Van Gogh (Priority)
Ras Kass was the answer. Seven years ago, the Carson, Calif., native appeared out of hip-hop ether with a devastating 12-inch single—"Remain Anonymous" b/w "Won't Catch Me Runnin'" —that instantly raised the bar for West Coast lyricism. Ras was a politically aware MC but didn't wear the preacher role with pride. He wanted change from the inside out. "I want to trick people into listening," he told me in an interview around the time of his debut album's release, "So it's cool if I only get you on the music this time, cause I'll get you more next time. Like with "Anything Goes" [a more marketable, upbeat track from his debut], extreme keep-it-real people who pay attention to lyrics will say 'Well, I like 'On Earth as It Is in Heaven' [a heavy-handed Biblical epic] better than that,' but it's all in the perception. The song is just as political, if not more so, than 'Nature of the Threat' [the album's eight-minute political manifesto]."
Or so we thought. When Ras' debut, titled Soul on Ice after Eldridge Cleaver's biography, hit the streets, it was met with general indifference outside the passionate community of hip-hop insiders. Lyric aficionados did indeed appreciate Ras' deeper knowledge, but hearing him jam word upon word upon word into conventional 4-4 structures made the average listener's head swell. Ras himself almost foresaw the commercial carnage, predicting on "Reelishymn" that he'd have an "underground classic, nobody buys it."
When nobody did, Ras necessarily had to go back into the lab and re-evaluate. He was too smart to dumb himself down thoroughly but, at the same time, too obscure to reach a mainstream audience. What's an underground prophet to do? On his follow-up, 1996's Rasassination, Ras aimed for compromise, letting his West Coast thug colors fly while still delivering mind-numbing lyrics. "Ghetto Fabulous" was meant to be the crossover hit—a track that featured Dr. Dre and (gasp!) Mack 10. The video seemed preposterous, even at the time—the rap troika on a hip-hop Titanic, enveloped in glamour. Bomping bass and infectious hook notwithstanding, the single flopped, and along with it Ras' first attempt at pop redemption.
Five years after Rasassination, everything has changed. The intricate flow patterns and complex rhyme schemes that Ras pioneered have become common. The complex hip-hop underground, dominated by a motley assortment of poets, collegians, and conspiracy spouters, has made density its trademark.
But even though his cult status in the independent scene could be major, Ras seems to have run full speed from the underground. Hanging with Mack 10 was only a hint of things to come, it seems. Judging by the guests he's assembled on Van Gogh, his third album—whiny crooner Kokane, Snoop prot駩 Tray Deee, and young gunner Bad Azz—he's become an adopted G-child, the short, smart cat who everyone likes but no one really understands.
To his credit, he's not really trying to make friends. On "Hot Game," the first song, he sets his aim at the very poseurs whose company he keeps (or at least what they represent): "Y'all Mantans/Sleep-beneath-the-studio thugs/Bamboozled." Later on, he boasts, "I'm trying to trepanate the game"; how many other rappers can say that?
And unlike on albums past, Ras seems to have found a home with the beat. On early songs, it seemed like he was fighting the music, like all his poetry wasn't designed with accompaniment |in mind (oftentimes, he told me, it wasn't). Now he's finding all sorts of rhythms.
Lyrics, though, are how Ras Kass pays the bills (or tries to). Still in effect on Van Gogh is his familiar battle between order and chaos, puffing on Newports and "gambling with Kevin Garnett" one minute, then berating the black community for investing so heavily in diamond jewelry when Africans are paid slave wages to harvest them. At the time of his debut, Ras told me, "As a human being, I'm happy, I'm sad; I'm angry, I'm confused, I'm a battle rapper, I talk to females, I get drunk, I'm socially aware that some shit is happening in this world. I'm everything, and that's every human being. So why can't it be that, instead of picking one aspect of our character and selling that as our gimmick?" If only the industry were so indulgent. So will Ras Kass be that tortured artist not appreciated until his death? Perhaps. "Hip-hop don't respect you unless you're platinum or dead,' he raps on Van Gogh's title track. Don't do anything stupid, Ras.