Depression seems to be a prerequisite in the world of underground rap. For that matter, depression goes hand in hand with the genre as a whole, but rappers at labels like Rhymesayers and Def Jux seem to be more in love with their sadness than the average Joe. And so the underground’s biggest names take every opportunity they can to pass their unhappiness on to a horde of fans that would seem to counteract the term “underground.”
Minnesota’s P.O.S., out of the Rhymesayers stable, is another in a line of paranoid rappers with the mission of depressing the shit out of you and me. Part of the Doomtree collective, P.O.S. flips this season of hope on its head from Never Better‘s first track, channeling Nas, “They’re out for presidents to represent them / Do you really think a president can represent you?” Well, maybe not, but I was kind of hoping to enjoy that thought for at least a couple more months.
Never Better is as much punk as it is rap, if not in the murky, guitar-driven music, than definitely in its foreboding, nihilistic lyrical themes. P.O.S. claims to have once hated hip hop (can’t you just hear him saying, “I like everything but rap and country”) but he seems to have successfully shed this chapter of his life. He’s a fantastic rapper and his lyrics display a sufficient knowledge of the culture. But his music still favors punk culture’s hate-my-life mantra over hip hop’s party-down-the-system. And while each genre has its own place in the musical landscape, its own reflection of a marginalized worldview, and its own groundbreaking artists, I know which one I personally prefer.
Not coincidentally, my favorite songs on Never Better are the ones with beats that feel more authentically hip hop. “Goodbye” and “Lowlight Low Life” may not make me feel better lyrically, but they at least boast beats that can lift my spirits a little. The latter is actually quite giddy, particularly when fellow Doomtree member Dessa shows up for a verse to give the track a little female flair.
But I do recognize that the world is not all sunshine and oranges and ponies. I’m not saying that I want P.O.S. to change his tune and start talking about how beautiful the world is. My complaint is more with the unspecific paranoia that dominates so many tracks. His lyricism is at its best when he is telling an actual story, addressing a specific ill of society. On “Been Afraid” he gives a harrowing account of an abusive relationship, complete with homage to one of rap’s most famous domestic abusers: “Quick out the door no note no forlorn / Cause all you heard was Papa don’t hit me no more.” “Out of Category” is a seemingly autobiographical tale of a kid whose struggles stem from his inability to fit into any particular group. At these moments, P.O.S. serves as a moving storyteller, painting a picture that leaves an imprint on a listener’s mind, as opposed to simply squawking about a bunch of random complaints.
What makes hip hop great is that from the start it took something ugly, cold, and loveless, and transformed it into beautiful music. That is why even when the M.C.’s message was nothing more than a call to dance, rap was already socially conscious music. As the lyrical themes blossomed and rappers began addressing the pressing issues of our society, the music was able to remain loose. Even Chuck D, perhaps the most overtly political rapper of all time, was able to keep the crowd smiling through Public Enemy’s danceable music and wacky stage antics. So I’m not saying P.O.S. should ditch the message…just maybe bring along Flava Flav next time.