MUSIC: Mike Ladd

Mike Ladd
Easy Listening For Armageddon
Scratchie/Mercury

Since the term was coined, "trip hop" has been associated with the moody, noirish sound collages, rap-singing, and slow-churning electro-beats of folks like Tricky and Massive Attack--music that's hip hop-identified, but stylistically miles away from current rap flavors. With his debut, Easy Listening For Armageddon, 26-year-old poet Mike Ladd (who emerged from the Nuyorican spoken-word scene) offers another take on the genre. Like Tricky, he's more hip hop in theory than practice; but unlike most trip hop, Ladd's divergence from convention is driven first and foremost by his lyrics. While Easy Listening is full of trip hop's musical signposts, the tracks are always spare and elastic enough to accommodate what's really trippy: Ladd's free-form, stream-of-consciousness, over-the-top verse.

Like most classic rap, Ladd steeps his monologues in American culture and politics--and more specifically, the Afro-American. But instead of representing black through familiar propaganda or clichés--shout-outs to Malcolm X or his 'hood--Ladd's poetry is Afrocentric by being self-aware. While his performances are endowed with a Last Poets-style social commentary that keeps them frighteningly grounded in reality, there's a postapocalyptic vibe to pieces like the wacky title track, "Blade Runner," or "I'm Building a Bodacious Bodega for the Race War"--both of which borrow from the George Clinton/Sun Ra school of Afro-sci-fi-psychedelia.

Still, the most vital and engaging songs on Easy Listening are neither futuristic nor riddled with postmodern references. On both "The Tragic Mulatto Is Neither" and "Okrakoke," Ladd explores his connections to the past: from his fisherman granddaddy to his Reconstruction roots on the Carolina coast, back to the shores of West Africa. These are not only the most tuneful and cohesive tracks on the album, but also the most soulful. It may be said that by continually directing his gaze backward and forward, Ladd seems willing to deal with everything but the present. However, he understands the current moment to be ephemeral, gone before it's digested. By balancing yesterday and tomorrow--with a keen sense of the dictum "if you don't know where you've been, you can't know where you're going"--Ladd manages to land squarely in the here and now.

 
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