Happy 15th Anniversary to Capital D’s second studio album Insomnia, originally released August 24, 2004.
It always disappointed me that there wasn’t a real resurgence of political-oriented hip-hop during the early to mid ’00s. Twelve years of Reaganomics in the 1980s and early 1990s not only spawned such artists as Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions and Paris, but it also helped build a sense of consciousness and the need for social responsibility in hip-hop. Twenty years later, eight years of Dubya, recession, and seemingly endless overseas wars brought about the occasional dead prez and Immortal Technique, but hip-hop seemed stuck in the mainstream excess that began to grip the genre during the mid to late 1990s.
For someone who tries to remain as politically aware as myself, Insomnia, released by David “Capital D” Kelly 15 years ago, was a refreshing change of pace. While mainstream hip-hop seemed completely stuck in its blinged-out malaise, the Chicago-born intellectual emcee was scrutinizing the state of this country’s soul. Insomnia is one of the few great hip-hop albums to deal with the state of the United States post-September 11th. I’ve maintained here before that Cap D is the best hip-hop artist to come out of Chicago, and this album helped cement that belief.
Cap D made his name as one half of the hip-hop duo All Natural, a Chicago-based hip-hop group that recorded such albums of No Additives, No Preservatives (1998) and Second Nature (2001). Though he’d released the conceptual Writer’s Block (2002) with the Molemen production crew, Insomnia is mostly a one-person operation. Lyrically, Cap holds down the majority of the album on his own (there’s a few guest appearances from Chicago compadres like Mr. Greenweedz and Tree) and handles all the production as well.
While working behind the boards for Insomnia, Cap creates an overall feel that harkens back to the Bomb Squad’s late ’80s/early ’90s heyday. The tracks, like the fare on It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back (1988) and AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted (1990), are thick and dense, powered by layers of samples. Cap shows a penchant throughout the album for using over-powering electric guitars, a surefire way to create an air of aural chaos. But when necessary, he shows the ability to slow the tempo, creating a haunting texture.
Lyrically, Cap D spends much of Insomnia addressing two subjects: his conversion to Islam and his reflections on life in the United States after the September 11th attacks. He delves deep into his spiritual awakening, examining the role that his faith and belief now play in his life and shape his perceptions. He also extensively analyzes how the United States government and society has operated in the years leading up to the deadly terror attacks, and how that has shaped our subsequent history.
On the album-opening “The Awakening,” Cap D delivers a lengthy mission statement for the album in the form of an over two-and-a-half minute one-take verse, showcasing his ability to wind through the eerie piano sample, crafting tongue-twisting rhymes through complicated rhyme flows. On “Alive On Arrival,” he describes finding a way to survive life on Chicago’s south side. He later adds perspective on converting to Islam in post September 11th America, dealing with a population that assumes that he’s a terrorist due to his religious affiliation. He raps, “Undercover cops try to keep tabs on the city mosque / Trying to keep an eye on the spot where the gritty locks.”
Cap D tackles how the United States has dealt with terrorism and its effects on the world’s psyche throughout Insomnia. Songs like “Culture of Terrorism” and “Miss America” examine the United States government’s established history of incubating and then exporting violence and instability, leading its attempts to shape countries around the globe in its own image. But Cap D never frames things in an overly simplistic manner, instead finding the nuance in these issues. “I love Miss America, but hate her flaws,” he muses. “Love the adversity, the diversity, and the stable laws. But stable laws with no equality solidify oppression / As we trade our morality for the guise of legality.”
Even with the vast amount of political commentary, Cap D still has a lot to say about hip-hop’s direction on Insomnia. He has always been a consummate emcee throughout his career, priding himself on creating hardcore, non-commercial hip-hop. His reawakening gives an even sharper sense of focus on track like “Enough Already” and “Vent,” two screeds against the lack of direction and rampant materialism in commercial hip-hop. On the latter, he rails against the wack like an angry prophet, proclaiming, “What’s the use of hip-hop if it’s not liberating and facilitating something better? / Educating instead of concentrating on clever.” He then asserts, “Following the next man’s not a defense / Especially when he hollering dense about dollars and sense.”
Cap doesn’t solely reserve his venom for rappers steering the music in the wrong direction, taking on aspiring gangstas with “Toy Soldiers.” Over a muted yet menacing guitar loop and shuffling drums, Cap berates wannabe hard rocks for preying on the community and not organizing themselves to take action against the government. He raps, “Keep walking with a weapon when you lack the civility / And ability to express any humility / Brothers killing brothers in the streets, apparently / They scared of Jake, just preying on the weak and the elderly.”
Two of the album’s highlights come when Cap D invokes both tracks from his first solo single, “Que Sera Sera” and “U Ain’t Ready,” released back in 1998. “U Still Ain’t Ready” is the obvious sequel, right down to Cap verbally twisting his way over the same noisy, electric guitar heavy track, calling on citizens to prepare themselves for the impending cultural upheaval. Meanwhile, “Transformations” references his encounter with the beautiful and spiritually aware woman on “Que Sera Sera,” getting deeper into their conversation, and how it inspired him to learn more about Islam.
Insomnia often seems like an album born out anger, but it’s more accurate that the guiding emotion is frustration. Cap D remains frustrated throughout the album that a country and a population that has the potential to inspire and due great things has spent much of its existence provoking aggression and championing greed. He explains how he’s grown as a person through his spiritual journey and encourages others to inspire positive action.
In that sense, Insomnia reflects a period in time in this country’s history when our government took the predictable way out, seeking vengeance rather than developing real global change. Few albums in any genre tackled these complex ideas, and it’s what makes Insomnia endure, even if it was inspired by events from nearly 20 years ago.