P.O.S.: “Never Better”
Upon receiving the Academy’s highest honor for actors– a golden statuette for his portrayal of rea-life gay icon and homosexual rights activist Harvey Milk– leading man Sean Penn used his few seconds in the spotlight to lay out a blistering, blunt indictment of those who would stand in the way of marriage rights for homosexual couples. The next day, Andrew Sullivan– himself a rel-life homosexual rights activist, and a very high-profile blogger and journalist– admitted to being underwhelmed. For all of the praise Milk received for its political boldness, noted Sullivan, Penn’s address was anything but; the level of courage and bravado needed to opine about gay rights in a room filled with Hollywood’s elite, he argued, is essentially zilch.
In 2009, political rap is only slightly less toothless; for an idiom bearing such a weighty history of political indignation and activism, rap has seen its edge remarkably blunted in recent years, seemingly as a very natural market effect of the music’s demographic, which, statistically, is predominantly white, middle-class males– not the kinds of boys who necessarily thrive on anti-establishment tirades. Oh, the mainstream is fine with a few off-handed, insubstantial barbs at whoever happens to be in office, but certainly the keepers of the new guard of hip-hop– be it Outkast or Lil’ Wayne– are miles removed from the angry, bleeding-heart, pistol-waving zealotry of early Public Enemy.
That political timidity is, perhaps, the biggest reason, and maybe even the only reason, why MC P.O.S. is not himself a part of that new guard; technically, the man is as gifted and smooth in his delivery as any of his contemporaries, his lyrics are dense with wit and humor, and his tracks are alive with invention– not even last year’s much- ballyhooed Tha’ Carter can claim a sound as distinctive. But for every clever turn of phrase, autobiographical aside, and Big Lebowski reference he drops, P.O.S. also lays out enough political venom to fuel a thousand talk-shows and pundit commentaries for the forseeable future. If a new day has indeed come to America, P.O.S. sounds as though he’s still trapped in a nightmare on his Never Better LP, an album that aims both barrels at the recession, the war, and a general American malaise with the kind of fiery indignation generally reserved for Republican administrations.
The record takes a sledgehammer to hippie liberal types almost as soon as the play button is pressed, dismissing blind age-of-Obama optimism out of hand in the opening bars of “Let it Rattle,” a nasty blitzkrieg opener that careens through outrage, desperation, and call-to-arms ferocity with menacing clarity; the MC invokes a doom-and-gloom American tragedy that’s more sophisticated in its arguments than anything Chuck D. ever penned– it might have more in common with the ashen desperation and seething rage of The Roots’ Game Theory, as channeled through the abstract poetry of Aesop Rock– a genuinely, fearlessly political song that sidesteps the signifiers and sloganeering in favor of inviting– no, demanding– real-world conversation and action. And of course, it’s actually one of the record’s slower, tamer numbers.
In terms of the lyrics alone, what follows is a tour de force, a fully realized statement that harkens back to an era when rap was celebrated for its mastery of language and ideas as much as for its beats. Here’s an MC who displays a sniper-sharp precision with his language, a Southern revivalist’s sense of cadence, a revolutionary’s unflinching social conscience– but to call it a mere political album is both to state the obvious and significantly undervalue it. This is an American epic that speaks with chilling clarity of the times in which it was birthed, but also transcends them; judging by the tender autobiography of “Out of Category” and the compassionate storytelling of “Been Afraid,” P.O.S. is concerned not with polemics, but with people, and for all its outrage, this is an album of surprising humanity and grace, one where, for every indictment of a political figure, there’s an admission of personal responsibility.
The auteur– and he really is; no other album yet released in 2009 bears the fingerprints of its visionary as vividly as this one– has anger and politics in his pedigree, spending much of his time playing in punk bands, and that sensibility extends to the music as well as the lyrics; the album shakes and rattles with the blow-the-doors-down sonic revolution of The Clash, a dark and surreal hybrid of rock and rap that seems at first to celebrate its own messy, garage-rock amateurism– which is, of course, a carefully-honed illusion, as evidenced by the jazzman’s precision of “Savion Glover” and the pure pop sensibility of “Goodbye.” Live drums roll and bang across the album’s fifteen tracks, uniting them with a unifying savagery, an oddly mesmerizing brutality.
And savagery is a good buzzword for this, a record that has nothing timid or tame about it. But for all its clatter and holy racket, there’s always a sense of craft underlining its sonic violence, always a humane compassion informing its anger, which makes it a record of astonishing sophistication, complexity, and substance– not only a provocative social commentary and a thrilling piece of music, but a one-of-a-kind, revelatory work of art