Possibly because hip-hop is a younger art form, consumers and critics are leery of seasoned practitioners with grey hair and aged voices. But as a major continuation of the soul music tradition, we risk omitting a key component of cultural expression if we ignore the social surveillance of our veterans who have endured turbulence over the years, gaining wisdom to speak on complex subjects in the process.
Almost three decades since a young Derek X stepped forward to submit his solo effort “Concerto in X Minor” for the groundbreaking 1990 Brand Nubian debut LP One for All, he blesses us once again with another manifesto in the form of his eleventh full-length studio album The Sum of a Man, which proves a welcome addition to his impressive catalog.
Sadat’s observational brand of poetry has always been striking, ever since he first captured our attention on “Concerto in X Minor”with his assessment of the controversial Yusef Hawkins murder, with insightful lyrics like “It's just another form of slavery, a modern day lynchin’ / the others get reward, the black man feels the tension.” The legendary emcee, who is now a New York City educator by day, revisits the hot-button subject of failed relations between American law enforcement, particularly NYPD, and the black community on the album’s opening track and lead single “The Devil is Near.”
Unfortunately, with no shortage of reference material for the ageless topic, super producer and frequent collaborator Diamond D of the iconic D.I.T.C. crew begins the song with a sample of a local news reporting of the Akai Gurley murder by an NYPD rookie officer, while Sadat’s lyrics force us to relive the painful tragedy of Eric Garner.
Diamond D—who handles the production for the entire project and seems as comfortable with Sadat as he would have been collaborating with any of his D.I.T.C. cohort—elevates what would have been a good album to a superb listening experience. First heard on A Tribe Called Quest’s “Show Business” from the 1991 classic The Low End Theory and a few years later with Brand Nubian’s 1993 single “Punks Jump Up To Get Beat Down,” the family ties of the duo’s Bronx, New York and New Rochelle connection mesh well together and pull talent from every corner of the hip-hop landscape to construct one of the sleeper performances of 2017.
A rowdy group of L.A. natives consisting of Tha Alkaholiks and Kurupt drop in to assist Sadat, who has become a noted wine connoisseur, with the 21-and-over drinking anthem “Yawl Can’t Drink with Us” to provide some levity for an album that offers some of the most earnest subject material of recent years.
Former Terror Squad soul man Tony Sunshine makes an unexpected guest spot on “Who’s Judging,” where the signature voice that led the charge on Brand Nubian’s “Slow Down” 27 years ago joins a young woman on his couch for an in-depth counseling session.
X’s sincere passion for hip-hop and acuity in examining day-to-day life within the culture is contagious, compelling and sometimes somber throughout the album. Always revered for offering some of the most consistently well-informed perspectives, Sadat’s penchant for giving voice to complex subjects is proven with his layered approach to topics including battle-scarred relationships and police brutality. The album’s not all doom and gloom, however, as Sadat relishes the simpler pleasures in life, like having a few drinks with the old crew at the end of a long work week.
Diamond D, who seems at home with the headset and clipboard calling the plays as offensive coordinator, is missed on the other side of the boards, but his studio wizardry continues to ruffle the debate for the Mount Rushmore of hip-hop production.
Now masters of their respective crafts and OGs within the culture they’ve helped to cultivate, Diamond D and Sadat X offer a highly listenable album that helps dispel the notion that the elements that compile hip-hop are perishable and that our legends are disposable. As with literature, theater, or other forms of music, age and experience should be celebrated as virtues, with those bold enough to share their self-reflection and life summation hailed for preserving the integrity of the art form.
Notable Tracks: “Always Be My Lady” | “Devil is Near” | “Five Boroughs” | “Good Inside”