Toki Wright: A Different Mirror

Toki Wright's reputation as an all-around good egg in Minnesota rap hasn't necessarily helped his career: For years his prominence as promoter and organizer eclipsed the fact that he can flow on the mic with the same ease and dry wit that he brings to hosting shows, working with kids in Uganda, or performing as hype man for Brother Ali. But the C.O.R.E., Wright's duo with boxer-rapper Adonis Frazier, was one of the best live shows in town, tearing up the Quest as smoothly as they did the Circle of Discipline gym. After the group's independently released 2003 album—until now Wright's most official-looking CD—he came back solo with promising demos, cameos, and collabos, leaving a span of six years before this debut on Rhymesayers.

The good news is how much he brings to his powerhouse label rather than vice versa. Wright's chunky phrasing—part feigned Jamaican deejay, part acquired crunk drawl, all genuine Midwestern twang—is a unique thing in rap. He squeezes four syllables out of the word "positive," his social conscience so second-nature it becomes slang. "Every word I got connect like eyebrow of Frida Kahlo," he boasts with Caribbean country grammar on "Next Best Thing," earning his LOL. And if his ideas don't always connect ("Little Girl," about his daughter, is a rough draft to be filled in by life), his voice still reaches out and engages, rising to converse, dipping to school, sing-songing to express an eye-roll.

The title track is a gripping first-person tale of violence and resignation, jumping from slavery to post-war KKK times, and it shows what Wright can do when his riffs gel into storytelling. He also has a way with understated imagery: "The high-rise is bigger than the skyscraper in the distance," goes one line on "Devil's Advocate." But amid the otherwise wicked, Desmond Dekker-sampling posse cut "Get Up" (with Felipe Cuauhtli, St. Paul Slim, and Trama), Wright loses his way in autobiographical specificity. His low, juicy tone can get lost, too: Among the gifted producers (Benzilla with his African samples, Brother Ali with his futurist one-drop), only Sevadar Sehaj seems to know exactly where to put Wright's voice in the mix. It's as if the rapper has been on the road and in the world for so long that the studio is a new frontier. Still, this album is proof he belongs there.

 
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