A few weeks ago, Black Thought interrupted hip hop’s whitest week ever.
It began with Drake in Blackface and Pusha T using European war tactics, pulling out his biggest guns along with a strain of ironic Victorianism based on the assumption that Drake’s fans would be as disgusted by sex workers as Pusha T pretended to be. Then Kanye dropped seven odes to capitalism, one of which was a love letter thanking a white woman for valuing his potential income over his wellness:
I said, “Slavery a choice, ” they said, “How, Ye?”
Just imagine if they caught me on a wild day
Now I’m on fifty blogs gettin’ fifty calls
My wife callin’, screamin’, say, “We ’bout to lose it all!”
Had to calm her down ’cause she couldn’t breathe
Told her she could leave me now
But she wouldn’t leave
I tried to imagine a loved one being as wired, scattered, and emotionally raw as Kanye was on TMZ, but for the life of me, I couldn’t imagine screaming at him about money. But that’s the kind of woman who fulfilled his years-ago “Gold Digger” prophecy: “And when he get on, he’ll leave that ass for a white girl.” Indeed. So just when I was about to listen to some Project Pat and remind myself that rich people don’t want to be saved, here comes Black Thought perched on Hannibal’s elephant stomping through the desert Tidal’s rap selection has become.
I thought he was just a mirage. I’d been looking for a rapper who would make me feel like I felt in those first years after I graduated from my parents’ rap ban and I was actually impressed by the lyrics I copied from cd jackets. I’m too old for these new kids—too old to hash out old arguments about using “bitch” in places where other one-syllable words would suffice. I’m too old to worry about people enjoying their drug addictions or alienation, and I’m way, way, way too old to decipher mumbling or get hype off bird sounds. The worst part of being on this side of “too old” is being compared, and therefore summarily dismissed, to every prior generation who espoused disdain for “kids today.” My nostalgia for Black Reign, or Black Star, or Black anything other than pain was making me feel like I belonged in a basement of dusty crates, thumbing through those times that used to be when it was obvious my favorite rappers read books published by Third World Press.
Enter Streams of Thought. In a project produced by 9th Wonder, Black Thought reminds us that reading is still a fundamental part of living free or dying trying. I am so thankful for the big brother-ness of Black Thought. Only big brothers can send you to Wikipedia by dropping names almost as casually as they drop knowledge—the dark pages of history your teachers don’t hip you to. Black Thought ties the violence of yesteryear’s Philly to American history, reminding us that “respect and fear was the all-American ambition.” Ntozake Shange, Cesar Chavez, Sarah Vaughn, Kerry James Marshall, and Carrie Mae Weems are just a few of the names that sent rap “geniuses” scrambling for evidence to support their conjectures. As of yet, no contributing genius has followed the train of thought that delivered us to Noble Drew’s temple. Maybe it’s because they’ve been too mesmerized by British literature references that remind them of school.
In just five tracks, Black Thought schools those who thought he forgot what he was on before Jimmy Fallon added some levity to the legend. It’s been really dope to see him smile, especially since James Baldwin (who Black Thought references on an earlier collaboration with Rapsody) surmised, “To be black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage.” This EP gives us a range of consciousness, from the political to the spiritual to the gunk of gossip blogs.
Black Thought’s “big brotherness” isn’t reserved for little brothers. On “Dostoyevsky,” he features Rapsody, whose eight years of careful, imagistic language and clever puns show the influence of his 25 years on the mic. “Dostoyevsky” finds both lyricists feeling themselves in ways that could inspire others to practice more than they primp or develop speaking characters other than pimps.
There was a time when I would feel really white for suggesting that any artist “develop speaking characters other than pimps.” But I think neoliberalism demands that we stop thinking of commercial rap as graphic realism. Commercially successful music features characters whose consciousness, ambitions, and prejudices are constructed by capitalist masterminds to meet White kids’ expectations of the Black “real.” Since mainstream rap is neither window nor mirror for Black folks, I’m especially grateful for Black Thought’s willful insistence on being both.