Out east right now, Mos Def is making like a one-man Black Rock Coalition. The underground upstart has enlisted Bad Brains' Dr. Know and Sugar Hill house-band and Living Colour bassist Doug Wimbish for a heavy-rock group that Mos has cheekily dubbed Jack Johnson, after the dark-skinned heavyweight master of so many white ninnies in the early 1900s. Sounds just like the sort of audacious move too few critics' darlings are willing to risk. And yet, listen to the earliest bootlegs of the band's live debut and you won't quite hear the quartet of black men expressing their sense of entitlement to music created by black men. No, you'll hear Mos straining to live up to somebody else's expectations--he's going to beat Fred Durst at his own game, dammit. Jack Johnson was many things, but a counterpuncher was never one of them.
To make matters worse, it just so happens that a white rapper happens to be getting closer to the bluesy roots of rock than Mos and Co. have seemingly managed so far. The rapper in question, former House of Pain main man Everlast appears to understand the ramifications of this situation quite well: Any palefaced rapper who goes by "Whitey" and leads off his solo debut with some girlies chanting, "The white boy is back," isn't above pointing out the obvious. From its title on, Everlast's new record Eat at Whitey's (Tommy Boy) never takes his whiteness for granted. The first single is called "Black Jesus," a sobriquet that Ev insists "they" already call him (a little white lie, I suspect). The track has him dropping quotes from "The Show" and "Surfin' Bird" with a bellow that owes more to Howlin' Wolf than KRS-One. Later on this same album, he's heard pining over a lady who "tastes like toffee" and reminds him of "Black Coffee." And who knows what to make of the image of an apparently unintegrated lunch counter at "Whitey's" that adorns the album cover in garish color.
And yet, hold off before you go about decrying the ominous shadow of Pat Boone (if not Vanilla Ice) hovering over Ev's endeavors in racial appropriation. If Eminem is demonstrably not like Elvis, that means that his sometime rival Everlast isn't like--who? Jerry Lee? Mick Jagger? Well, that remains to be seen, but Everlast certainly isn't like Woody Guthrie. That, you'll recall, was the comparison that 1998's Whitey Ford Sings the Blues generated most frequently when House of Pain's main man reemerged from a two-year silence with an acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder and an American flag dominating his stage set. Whitey Ford touted the underside of bling-bling capitalism, making the unfashionable pronouncement that you could have less money and mo' problems.
A cursory listen to "What It's Like" in the censored form that reached Modern Rock radio could lead you to mistake the anthem for Bruce Hornsby with street smarts. But in fact, "What It's Like" not only showed "the man at the liquor store begging for your change" with more sympathy than a disdainful Jay-Z would have, but included the only pro-choice verse I've ever heard on the radio. And it voiced the sort of liberal pessimism hip hop doesn't allow itself: "Where you end usually depends on where you start." In picking up a guitar to voice such sentiments, Everlast seemed to acknowledge, if only intuitively, that contemporary hip hop has abandoned its voice as a form of social criticism. After all, the popular trajectory of that upwardly mobile medium involves someone like Master P, who moves on up from slinging crack and part-time rhyming to a nine-digit bankroll, and a life spent peddling jeans, films, and gas stations.
For Ev's followup release, producers Dante Ross and John Gamble have steered their charge even further from straight hip hop. On Whitey Ford, the acoustic guitar occasionally seemed tacked on--an affectation as opposed to a key element of the groove. On the new album, all involved make it funky without mucking the sound up all Funkadelic-like the way Southern playalistic types like OutKast do when they reach for real instrumentation. Moreover, Everlast's singing has gained power, his cracked soul tenor now sounding more authentically ravaged than the strangulated growl of whatever white journeyman happens to be passing through Famous Dave's next month. (Even more to the point, it trumps the preening demonstrations of faux emotion spewed by that oily doofus from Creed.) Despite his well-established hip-hop pedigree, Everlast is a post-Vedder blooze croaker when it comes time to sing, hoarse with the spirit and intent on berating his own demons.
The upshot: Dude can convince you he has definitely got hellhounds snapping at his Timberlands. Abandoning the social observations of Whitey Ford, Eat at Whitey's is obsessed with mortality. "We're All Gonna Die" is the most terrifying 2:20 of music I ran across all last year, far more powerful than Whitey Ford's comparable "Death Comes Callin'." As the song quotes the hoary folk-blues plea, "If my wings should fail me, Lord/Meet me with another pair," a brutal slide guitar crashes into the keen Otis Redding wail of Goodie Mob's Cee-Lo. As a kind of coda, Everlast succeeds the track with "Mercy on My Soul," which follows up "Lord, I need ya like a junkie needs his drugs/Need ya like a baby boy needs his hugs" with "Need ya like a flower needs the sun/I need ya like D.M.C. needs Run."
But the clincher is the closer, "Graves to Dig," a chilly threnody marked by a tense restraint that plunges into the existential dread of the blues. This, while so many of the tributes to dead homies that other artists (yes, black artists) churn out rely on the soppiest, tears-in-your-40 sentimentality. Whether it expresses heartbroken resignation or stark defiance, the language of hip hop has become one of amped-up emotion, unmoored from the more considered and tempered qualities of older African-American musics such as blues or soul. Even a heady guy like Mos Def has a hard time wriggling out of those tonal constraints.
Everlast's ability to ease his way across genres, to borrow the emotional tenor of a genre without being consumed by it, might be a white man's privilege--kind of like my own freedom to use dis and paradigm in the same sentence. I'd love to hear a black MC make a record as supple and relaxed as Eat at Whitey's. Then again, given the narrow programming of urban radio and the cowardice of older white music fans, I wonder how many people would hear it at all.