the Arts, Afu-Ra’s synergy with the beat is lacking.

For a rapper who is something of a formalist – in his vanilla, old-school approach to hip hop, Afu-Ra is certainly a servant to convention – this inability to cohesively mesh his words with music can be devastating, not only as a failure of form, but because it flashes an unflattering spotlight on his lyrical content. Afu-Ra might have flow, but his lyrics are full of ill-conceived pastiche that befuddles the listener more than it connotes any affirmative feeling or image. “Everywhere I go, like I’m walking on a catwalk / I’m waxing and taxing / huh, I’m doing a kung-fu kick / holding my dick like Michael Jackson / Yowser yowser yowser / Come on, you can bounce the count” – incoherent, replete with non sequitur, and, and its core, a mess of gibberish.

On Body of the Lifeforce, Afu-Ra’s babble was better obscured because the rapper seemed to have a firmer, more compelling sense of how to deliver his words atop a beat. His verses sounded crisper; the beginnings and endings of his lines were better and more carefully tailored to fit each song’s meter. The verses on State of the Arts, however, are loose and fraying. They not only sound less refined – the inept delivery exposes the words for what they are: the nonsensical ramblings of a performer stuck in a rut.

By Ben Yaster

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