“I wish this album wasn’t timely,” Bronx rapper Kemba said of his “debut” project Negus in a tweet just shy of two weeks before it dropped. “I’d rather it be outdated.”
Under any other circumstances, hearing this from an artist dropping their first album in three years under a new name would be disheartening. The emcee formerly known as YC The Cynic has been something of a secret weapon for the Boogie Down since 2010, a sharp-tongued lyricist who struggled with a jaw tumor and drew equal inspiration from Homeboy Sandman, Lil Wayne, Cassidy, and Soulja Boy.
And for all the heady bars and astute observations on projects like 2010’s You’re Welcome, 2011’s Fall FWD, and 2013’s Frank Drake produced mini-breakthrough GNK, it all started when he put his money where his bars were by co-founding the Rebel Diaz Arts Collective, a musical safe haven for Bronx youth, with fellow community minded BX group Rebel Diaz.
The latest string of Black men shot and/or killed by police (Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Charles Kinsey) and general American race relations boiling over yet again imbues Kemba’s musings on 2016 Black life with a somber relevance it couldn’t escape if it tried. Each track on the 12-song project is a step in a young Black boy’s understanding of the world and learning how to fly in spite of the near-constant dangers surrounding him and all other dark-skinned men, women, and children. It’s fitting, then, that the album’s front and back covers respectively feature drawings of 12-year-old Tamir Rice and 8-year-old Aiyana Jones, two lives cut short before their prime.
Both Kemba and producer/longtime cohort Frank Drake took themselves out of their comfort zones to musically shape this album; songs on here take heavy inspiration from Drake and Yeezus-era Kanye West that sound like a far-cry from Kemba’s “Molotovs At Poseidon” days but are really testaments to their respective growth. Whether you’re in Hunts Point or France, Negus is an emotional rolodex of the Black experience in 2016, and Kemba talked with WatchLoud about songs and bars for the latest edition of Verse Behavior.
“Please don’t call me conscious, don’t call it political/Please don’t deem this lyrical, these are Negro spirituals/Bastard generation raising guns against their general/Raisin in the sun; I’ll raise my son to be less cynical”
“I know you wanna flaunt; I wanna flaunt, too/But it ain’t been that long since there was niggas in the Bronx Zoo/So I’ma pour some out for Ota Benga, jury said/I was resistant, momma said say no to strangers and I listened/Picture God grabbing Adam by the Adam’s Apple/just as Adam’s having at the apple, now those/atoms got you grabbin’ at your fuckin’ Apple tablet, backin’ up/cause there’s a Black man in all black tats/Does this shit make you intimidated?”
I do this thing where you come up with an idea and you record it into your phone. This is one of the rare times I did that with a beat. I recorded me beatboxing the drums and I sent it to Frank [Drake] and he did those and we went into the studio for the rest of the weekend and did the rest of the beat. We were at a point where we’d finished a bunch of songs already and we were trying to make an impactful first one. At that point, there were so many songs that were “about something,” that I wanted to avoid repeating myself and make the first song a little personal about that rage.
I wanted the first thing I said on the album to be definitive: don’t call this conscious, don’t call this political. Fuck that shit (laughs). That shit has been on my mind for a minute. The labels “conscious” and “political” upset me a bit. They’re used to dismiss at this point. I don’t think there’s anything “political” about talking about people dying or what’s happening in my hood every day. I’m talking about the same shit they’re talking about on mainstream radio; I’m talking about what’s happening around me. I get that music that talks about similar things isn’t necessarily palatable or enjoyable and that’s there’s a high barrier to entry, but that’s not a label I think fits or should even exist at this point.
I learned about Ota Benga the day before I wrote [“I know you wanna flaunt, I wanna flaunt, too/But it ain’t been that long since there was niggas in the Bronx Zoo.”] I was shocked that that shit happened in The Bronx. You hear about Sara Baartman and that seems so far away. And Ota Benga was only 100 years ago. There might be someone alive who went to the zoo to see Black people as a kid.
“The New Black Theory“
“I could walk outside now and get shot down/If you ever wonder why I’m hostile, you can/See the chiefs sending orders from the top down/All the civil leaders looking docile, Lord/Forgive ’em, maybe it’s the dark forces in ’em/Or the Medicaid cost just hit ’em, or the/evidence that all our history is gettin’ washed out/But everybody takin’ our style, who the new black now?”
I was inspired to write this after coming back from Ferguson. I wasn’t down there during the initial protests when Mike Brown was killed, but we were down there the following October. My DJ Charlie Hustle is friends with Mike Brown’s cousin, so when we got there, we got to meet his grandmother. We ate, enjoyed each other’s company, and grieved. Young Black and brown people were leading protests in Ferguson. I’ve been going to protests since I was 16 and I’ve never seen that. I came back with a reinvigorated energy and that’s where that voice came from. The majority of [Negus] was made after that trip.
I’m learning that some things are only for some people, and [“New Black Theory”] is specifically for people like us. I sent it out to everybody and I’m open to everybody’s opinions, but the opinions mean more when the person is likely to go through the same experiences. I sent it out to bloggers and some said that it plays to tired cliches. I’m like “This is a tired cliche to you?” (laughs). There’s so much responsibility placed on oppressed people, it’s fucking crazy. We can’t do that, we can’t do this.
