November 6, 2015 in Music, On..., Op-Eds, Video by

Raz Simone’s Epic 2015: What Does It All Mean?

Earlier this week, I wrote a piece on how I couldn’t put together an essay on Raz Simone. The aborted piece was supposed to coincide with the release of Raz’s latest project, Trap Spirituals. Then Raz announced he wasn’t releasing the album. To quote the post on his Facebook page:

“Oh, I’m not dropping Trap Spirituals today because I don’t feel like it. I’ll wait till my message is understood a bit more. Just go listen thru the half a dozen other albums I dropped this year if you don’t get it. Love.”

I accept that challenge.

Listening to the radio is like taking the Pepsi Challenge with your ears. The music channels aren’t any better. Yet, standing out amongst the gangster cliches, culture vultures, and walking-talking PR campaigns is Raz Simone. Coming off a strong 2014, Raz’s 2015 can be described as no less than a rampage. He’s already released three albums: Cognitive Dissonance Part 2, Macklemore Privilege & Chief on Keef Violence, and Baby Jesus; with Trap Spirituals presumably on the way. Along with the music, Raz has released 14 music videos. He’s pointedly challenged the likes of Macklemore and Sol and engaged conversations on topics like politics, cultural appropriation, and violence and our desensitization to it. Trying to keep up can be dizzying. However, the importance of Raz Simone’s 2015 can be summed up in the impacts he’s made through his music, his videos, and the larger conversation his art facilitates.

Sonically, there’s little to complain about with any of Raz’s projects. The live instrumentation and diversity of sounds separates Raz’s music from the vast majority of his peers. Tracks like “That Ain’t Love,” “Pulling,” and “Brave,” sonically, at least, don’t seem like they should fit cleanly on the same project, especially one with only seven songs. Yet, they do just that on Baby Jesus. With the rhymes, Raz’s passionate and soulful delivery make it hard not to listen to what he’s saying. That he covers a wide range of subject matter, such as the parallels between the Underground Railroad and the trap, or the need for rappers to do more than just “rapping about rapping,” doesn’t hurt in keeping listeners engaged.

Perhaps most impressive are the complete projects themselves. Cognitive Dissonance was one of the most critically acclaimed albums of 2014 and the sequel continued that momentum. Already having one of the top albums of 2015, Raz outdid himself (and maybe everyone short of Kendrick Lamar) with Macklemore Privilege & Chief on Keef Violence and Baby Jesus. Both EPs have immense replay value.

That almost a third of the Macklemore & Chief Keef project is monologue, either from Raz or an extended Tupac sample on “Drake & Macklemore’s Platform,” doesn’t even matter. Since Raz is having a conversation with listeners (and the music goes), the result is listeners finding themselves going back through the songs and even quotes from the monologues, interpreting in some cases, and in others, simply looking for things they missed the first, second, third, and tenth times.

Baby Jesus, meanwhile, has the unintentional trait of sounding equally good and being equally engaging despite the order in which you listen to the songs. I found this out by accident because, for whatever reason, downloading the project off of Raz’s site gave me an album with no track numbers, and thus, was in alphabetical order. For weeks, I swore the album opened with “All in My Mind” and that starting and concluding the “Baby Jesus” theme in the middle of the album instead of bookending it was ballsy but ended up working out really well. When I finally got the right track order, it didn’t change anything. You could still follow along and the songs still encouraged you to look for new things with every listen. Generally, when the order of songs on a concept album doesn’t seem to matter, that’s a bad sign. Yet, Baby Jesus is one of the rare exceptions.

As if geeking out to the projects wasn’t enough, the videos might be even more enticing fodder for rap fans and fans of art in general. A lot of Northwest rappers make videos that seem like little more than excuses to get a single on YouTube. Raz separates himself by telling stories with his visuals. Some are more straightforward like the video for “Drake & Macklemore’s Platform” with shows of extravagant wealth juxtaposed with a Tupac interview railing against greed. Others offer up more for interpretation; some lighter, like “Charged Up,” where Raz disses Sol as he spends the whole time charging up an electric car and others darker, like “Massa Sir,” which can be summed up when Raz raps, “I’m in New York moving packs from the Underground Railroad train. If Nat Turner was here, he’d make due the same.”

Perhaps the best example of Raz making a statement with his videos is “Them.” It opens with a white woman in a summer hat passing out assault weapons to a group of little kids decked out in mostly Black and Raiders gear. The camera then follows the kids as they roam the streets, robbing people and posturing with their weapons. Some smile. Others move around with looks of childlike wonderment. It would be cute if it wasn’t so chilling. No matter how it makes you feel, you can’t deny it’s a conversation starter.

But beyond hot music and clean visuals, what really makes Raz’s music some of the most important to come out in 2015 is the conversation that comes with it. On the Macklemore & Chief Keef EP, he lays out a few of the concrete goals he set before making the project. They included getting people talking, holding Macklemore accountable for his platform, and applying pressure to other Seattle artists to make better music and keep the scene relevant. By aggressively going at artists like Macklemore and Sol, Raz forces you to engage with the conversation. You may only partially agree or completely disagree, but as every good pundit knows, lively conflict is a great way of dragging people into a discussion. The role of rappers in uplifting their communities (both in their music and in real life) is certainly a subject worth some attention. As are cultural appropriation and its implications for the future of hip-hop, and the historic and political roots of the trap. These are discussions we need to be having, but that need is not motivation enough for most people. Tools like entertainment help get the message across.

To be fair, some might argue that relying on music to facilitate these complex discussions has its limitations, if not, counterintuitive implications. This is not an empty argument and Raz is no exception; he  definitely has his inconsistencies. Trying to help your peers make more money in the industry while you give your music away for free is, at best, trying to have your cake and eat it too. At worst, it’s hypocritical. The artist makes no bones about having his hands deep in pimping and drug dealing while simultaneously talking about raising his son right, enlightening and empowering his community, and pressing other artists to do more for theirs. It’s a duality that isn’t new to hip-hop but does present some questions when Raz is, in his words, preaching while he’s pimping. Even the delayed release of Trap Spirituals could be seen as an artist tantrum, another reason not to buy what Raz is (ironically not) selling.

Yet, that inconsistency makes Raz’s music all the more human. His willingness to tell Macklemore not to preach while he’s pimping, while simultaneously admitting guilt of the same crime, shows, for lack of better terms, confident vulnerability. Raz doesn’t seem to care about saying the right thing, the right way. He cares more about getting people talking and saying what they really think. Instead of preaching and projecting himself as some kind of Black power superhero, Raz comes off as a thoughtful everyman, appealing to regular people who are just trying to make a way, hoping to inspire us towards real change.

So, yeah. #ReleaseTheAlbumRaz

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  • dog…

    you keep thinking he’s gonna run out of steam and he just doesnt…

  • No need to he best, better or next when you’re the most beneficial artist you can be