Friday, August 28, 2015

American Story from Japanese Producer

The purest works of true American culture can be hard to find. One such work is an “underground” hip-hop song called “Think Different” produced by the late japanese DJ “Nujabes” featuring Substantial, an MC from Maryland. “Think Different” is one of Nujabes’ more celebrated non-instrumental pieces and was released on his debut album Metaphorical Music back in 2003. Despite the fact that the track came out well over a decade ago, its lyrical content is relevant now more than ever. Rap has become a leading mainstream music genre in the past 10 years and has been evolving more rapidly in the past couple years than it has been in a long time. More one-hit-wonders are charting and tons of experimental and underground rap albums are gaining cult status. This begs the question of how to tell the true stories from the false ones. 

“Think Different” breaks down popular rap stereotypes and cliches by explaining why rappers choose to lie and tells a true american story. Substantial displays this through his lines about how he doesn’t participate in violence or drug abuse and how he is more emotionally confident than the mainstream artists this song is directed at.

Hip-hop has developed a bad rap for being shallow. Popular rap focuses largely on material possessions and romanticized images of violence. Substantial wrote “Think Different” to deconstruct these cliches. He starts the song with the line, “You bust lead? So do I,” busting lead referring to shooting bullets, a symbol of gang violence that rappers claim to take part of. He clarifies the statement with the line “Except mine impregnates the page giving birth to thoughts that unify.” In the first bar Substantial writes the thesis for the rest of the song. Other rappers participate in immoral acts that are harmful to the image of hip-hop, and he spends more time being a poet. Later in the song he says “Cats I chill with rap about revolution, while you rap about drug abuse and distribution.” Substantial says that he prefers to use hip-hop as a medium for something important or socially conscious, like this track, instead of rapping about illegal acts. Much of the verses that don’t reiterate how Substantial “thinks different,” are his lines about how he respects women and is comfortable in his own skin.

In the first verse, Substantial says, “I’m pouring my heart out in everything written while you’re scared to look soft, heart remains hidden.” This sets up the line “You fall in love with body parts, I connect mentally, with my female counterpart before we bond physically.” Substantial says that while other rappers objectify women, he likes to get to know a woman before having sex. This line is also a great example of how he is honest in his written works and isn’t scared to “look soft.” All of this adds up in one really striking piece of art that defines American culture much better than most hip-hop songs have done recently.

“Think Different” connects with two distinct cultures that Americans are equally aware of. There is the culture of illegal acts, drug abuse, sex and city life romanticized by famous artists, that most americans know about through media and music, and the culture of those who don’t get this rap culture, which most people can easily connect with. The tone never changes throughout the song, making the song feel real, except for one line that lets Substantial’s feelings come through better than any other. He connects with his fellow artists by saying “We all front sometimes, that’s how MC’s be.” He admits his mistakes and bragging and humanizes himself and the rappers the song is directed at. This is the most important line because it shows how Substantial is being completely transparent when telling this true american story.

“Think Different” is a really simple song, lyrically. What it stands for, however, is much greater. If Substantial can break away from the stereotypes affiliated with his work, other artists can too. Some of them could be better rappers or more popular and influential rappers. Some of them could be artists of a whole different genre or even a whole different medium. A true American story can be told in even the most unlikely places, even a hip hop song from from twelve years ago.

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