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arely does a place get as fleshed out in the community psyche of hip-hop as New York. Even a casual listener who’s got a few Mobb Deep, Biggie, Boogie Down and Jay-Z records can figure out a rough geography of Bed-Stuy and other places past the Williamsburg Bridge.
So what David Banner did for rap with Mississippi is just as powerful as what Joy Division did for punk. He buried the old ways and turned to the ways that had been left unseen. Between murderous 808 drum storms and history-driven, pounding orations, Banner managed to make the state that no one talks about into the inescapable. He separated the south from the South. In his soft moments he pleaded with us. At his boiling points he practically tore himself out of the speaker and managed to turn liberal guilt, pity, ignorance, and outright bias into churning, wounded song-cum-hymns.
Understandably, seeing Jazze Pha, Jagged Edge and Twista on the back of Certified, Banner’s pliable third album with a shockingly desperate reach for popularity is quite humbling.
I mean no cheap shots against any of the guest artists, but Banner’s self-reliance seemed his biggest weapon. Certified is still a fine album, coyly resonate in sections, but to open his vision to so many people who can’t deliver the same species of incandescent performance feels like a concession.
God forbid he actually sells a record, but trying to tone down the surprisingly progressive lust of “Play” into a half-warmed platter of Jazzie Pha mush on “Fuckin” is a desperate one move at best. It’s an unsuccessful pattern of reduction and one that happens a few times on Certified.
Melodramatic as the opening paragraphs may be, it’s Banner’s brilliance that has made us so impatient. He perfectly re-casts the aborted rap/funk/metal mold twice, “Lost Souls” and “X-ED,” and celebrates/mourns the lives of crack addicts, working class guys in the club, preachers, mothers and thieves and the average rural “outsider” born into abject poverty. Without any of the Bono-brand condescension and with a dash of Johnny Cash’s knowing sneer, Banner actually hits on the rarest vein in rap: empathy.
Compositionally, Banner has added a layer of occasionally ham-fisted gloss to his sound. The teeter-tottering xylophone clomps that used to announce his presence rarely make an appearance without beams of popping noisemakers in tow. The dry, crackling acoustic guitars are kicked up a few notches on the polish scale. “Certified” sounds especially inorganic: the gun shot snare is way too clunky and the guitars are shiny on a song whose heart is stuck in the gutter/salvation conundrum. He uses expected whistles and barks at expected times, veering dangerously close to sentimentality.
Certified is mostly a frightening album because it’s so clearly not up to Banner’s full potential but still a dramatic cut above almost everything else. In the midst of “I Ain’t Got Nothing,” a blue-color club cascade, he manages to rap the impossible: pimping in the club with little to no financial means. I’d say it’s really satirical and innovative but the galloping xylophone (finally!) and ornery bass pretty much smash everything in its way. Oh, it doesn’t end either.
In a spellbinding five minutes on “Westside,” Banner tells the story of California rap, naming icon after icon and making the subtle link between the West Coast’s initial struggles with his own. He doesn’t stray into hyperbole, just straddles the line between the fan and the academic: “I miss Eazy on the cover with an AK / I miss Cube screaming ‘It Was A Good Day.’”
Records don’t exist in vacuums. When you’re writing about one, anyone with a hint of wisdom will tell you to avoid comparisons, to sober your expectations going in and to focus on the present. Simply put, I think that that method of criticism is near impossible when dealing with David Banner and Certified. It is foolish to try and line everything up to Mississippi, but it’s even more naïve to try and act out a quasi-New Critical reading on something that’s clearly part of a larger tapestry. This isn’t a hangover record, just a mild, less determined effort. But it still deserves to explode. The ease with which it cranks out terrifying club songs (“Two Fingers” and “Gangsta Walk”) astonishes. The jabs at Mississippi haters are looser but still stinging. Certified may be a cinematic holding pattern but it’s a holding pattern in a place—both geographically and artistically—that we can’t hear enough of.
Reviewed by: Evan McGarvey
Reviewed on: 2005-09-26
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