“What’s good, I been gone for a minute/I done came back reinvented/Turnin’ down deals, guess I’m still independent/We been wearin’ Timbs 20 years, niggas still in the trenches”
“I’ve been offline tryna fight off the genocide/Meh, came a long way from the dollar fries/Wiping off the tears from my momma eyes/I done told my fans I’m the wrong one to idolize/I’ma right the ship like Pieh from the Amistad”
I was doing a lot of experimenting with my voice and I wasn’t really rapping that much. The idea after GNK was to make something more broad and less brooding; more melodic. I was doing a lot of riffing and singing and Frank fucking hated it (laughs). He made the beat for “Already” as something specifically for me to rap to. It was this perfect compromise because it wasn’t a boom-bap beat where he was expecting me to do “300 Bars” like The Game or some shit. I was able to riff and he got the raps he wanted. The song was super Drake inspired. “Started From The Bottom” was a big influence on “Already.” I’m also super proud of being able to talk about issues in a way that’s not corny or preachy.
“I see your eyes wide open when I pull up to the side of my lamb/Your heart shakin’ at the sight of my hand.”
“I know it must be hard to be a struggling artist/The only way to stop the starvin’ is a package of ramen/I know you’re havin’ problems holdin’ up the end of your bargain/Your momma tellin’ you to get a job the moment you started/You say it’s all about the politics cause everyone’s garbage/Soon as you got a job at Target, you was everyone’s target/I know you saw me bout an hour ‘fore my plane was departing/You saw the car I was driving, and wanna know how I got it”
It was Frank’s idea. He had the sample, made the beat in front of me, and told me what it was gonna be about. 99% of the time, I don’t listen to him, but this time it was such a genius idea of mixing the sirens from The Odyssey with the allure of the flashy drug dealer life. The kid is enamored of all the things that this enigmatic guy has.
Frank and Cole sang on the hook and if you listen closely, you can hear Frank censoring the “nigga” out of the hook. I didn’t even mention it before he went into the booth. Frank and I come from different grounds, so I’m glad he’s so open-minded. Some things are obviously easier than others, but he always tries his best to listen.
“Niggas bangin’ with the 5-0/Niggas hangin’ from a high rope, Niggas pray for vitiligo/Even Fresh Prince gettin’ old now, where the time go?”
“You would think we was drug lords if you watch CNN/Where the hood get the drugs from, please remind me again?”
“Shaq Diesel with a sheriff’s badge, that’s a high percentage shot”
I didn’t go in with any concept to write about; I just had a lot to say. There’s a line that might not mean anything to anyone else but me [“You went away to get yours, and now you’re all into mine/I call it a glitch in the matrix, a flaw in design.”] There, I was talking about white flight and how that led into the gentrification of The Bronx. You abandoned this place and you took the money with you, which meant that schools got worse. And then the project building burns down because the insurance is better than having tenants. We lived in those conditions, and now you’re back when it’s nicer.
Another line I like is “Niggas stumbled on the fountain of youth/turned around and bought a Sprite, tho.” Imagine that; I know that what I’m eating is terrible for me and killing me, but I can’t stop. In my hood, you’ve got a chicken spot, delis, you could find a McDonald’s or a Burger King if you walk far enough, and that’s it.
There’s also “Fox News call me ape; well if I’m an ape, i’ma be the apex/Caesar with a light-Caesar finna fight people fighting for a paycheck.” Sometimes shit just comes to you quick and it’s beautiful. That’s the best part of being an artist, man. That’s probably the most evidence of there being something bigger to me. Fuck a formalized religion; shit happening like that has to come from somewhere.
“Brown Skin Jesus”
“There’s lightning in this bottle, my descendent is Electro/You be battlin’ with rappers, I’m competitive with Tesla/Thomas Edison of rap/ I raised you as my own, the Florence Henderson of rap”
“My limit’s like Percy and Silkk The Shocker/Master P and Huey P meets N’yami and King T’Chaka/Look that up, and to the victims of police brutality/Rest in peace, even brown skin Jesus would say FTP”
“The fireflies come alive in the nighttime/Do you realize we might see the end of time in our lifetime?/At this point, even I’m surprised I’m alive in my right mind/The Mario/Luigi of the school-to-prison pipeline”
That’s definitely my favorite song on the album. For the whole album, I was writing as Frank was producing, so we were guiding each other in a sort of symbiotic way.
At that point, I wanted to make a strong closing statement. I like the visual of [“A king arisen out the depths you least expected/Even brown skin Jesus wasn’t easily accepted/Wielded Thor’s hammer with the easiest of efforts”]. In today’s world, Jesus would constantly be stopped and frisked by cops and possibly killed. I think “Brown Skin Jesus” is what the child has become and his new responsibilities to teach another. It’s a never ending cycle.
Sometimes you have lines that just flow one into the other, and other times it’s the centerpiece that you write lines around, and that’s what “The Mario/Luigi of the school-to-prison pipeline” was. I came up with the idea of beating the school-to-prison pipeline and wanted to say it clever, so Mario/Luigi as plumbers came to mind, and then I had to form the rest of the verse around that (laughs). I try to say lines that I can imagine seeing, and that was a cool image.