Music Reviews

Chris Thomas King

Dirty South Hip-Hop Blues

21st Century Blues

Chris Thomas King is probably better know for his performance as Tommy Johnson in the Coen Brothers’ whimsical O Brother, Where Art Thou?, than for his efforts as a progressive blues musician. Understanding the immanent connection between the blues and hip hop, King has sought to render their symbiotic relationship more visible, introducing turntablism and other elements of hip hop to traditional blues phrasing. The title alone of his most recent effort, Dirty South Hip Hop Blues, is sure to pique the interest of anyone cognizant of hip hop=EDs antecedents, deeply embedded in the blues tradition. Commencing with a languid blues guitar riff, not unlike that which would be featured in the opening scene of some movie set in the South as the camera comes into focus on a chain gang busting rocks on a sultry summer day, this album quickly devolves into sonic drivel, shattering the expectations of the listener. “Yo Kiss” sounds way too much like Sisqo’s “Thong Song” and “Feel Me,” King’s leave-nothing-to-the-imagination love (read fuck) song redefines the meaning of tacky. The rest of the album is equally uninspired and disappointing. Motifs are predicable and King’s attempt to transcend convention falls short. He may be a fine blues musician, but he lacks the cadence necessary to be an interesting rapper. Even the gospel inspired “Gonna Take a Miracle,” a well-intentioned attempt to make sense of post-9/11 America, is beyond maudlin, making P. Diddy’s “I’ll Be Missing You” seem sincere. It appears King is trying a bit too hard to recreate Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come.”

King simultaneous incorporation of the strumming of a dobro and the scratch of a turntable (incidentally, he plays pretty much every instrument on the album) is no doubt ingenious. Yet, he seems to stumble with the articulation of his vision to connect the Mississippi delta of the late-1880s with contemporary hip hop. Still, despite the infelicities of this album, there are a few enjoyable moments. “Ghetto Child, You’re Not Alone” is a somber reflection on the brutal realities of growing up poor and black in any of America’s many urban wastelands (my use of the word “wasteland” is not meant to disparage the folks who live there, but rather is a comment on the sociopolitical forces that allow for such a grim reality to exist). Rivaling Wu Tang Clan’s blues epic “C.R.E.A.M.” and even Grandmaster =46lash’s “The Message,” King bombards his listener with poignant imagery: “The world keeps turning, but the fire’s burning on/I guess I’ll take another trip down to the ‘Rock House,’ the only place I go where everybody knows my name . . . Mommy died young and daddy bailed/I spent most of my years in and outta jail/Just a ghetto child, left behind/ I never knew love, all I learned was crime/A child was born with a heart of gold, but a crazy world turned his heart so cold.” While “C.R.E.A.M.” and “The Message” are very much blues songs, “Ghetto Child” seems to offer a glimmer of hope and redemption in its chorus: “Ghetto child, you’re not alone/I carry you when your not strong/ Dawn is coming and I gonna be your light/Every little things gonna be all right/Ghetto child don’t give up/I feel your pain, you’ve always been tough.” Sadly ironic, it is the album’s darkest moment that is also the brightest and most palatable.

Chris Thomas King:

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