Thursday, May 2, 2013

Melody Maker, December 1990.

by Simon Reynolds

Brand Nubian are disciples of the Five Percent Nation. This increasingly influential Afro-American Muslim sect believes that the black man is God and the white man is the Devil. Like other Five Percent rappers (Poor Righteous Teachers, King Sun, Lakim Shabazz), Brand Nubian are into “knowledge” and “holy intellect” and have all been “reborn as a god”.

Nubian refers to the idea of Egypt and Mesopotamia as the motherland, the cradle of civilization, where “Asiatic” blacks invented mathematics and cosmology. On the sleeve, they pay tribute to the “Original black mentality which manifestated [sic] all things in existence.”

All this is interesting, controversial and guaranteed to get nervous whitey in a lather. Musically it would seem to promise an insurgent onslaught of righteous wrath. But paradoxically, on a sonic level, Brand Nubian aren’t militant but dormant. The Nubian sound is an ambling, almost ambient blur of smooth rhymes and feel-good samples: warm, purring electric organs, as relaxing as mainling Ovaltine; mid-pace Meters-type beats; mellow-yellow funk guitar licks. “Wake Up” might be intended to incite ire and raise consciousness, but its effect is soporific. “Feels So Good” feels too good; it’s muted and Muzaky, like a locked groove of Beggar & Co or some similar Brit-funk bantamweight.

Brand Nubian’s downfall (for me, at least) is their “positive attitude”. Confident in their status as the elect, the chosen Five Percent of “poor righteous teachers”, Brand Nubian don’t partake of the contagious paranoia of a Public Enemy. The LP isn’t all laidback, soothing, sleepy-time stuff, however. The go-go inflected “Drop the Bomb” simmers nicely and its military counter-rhythms are the closest One For All gets to militancy. And “Grand Puba, Positive and L.G.” samples the bassline of Steve Arrington’s brilliant techno-funk classic “Nobody Can Be You But You”.

But in the main, what we have here aren’t Niggers With Attitude, but Afro-Americans With Lassitude. NWA and the ghetto/gangster rappers have taken white society’s negative stereotypes of black youth and turned them to their own end, as if to say, “Hey, whitey, your worst fears have come true.” Whereas Brand Nubian, instead of defining themselves in terms of the damage down to them by the system, have chosen a positive identity. Unfortunately, because of this, their music just communicates good vibes and self-assurance. They should rename themselves Bland Nubian.

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