Twenty years ago, I wanted to be this guy I knew. It didn’t last. That high school if-I-could-be-like-that energy that fueled about a dozen great 90s movies faded fast after graduation. But in 1999, he was a Roots fan and I borrowed his Things Fall Apart CD.
Two years later, I’d found Do You Want More?!!!??!. I started writing to it—not instrumentals, full tracks, to its syllables and breathing patterns. Those words became the first poems I ever wrote and the only performances I ever gave. They inspired the first things I ever published. They let me dream about, think of, and introduce myself as a writer. I still have those words—tucked away, folded and yellowing in dusty notebooks, but with me like the lyrics from Proceed I had inked along my left forearm in 2012.
The Roots changed my life. I’m grateful. And Black Thought’s Streams of Thought Vol. 1 is a compact reminder of why. I’m almost a year into this defend the album project, but this record feels like going home.
Thought gets right to work in Twofifteen and the brand is so strong. It’s what I’ve been craving. “I tend to gravitate towards how fish dinners from a styrofoam platter taste” captures layers, because I’m here for exactly that kind of experience from him: the cadences I grew up on, the nods to the culture I love.
He triggers memories I want to pass down too: the Ike and Anna Mae moment; “Back when local R&B was just as soulful as orthopedics;” sounds that evoke Cooley High visuals. The For Colored Girls mention tossed me back to that downstage performance friends put on in college.
He’s at his peak with “I heard murder ran this vast deserted land, back when Burning Man was blacks in Birmingham.” Who could give you that full a review of America’s timeline in so few characters? He’s 30 years in and, like that line about rising beyond others' gossip, still not of this era. Thought’s the best autobiographical rapper of all time.
One of my favorite things about Thought is how round his sounds are, how he envelopes syllables. The way he opens 9th vs. Thought is a full-throated display of that over some classic boom-bap from 9th Wonder.
That first line about how he’s atypically American because he’s not on our meds? He’s aware of our mortal coil but untouched. “Rolling out of the dealership in a McLaren” with McLaren pronounced Mac-lah-ren is some I-did-it-my-way triumph. Verse two is wild (see, e.g., “This rapper toss gravitas like a cannonball”). And his deliveries of excerpts of Toni Morrison’s 1975 talk at Portland State University are proof he’s better educated than your favorite rapper. “If lyricism is spiritual to you, then rewind this.”
Dostoyevsky makes me feel good about me. “I ain’t even halfway through this incredible ride, but like, I’m kinda doing an incredible job” is the kind of story I want to tell. In verse one, Thought’s celebrating credit card successes and longevity. Then Rapsody comes in talking about her run of succeeding in a man’s world. She also puts herself at hip hop’s core, including herself in the “us” owed for what “y’all did to the Cold Crush.” That run’s been a marathon, not a sprint: “I ain’t turned starboy in a weekend.”
Thought concludes with punches like “I’m built on facts; I’m not your rumor” before Making a Murderer thunders in (“My marketing: when you see the sky darkening”). Its “A 5th grader you’re not smarter than” is probably both a twist on the TV show title and a nod to the 5th Dynasty nickname.
At the end, Thank You caps a predictably remarkable EP over a sample of D’Angelo’s Charade. “It’s such a blessing, blessing, blessing to know you.”
June 1, 2018
9th Wonder · Khrysis
9th Wonder · Black Thought · Kirby · Rapsody · Styles P