It doesn’t take the world’s most astute hip-hop listener to interpret the gold chains donned by most Bling Age rappers as ensigns of a market-driven economy. Professor Cornel West dubs these adornments “the paraphernalia of suffering” — commodities that show how rap’s preoccupation with the good life has become a “truncated version of the American dream.” An apt and quippy catchphrase, to be sure: As West indicates, current hip-hop moguls aren’t really gangstering their way into greatness. They’re merely being seduced by a system that’s always maligned them.
West offers Street Knowledge as an anodyne, which follows on the heels of Sketches of My Culture (2001), the spoken word/hip-hop effort that caused such a stink with West’s employer (Harvard) that he left for a new one (Princeton) right afterward. Apparently, he got dissed for his crude mixed-marriage of hip-hop and academic discourses of race — not, despite rumors to the contrary, because he was a wack rapper. Street Knowledge sounds like what it is: a public intellectual sermonizing over beats every bit as quiet-stormy as you’d expect them to be, spitting paeans to Brother Martin, Brother Medgar, and Brother Malcolm (on the tune “3 M’s”) in that warbling, devilishly-West-ish voice of his. West’s musical foibles are forgivable if you’re grooving with his message, and in fairness, a lot of folks are (in fact, KMEL’s Street Soldiers show gets props for bumping “3 M’s” for the lil’ homies in mid-February).
Yet, after listening to the album, it’s obvious that the best thing anyone could do for hip-hop right now is bootleg all West’s lectures and submit them to Coujo and Jinicydle of the Hunters Point gangsta rap crew Dogged Outt. Just say: “Here’s your material, dawg, bring the funk back.” Cornel has the message — let someone else handle the medium.