HearHomeand you immediately hear why Michel Franti disposed of Disposable Heroes and created Spearhead. Where the Heroes' arty beatscapes were mechanical and heavily sampled, Franti's new joint is all natural: a "real" band, soulful backing … see full wiki
HIP HOP OUTSIDE THE MAINSTREAM Spearhead, with Michael Franti, Home (5*) Spearhead, with Michael Franti, Chocolate Supa Highway (4*) Spearhead, with Michael Franti, Stay Human (3*) MC Solaar, Prose Combat (5*) MC Solaar, Le Tour de la Question (5*) MC Solaar, Cinquieme As (Fifth Ace) (3*)
The best hip hop today is being done outside the mainstream, by Michael Franti in San Francisco and MC Solaar in France. (I'll make an exception for the music from Hustle and Flow!)
I first heard Michael Franti and MNC Solaar on the compilation, Stolen Moments: Red Hot + Cool. Spearhead did "Home," the best song I've heard on living in the shadow of AIDS. MC Solaar collaborated with jazz bassist Ron Carter on "Un Ange en Danger."
Franti is a master lyricist; his group (groups, since he changes personnel on every record) lays down interesting and varied backgrounds. Above all, Spearhead plays real music: the melodies stick in your head, along with the lyrics, when you're done listening to them. Home is the best album: cuts like "Home," "Red Beans and Rice," "Caught without an Umbrella," and "Hole in the Bucket" tell mean and witty truths about being black and powerless in America. The killer track on Chocolate Supa Highway is "Lonesome Traveler": a plaintive woman voice sings the familiar folk tune with a gospel tinge and Franti raps along underneath. Stay Human is disappointing: the songs sound tired and the gimmick -short blasts from a radio broadcast are interspersed among the songs--doesn't work.
MC Solaar sings in French but is black -he's from north Africa. Surprisingly, French is a marvelous language to rap in -nasal, elisive, hypnotic in pulse over drum machine beat, synthesizer smears, vinyl scratching and background singers. The lyrics are funny at times, angry at others. Prose Combat is a studio album of uniformly high quality. Tour is a two-CD compilation from live concerts.
It's interesting to listen to differences in the live and studio performances of some of the songs on these two albums: in general, the live performances are pumped up a bit. There are so many exceptional songs on these two records that it's hard to pick favorites: listen to "Nouveau Western," "La Concubine de la Hemoglobine," "Onzieme Commandement," or "Gangster Moderne." Or "Zoom," the opening cut on Tour, with MC and his gang coming in over the sound of helicopters landing behind them. It kicks!
Cinquieme As finds MC back in the studio again. This time, the background is thinner and lyrics sound recycled. But, hey, two out of three ain't bad!
[If you like MC Solaar, try Les Nubians, Princesses Nubiennes, two young North African French women, stunningly beautiful, who sound a bit like Sade if she'd grown up on hip hop.]