The final track of the Unknown Prophets' debut album, World Premier, knocked me down and left me straining to reach the stereo's repeat button. But the song was playing on the radio. Coming over the airwaves was a doubt so deep, an almost endless list of the things this local hip-hop crew know they will never do: "I'll never be the best word worker," "I'll never be as dope as you," "I'll never stop writing when there's no ink left." The song is called "Never," and the word seems to repeat a million times. (I lost count around 56.) A song this beautiful, backed by what could be elevator music in a lesser context, is as abject as they come. Overwhelmed by their impossibility and failure, I believe the Unknown Prophets every time they say they can't do it.
There is no reason to expect three men from northeast Minneapolis to be this good. But without any posturing or bravado, MaD SoN and Big Jess (the MCs), and Willy Lose (the DJ) are making the best hip-hop records I've heard. Now You Know, their second full-length self-release, takes the best of hip hop and expands its frame of reference. (They'll be playing a CD-release party Saturday, February 2 at 7th Street Entry.) The rhymes--pure poetry--can be buried under a bassline, a break beat, a guitar, or an organ so strong that your head is shaking before you even know what you are rocking to. Or the sound can be so layered and delicate that you just have to turn it up.
Willy Lose's record collection may be the weirdest one imaginable. He samples Gilda Radner's Roseanne Rosannadanna, Dave Mason's "Within You, Without You," Bonnie Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me" played on the wrong speed, and other things I can't identify, but Lose isn't just playing "Look how clever I am! I know that stolen beat!" The samples, in their original forms, would probably sound stale, or like a joke. But when the Unknown Prophets go collaging, the original sources are haunting rather than obvious.
The individual parts of the group itself are just as important. MaD SoN is fast. Big Jess is all heart. One of them is afraid of the dark and afraid of heights; the other is mentally scarred after watching ER for 15 whole minutes. Together, they write rhymes about despair, death, and regret. "It Could Happen to You" is a bedtime story gone terribly wrong: Mr. Success drives home drunk from a party, killing a single mother on impact; Ms. Unlucky is a young gas-station cashier who delivers a stillborn baby with crack in his veins. When Big Jess says "sex" in the same song, he spits it, filling the word with a menace that even a proselytizer for abstinence couldn't muster. The music is a moan, the song less a warning than a tragedy.
The Unknown Prophets know they are a part of a great Twin Cities hip-hop tradition. Now You Know has local guest spots from Musab, Eyedea, ManCHILD, and Gamble. But while the Unknown Prophets once called their silent audiences and hometown naysayers "instigators," they now say a big thank-you to everyone who ever supported them. Their enormous liner notes credit everyone but themselves for what they're doing.
While a thank-you is always appreciated, it feels misguided on this record--as if signaling that the Unknown Prophets are finished. As far as I can tell, they are still digging out from under the weight of their own doubt. But they are still laboring, and the way that their humility complements their rhymes about down-and-out characters makes Now You Know more alive than most hip-hop records. This is why I bought about 25 copies of their last album and sent it to friends all over the Northern Hemisphere. I don't want to be thanked. Sometimes it's great just to be a fan.
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