Not long ago, I saw a documentary on the rehabilitation of a jazz club in Jackson, Mississippi called "Subway." In the film, the owner of the club interviewed musicians who had played at the club before the building where it is located began to deteriorate. One of these musicians was Bobby Rush. Bobby did a short blues number in which he played his harmonica and alternated with "singing" a cappella. It was through this brief exposure to this blues singer that I finally understood the connection between the blues and hip-hop.
A seasoned rap artist, Beans has associated himself with the best rhythm section he can imagine to create an intriguing balance of rap, digital mixing and acoustic instrumentation in Only. The texts of the songs present a contemporary rendition of blues material. The music capitalizes on the concept of engagement and broaches the essence of orchestration within itself and also in what it implies.
Beans’s vocals plug into the rhythmic, are without pitch and are spoken. The words tell a story similar to the kinds of stories associated with blues songs. Beans’s lyrics are surprisingly poetic, though tough & denigrating. They possess alliteration and assonance, key elements of what formally is known as free verse. The lyrics are autobiographical and offer a view of culture from the perspective of a bluesman, concerned with the misfortune, plight, the mistreatment and the distorted perception of African-American. The story he tells can be defined historically by the blues but at the same time manifests the present tense of "rap."
Beans understands the diversity of music beyond the popular. The very fact that he chose drummer, Hamid Drake, and bassist, William Parker, to improvise, based on the ideas given to them, proves that Beans’s interest lies in expressing his ideas in the most poignant and powerful way possible. "Music consoles" him, "is his chosen profession," and "gave him excuses to live." Music lifts Beans to a place where he wants to be. Drake and Parker have endowed this recording with appropriately programmatic statements, parts of which Beans has stretched and made more impressive with the mixing process. The latter is what makes Beans an orchestrator. The character of mixing imbues music with a certain sense that, if done well, renders it emphatic and large and unforgettable. And that is how this music is. It moves from minimal to atmospheric, acoustic to electronic, highly rhythmic and structured to deeply meaningful and fluid. The music swirls seamlessly from one clear sonorous expression to another.
In an essay called Jazz and the White Critic, Amiri Baraka once wrote:
".... music is a result of attitude, the stance. Just as Negroes made blues and others did not because of the Negro’s peculiar way of looking at the world. Once this attitude is delineated as a continuous though constantly evolving social philosophy directly attributable to the way the Negro responds to the psychological landscape that is his Western environment, criticism of Negro music will move closer to developing a consistent and valid an aesthetic as criticism in other fields of Western art."
I am white. I am writing about African-American music. I correlate Beans’s Only with the blues, because I think that I recognize his attitude and his stance. I think also that I can hear what Beans is saying.