Nato Caliph, Cipher Inside (F5 Records, 2007)

As anybody who's followed our blog for any length of time knows, we don't review a whole lot of rap and hip-hop recordings here. So we were a little bit surprised when we were invited to download the album Cipher Inside by the St. Louis rapper Nato Caliph and provide a review for it online. I figured it couldn't hurt to give it a fair hearing, so I took up the offer.

On the positive side, Nato Caliph is as different from mainstream rappers as a typical folksinger is different from the latest American Idol star. With lyrics that are often both thoughtful and thought-provoking, Caliph eschews flash and showiness in favor of simple beats and some very serious politicizing. In addition to frequent barbs at the militarism of the Bush administration, he directs some of his anger towards the gang violence plaguing his own neighborhood and also to his fellow rappers. "A bunch of words to a beat mean nothing if they're only helping you," Caliph says in his opening salvo on "Physics 720 (and the Universal Laws of)," criticizing the selfishness in the rap community. He urges his listeners to arm themselves with knowledge as the means of getting out of the ghetto. Caliph frequently works with guest rappers; I'll wager a guess that most of them are friends of his from the St. Louis hip-hop scene.

I can't argue with what Caliph says. Instead, my criticism of the recording is that the underlying music isn't all that interesting, lacking the same care that Caliph put into the lyrics. In a week or two I'll be reviewing an album called From the Corner to the Block by the New Orleans funk band Galactic, in which the band gets a bunch of rappers to provide the lyrics. Without going into too much detail here about the other album, I think Caliph's raps would benefit enormously from that kind of backing, and Galactic could have used a contribution or two from Caliph as well. Still, Caliph's raps serve as a firm example that there's more to the genre than what is generally presented on MTV. Then again, there's a lot more to every style of contemporary popular music than what you see and hear in the media, so there's no reason to regard rap any differently.

Overall grade: B-

reviewed by Scott

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