“Drapetomania” was a term coined in 1851 by physician Samuel Cartwright to explain the pathology, in his mind, of Southern slaves who wanted to be free men and women. The pseudoscience was disdained even in its own time, but the toxic notion of explaining away someone else’s free will lives on in modern society.
For local hip-hop quartet the Green Seed – who titled their new LP Drapetomania at the suggestion of EHQuestionmark, the cagey design collective responsible for the album’s phenomenal cover art – it’s a rallying cry for people to rebel against empty materialism, wack gimmicks and bad relationships, all wrapped up in a musical package that would feel right at home alongside the Native Tongues crews of the early ‘90s.
If that all sounds deadly serious, then you’re only getting part of the story with the Green Seed. Because while the act is resolutely professional when it comes to their craft, they’re also hilarious, steeped in layers of pop culture that leaven the album’s heavier moments. MCs R-Tist and C.O.M.P.L.E.T. allude heavily to A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul, and they haven’t forgotten the crucial element of humor that grounded the introspective work of those forebears.
R-Tist and C.O.M.P.L.E.T. make for an unbelievably cohesive lyrical unit, couching thoughtful sentiments in witty one-liners and sharing the wealth on elaborate verses. While not as distinctive a pair as, say, Phife Dawg and Q-Tip, on narrative songs like “Is Where the Heart Is,” the duo prove adept at portraying thematic counterparts, playing up the worldliness of R-Tist against the spirituality of C.O.M.P.L.E.T.
The lyricism is so dense and so rife with references to unpack that it’s hard to do it all justice in a single music feature. In a sense, it’s rap for liberal arts majors. (That’s a compliment, for the record.) Here’s just one jaw-dropping example from C.O.M.P.L.E.T. on “Amigos”: “Most of my real amigos are simplistic people who shop at TJ Maxx and Ross instead of Spiegel / We tight like the Ring and Smeagol / A band of brothers who go to war together / And weather the winter cold in the woods of Bastogne.”
Just a few songs later, the MCs give a well-deserved shoutout to their DJs amid an extended riff on The Wire, rapping, “Jeff C. and FX on the turntables, y’all / They be killing it like Wee-Bey / Wired up / Moving product like Barksdale.” And indeed, Jeff C. and FX are completely up to the task of matching the wordplay of their frontmen, bringing an aggressive production style to bear – in tandem with R-Tist, who also holds down production duties – that’s absolutely simpatico with the lyrics.
The production can have a maximalist, cinematic style akin to the brassy sound of label-mates Shaheed and DJ Supreme, but it’s also capable of downshifting into darker sonic terrain when the subject matter requires the DJs to hold back a bit. There’s plenty of old-school record scratching to be had, but the middle of Drapetomania really clicks when it captures a similar atmosphere — understated yet expressive — that Jay-Z did his best work rapping over on Reasonable Doubt. And then there are moments like “Road Trip,” veiled in a rejuvenating organ tone, which are just sublime.
R-Tist and C.O.M.P.L.E.T. have a list of grievances a mile wide on Drapetomania, but the targets who bear the brunt of the assault are the sellout sucker MCs who are as prevalent in the rap game today as they ever were. “I won’t conform to the same uniform that’s worn by the new minstrels,” C.O.M.P.L.E.T. says, while both MCs urge listeners to “never give into the bidding of the puppeteer.”
Things get even more deliciously caustic when they level their aim at the poisonous influence of money on the industry, particularly on the philippic “Gimmicks”. “My ability to use any gimmick is limitless / As long as I get some press,” C.O.M.P.L.E.T. raps in the persona of a sellout, adding, “I’m hip with skinny jeans and I’ll hop just like a rabbit / I’ll rap with Mini-Me as long as I get the cabbage. … And if anyone is wondering who I be / I’m this year’s pathetic, wannabe MC.”
On “All the Same” – another attack on the state of the industry – R-Tist raps, “If you’re looking for kismet, well, listen to this sh*t.” It’s a clever line, but it’s also critical to understanding what makes Drapetomania work: there’s always a sense that the quartet is completely confident that they’re doing what they were destined for. Unlike so many others out there in the game trying to reach someone else’s benchmark of success, the Green Seed set their own artistic standards.
Ultimately, that message is central to album closer “Town of Steal,” an ode to the Magic City that’s going to slay audiences every time it plays in Birmingham. “The bondage and strife of the past threaten lives of the masses, but it’s hard to burn steel down to ashes,” the song goes. “When it takes a beating, you just heat it up and recast / Mold it in a new shape, give it a new face / Not a face of death, but a face of life. … We’re ready to expand / Cultivate Birmingham into a musical promised land.”
It’s a hopeful message, but when it comes down to it, Drapetomania’s not about hope, or about spirituality, or about striving, even though those themes all feature prominently on the record. It’s about victory.