Nappy Roots emerged last year with a greasy, organ-driven hit that they followed up with a beautiful, soul-based second single that equaled the success of the previous. This multi-faceted collective from Kentucky is at the forefront (with Cee-Lo, David Banner and the continued genius of OutKast) of the “Dirty South” movement, the source of much of the great hip-hop of the past few years.
Even more than their counterparts (except OutKast) though, Nappy Roots seem acutely aware of and engaged in the roots of hip-hop, from slave spirituals and Delta blues, to 1960s Southern soul and 1970s funk, and create their music from a gumbo of influences that situate them firmly within the African-American musical tradition that they are simultaneously adding to. Their new album, Wooden Leather, is the second step in what promises to be a fruitful and exciting career.
Wooden Leather possesses some of the freshest and most memorable arrangements of any hip-hop record this year. Intermingling sounds form their musical foundation — bluesy slide guitars, gospel handclaps, grits-music organ — with bubbling, rolling beats that neither seem clichéd nor alienating in their originality. The group has been described by some critics as dull, and there is some truth to the fact that their music doesn’t “challenge” listeners to a great extent. Rather than seeming “dull,” however, the tracks have a comfort and familiarity that call back to other great music coming from the myths of the American consciousness — from The Band and Otis Redding to John Mellencamp and Erykah Badu.
Unlike The Neptunes, Lil’ Jon or any of their other contemporaries, Nappy Roots don’t seem to come from nowhere, but instead seem like a six-man encapsulation of the rhythms and thoughts of the human spirit. “Push On” aches with the insistence of the best gospel, and the deeply felt chorus — sung with help from neo-soulster Anthony Hamilton — only strengthens its connection with the music of the church and the movement.
“Roun’ The Globe” is a roadhouse ring-dance that, with its joyous, hurtling rhythm and shout-outs to the people of the world recalls The O’Jays’ “Love Train.” They build the looping celebration of “Nappy Roots Day,” based on an actual honor bestowed on the group by Kentucky’s governor, around a Bee Gees sample (and not even an obvious one from the group’s disco hits). “Leave Here This Morning,” with a supple hook sung by Raphael Saadiq, is an examination of the day-to-day blues of life and work.
When the group does decide to launch a full-frontal assault, specifically on the politically minded “War/Peace,” the effect is intensified by the previous lack of such confrontational tactics. Also, the album ends with a remix of “Roun’ The Globe” by the Ying-Yang Twins, on which the group reminds the audience that — when all else fails — you can find them in the club.
Nappy Roots also distinguish themselves as something of hip-hop philosophers, not in the increasingly boring and lifeless manner of admittedly sage figures like Ice-T or KRS-One, but in a manner that only enriches their Southern-fried funk.
On several tracks, most notably “Roun’ The Globe,” “Leave Here This Morning,” “Sick And Tired” and “Push On,” the group constructs a critique of American society through the eyes of the semi-rural working-to-middle classes, groups which — even in the inundating environment of modern media — are still woefully underrepresented in mainstream outlets. Humanist and egalitarian, the mindset is perhaps best summed up in the lyric “the whole damn world’s country.”
Within the world of the Nappy Roots, the human race is equally locked in a struggle against the forces trying to subdue and suppress it, whether the daily grind of work or the deeper struggle for justice and betterment. It seems no coincidence that the lyrical hook of “Sick And Tired” is based around a famed quote from Mississippi civil-rights hero Fannie Lou Hamer.
As rich in content as these songs are, the beats and arrangements never become overwhelmed. Unlike so many hip-hop records, both mainstream and underground, Wooden Leather succeeds both lyrically and musically, creating a sonic world in which neither the head nor the body is overly privileged, but rather joined together in the service of searching for answers and finding the funk.
The past few years have been great for Southern hip-hop, and Wooden Leather is another worthy installment in this genre-altering movement.