Friday, May 16, 2008

Constant Dreams that I’m Constantine

Telekinesis, I see through dreams
A conqueror of all the world like the Hebrew kings
I’m David, reincarnated over again
A gladiator of the universe, a soldier of men
A warlord across the field, returnin from battle
With blood upon my shield with an arm full of arrows
I’m a warrior, elephants kneel as I pass
Holdin skeletons of the soldiers that I killed in my path
With the heads of their leaders still in my hands
Hold it up, lightning strikes, brightens the night
Turns my hair white like Christ, then flash out of sight
Head back to the cemetery, my job is done
Volume One, Priest, Part Two is when God will come

-Killah Priest, from “The Law”, off the album Priesthood

Killah Priest has been pretty much my favorite rapper (hip hop artist, whatever) for about ten years now. He started off with some unremarkable verses on early Wu-Tang albums, then emerged as the most talented lyricist in the Wu-affiliated Sunz of Man, then finally dropped the amazing, instant-classic album Heavy Mental in 1998.

No other rapper (or recording artist of any kind, really) has ever combined mythological references, vivid description and flat-out weirdness like Priest. He’s like a Brundel/Fly combination of John of Patmos, William S. Burroughs and Erich von Daeniken. His most impressive moments on the first album include ... well, never mind. I just spent about 20 minutes looking for lyrics to quote, but the problem is that the people who have nothing better to do than type in rap lyrics are not the sharpest pencils in the box. I haven’t listened to some of those tracks for years but I can tell that the online lyrics are horribly garbled, game-of-telephone style. “The Iron Sheik” becomes “dying sheep” and so on.

Anyway, K.P. has a dense, dazzling, versatile-yet-consistent style whereby standard rap subjects like the plight of ghetto dwellers or battling one’s enemies are elaborated upon with blizzards of mind-blowing apocalyptic, hellish and messianic allusions. The unrelenting paranoia, horror and madness are balanced out by stunning poetic descriptions and occasional moments of humor or optimism. However, it’s usually pretty grim, heavy stuff. Sometimes Priest’s sanity itself is in doubt - Does he really think he’s “The One”? A magnificent yet disturbingly megalomaniacal verse about his own birth, from Black August:

They knew the time and the date of my arrival
Doctors and preachers opening bibles
Philosophers stood wondering
The sky thundering
Inhaling, old widows wailing
Windows open
Wind blowing, curtains across my head forming a turban
Do not disturb him, a stranger said
Standing at the side of my bed, placed a crown upon my head
My eyes were black pearls staring at the map of the world
Born to conquer, the angel then handed me my armor
Kneeled in my honor, revealed to me where I should wander
Until time to take over
Y’all reigns, been great but now it’s over
Now I lounge in castles surrounded by Greek statues

As a listener this sort of thing sets up a strange tension for me: Is this just a cinematically-described messianic spin on the standard rap boasting, or is this guy genuinely deranged? All I know is, either way he’s great at describing whatever he sets his mind to describe, however outlandish it may be.

Priest’s second album, A View from Masada, disappointed me both in terms of production and lyrical content, but after that slight misstep he’s been getting steadily better and better or, as I think I read on an interview with him somewhere, he feels he’s growing “younger and wiser”. He’s consistently honed his flow, broadened and deepened his themes, and gotten more judicious in his choice of tracks and collaborators. In fact, he has gone from being a neglected offshoot of the Wu-Tang empire who seemed doomed to wander in the wilderness of the deeply weird to a consistent and prolific veteran who can confidently mastermind cohesive group albums, including the stellar Black Market Militia.

Killah Priest’s work has in itself matured and gained substance over the years, but it’s also fair to say that since 2001 his strange preoccupations have been granted a great deal of legitimacy and urgency by outside events. Back in the mid-90s a rapper obsessed with Biblical warfare seemed merely quirky. But in many people’s eyes the real world has actually morphed into the sort of paranoid nightmare Priest has been describing all along, with Americans actually engaging in ghastly warfare in the Holy Land and Bush looking more and more like a many-headed Beast of Babylon. In other words, the vivid imagination that made him seem so odd in 1998 seems much more like prophecies of daily life in 2008. Of course, he wasn’t the only 90s rapper with pre-millenium tension and conspiracy theories, by far, but he was certainly the best at it, and he’s only gotten better.

While he is probably my favorite rapper of all time (or maybe tied with MF DOOM, although they’re like apples and oranges), I find I have to be in the right mood to really sit down and listen to Killah Priest’s albums, because they’re so dense and paranoid. Luckily, I now have an hour-long bus commute twice a day, which is perfect for catching up on the hip hop I’ve missed in recent years. I hate to admit it but, because I didn’t have a morning commute for three years I really hadn’t been sitting down and listening to new music as often as I used to. I actually hadn’t heard Priest’s most recent album, The Offering, all the way through, and I can’t believe what I was missing out on. He’s got a new album coming out next week called Behind the Stained Glass, and I will unhesitatingly get it (and I mean buy it, using real money, not... er, acquire it elsewise) the instant it drops.

Two highly recommended artists on a similar vibe are Priest’s long-time groupmate Hell Razah, who has really elevated himself to a powerful and intelligent solo artist over the past couple of years, and Chief Kamachi, whose excellent posse album Black Candles is probably tied with Priest’s Black Market Militia for my favorite hip hop album of 2005.

By the way, the post title is one of my favorite Priest couplets, from a track called “Think Market”. I would guess that the Constantine referred to is the exorcist character from the Keanu Reeves movie and not the Roman emperor, although with Killah Priest they’d both be equally possible, which frankly is why I like his work so much. I don’t have the track with me to check that these lyrics are absolutely accurate, but it’s something like:

I’m having constant dreams that I’m Constantine
Surrounded by demons, angels with armored wings

1 comment:

Intrepidflame said...

I love this line:

He’s like a Brundel/Fly combination of John of Patmos, William S. Burroughs and Erich von Daeniken.