No matter how you look at it, Hip Hop culture is no longer as a rebellious as it once was. As a result, much of the anger, passion and creativity of the music created by ghetto youth have been replaced by unrelenting capitalism, social complacency and an over-reliance on tried-and-true formulas by opportunistic suburbanites eager to find meaning in a world fueled by uncertainty and confusion. Artists heavily influenced by late ’80s to mid ’90s era rap must choose between repackaging the genre’s past achievements or attempting to shift the paradigm by injecting novel ideas in order to gain some kind of following.
Vancouver-based collective Sweatshop Union (Kyprios, Marmalade, Itchy Ron, Metty, Mos Eisley, Dusty Melo and Conscience) is definitely the latter and not afraid to let their freak flag fly in the face of dwindling record sales, one-hit Pop Hop wonders and fickle audiences who are content to champion/vilify a relatively unknown group without a moment’s notice.
On a majority of their third full-length release, Water Street, the seven man crew explores deeply personal issues with sarcastic humor and nihilistic observation. The album is 23 tracks deep and the vocal expressions of the rappers run the gamut from emotive pleas that dare to appease to depressive ramblings that linger alone in the darkness.
A good amount of music on Water Street showcase a sophisticated marriage of suburban swagger with post-modern angst and thereby strengthening their case that contemporary rap music can be an effective outlet for self-absorbed creativity. Take, for example, “Comes and Goes.” The deeply embattled track begins with a pastiche of voices that decry the members of Sweatshop Union as being nothing more than a bunch of unemployed weirdos who “sound gay” and probably wont’ make a dent in the record industry no matter how hard they try. Without flinching, the rappers commence to weave words and thoughts together that elicit a subdued resolve that is as brilliant as it is disheartening. Their case is given more credence by the careless disillusionment of the ending chorus (“I ain’t myself at all/Can’t save myself at all/From fantasy to reality/My dreams are nightmares I believe“). Other tracks worth peeping include “Gold Rush,” “High Grade” and “So Tired.”
However, this unrelenting desire to magnify the rappers’ fascination with brooding introspection results in a certain indulgence that can sound a bit more irritating than enjoyable on a few cuts. For example, “Time Machine” (featuring Mat the Alien) is a song that sounds more like a Trip Hop experiment (circa 1998) featuring the vocal talents of Sweatshop Union than it is an upbeat rap jam. The admonishment for crowd participation throughout the aforementioned ditty is awkward, considering the dense wordplay and abstracted lyricism is by no means a motivating factor in the “art of moving butts.” “Sunnyside Motel” and “It’s Alright” are other tunes that suffer from a puzzling juxtaposition of upright sounds and ambivalent poetics. All in all, these ‘burbed-out dudes might find their particular brand of emotive rap much more effective with the sonic accompaniment of much darker grooves.
In 2008, Hip Hop can no longer masquerade its global stature under the guise of socio-political empowerment or see itself as raw expression of unbridled urban creativity. Nevertheless,
groups like Sweatshop Union that are turning emotionally inward and
exploring the listlessness of modern suburban life might just be the
next thing to keep the genre from falling into stagnation. Water
Street, the Canadian crew’s latest LP, continues the exploration
of the tortured psyche and with (mostly) good results and is a small
step in the reinvention or, at the very least, a slight tangent from
the brain-dead commercial aims that are threatening to turn our beloved
art-form into nothing more than a three-ring circus.