Our recurring column ‘Lest We Forget’ is devoted to revisiting albums that have been unfairly overlooked or marginalized within the broader critical and commercial context of our favorite artists’ discographies. We hope that our recollections shine a newfound light on these underappreciated gems from the past, and as always, we encourage you, our readers, to weigh in with your own perspectives and memories in the comments below.
Mainstream music awards don’t have a specific category for artistic integrity, but if they did my first nomination would be Lord Jamar of Brand Nubian. Since the group’s groundbreaking debut LP One for All emerged in 1990, Lord Jamar has been at the heart and soul of a group who has sought to “edutain” the masses, heavily relying on the teaching of a movement that was born just a few train stops away from the birthplace of—and a few years before—hip-hop itself.
The Nation of Gods and Earths (also known as The Five Percent Nation) was born in New York City after Nation of Islam member Clarence 13X parted ways from the organization for disputed reasons in 1963. Clarence 13X took the teachings of the Nation of Islam, which were previously exclusive to devoted members, directly to young people in Harlem and Brooklyn, before it spread through all five boroughs, New York’s tristate, and beyond.
Clarence 13X’s initial audience, who would become known as the first nine born, hailed from some of the most economically divested zip codes in the United States. The growing group began to refer to Clarence 13X as The Father or Father Allah as he and his partner Old Man Justice became paternal symbols to the black and Latino young men mostly from single parent households. In the South Bronx, which was a similar community to those that originally embraced Clarence 13X’s teaching, youth began to express themselves through graffiti art, break-dancing, emceeing and deejaying to form the culture that would become known as hip-hop.
As hip-hop began to garner more attention, specifically for its musical expression, industry executives became interested and signed emcees and dee jays to recording contracts. From hip-hop’s early days of recording, the influence of the Five Percent Nation can be heard in the slang and wordplay. By the time hip-hop reached its golden era in the mid to late ‘80s, artists and groups began to take names such as Lakim Shabazz and Poor Righteous Teachers, considered to be direct tributes to the Nation of Gods and Earths. During the apex of this era, Brand Nubian emerged as the Nation’s champions, intertwining 5 Percent teaching directly into song lyrics, using audio snippets of the Nation of Islam’s Minister Louis Farrakhan that define the original lessons and using strong imagery in their music videos.
Lord Jamar would go on to build an expansive resume, not only from Brand Nubian’s acclaimed catalog, but also for portraying characters on television and film, such as the Marc Levin and Bonz Malone written film Brooklyn Babylon (2001) and HBO’s series OZ. Jamar would also become a highly sought-after producer after working on Nature’s 2000 debut LP For All Seasons and Dead Prez’ Let’s Get Free released the same year. With a well-earned amount of industry capital, Jamar released an album completely devoted to the organization that shaped his social consciousness.
Enlisting some of hip-hop’s highest profile Five Percent affiliates, Lord Jamar headed a star-studded cast for the 2006 release of The 5% Album. The Wu-Tang Clan played a major role on the LP, with Raekwon lending his vintage lexicon to the song “Original Man” where Jamar crafted the chorus, “Original man is first / I wanna say peace to the Gods & the Earths / my universal fam, living out the universal plan / Aiyo, tell 'em who I am (G-O-D),” while the RZA appeared on “Deep Space.”
“Same Ole Girl” served as a mini Sunz of Man reunion as one of the group’s prominent members, Prodigal Sunn, was joined by frequent collaborating producer Bronze Nazareth. Popa Wu a.k.a. Freedom, manifest his knowledge of Allah’s 120 lessons for two interludes, his gravelly voice helping to give The 5% Album a familiar feel, after fans had grown accustomed to hearing him on Wu-Tang albums.
Perhaps the highlight of the entire project came just minutes before the album’s epilogue. “Greatest Story Never Told” not only showcases Gensu Dean’s eerie and soulful production, placing him at the forefront of the new generation successors to his Boom Bap forefathers, but also an additional level of lyricism from Jamar. His highly detailed biography of The Father Allah’s life and legacy was an artistic virtue rarely visited in hip-hop.
The album as a whole represents a welcome return to many of the most salient themes fans had grown to love about rap during the “Golden Era.” The 5 % Album also served as the long-awaited perspective on an organization that intrigued hip-hop audiences for decades. Usually only revealed to hip-hop listeners in glimpses, The Nation of Gods and Earths was now offered a full 65 minutes to massage the mental, courtesy of a well-respected ambassador.