Asheru – Insomnia Vol. 1

Artist: Asheru
Title: Insomnia Vol. 1
Label: Seven Heads


Insomnia Vol. 1, the latest offering from independent hip-hop success
story Asheru, should satisfy those eagerly awaiting his solo debut.
Having formerly collaborated on albums with his buddy Blue Black,
Asheru releases this mixtape courtesy of his Guerrilla Arts Ink label
in anticipation of the upcoming release While You Were Sleeping. The
purpose of a mixtape such as this is not to offer a true album, but
more a taste of what’s to come. And that’s exactly what this release
does – it whets our appetites, but doesn’t offer enough to completely
satisfy. Aptly mixed by DJ Roddy Rod of Maspyke and including some rare
releases or collabos that may or may not make the album’s final cut,
the mixtape is the length of an LP, but with many songs abridged. But
really, that’s fine and good, as long as Asheru doesn’t call it an
album, which thankfully he does not. It’s a success not because it can
exist on its own, but precisely the opposite – because it leaves one a
little dissatisfied, wanting even more from Asheru, who just serves up
the goodness here. The mixtape’s title is perfect: while we’ll soon
learn what’s happened while we were sleeping, Asheru and his folks
couldn’t wait until that morning; they just couldn’t sleep on this
stuff – it’s just too good – before showing us what we’re going to wake
up to in a couple of months.

Many of the songs on the release, including its stellar first track,
“Revolution,” seem a reflection on the years since Asheru and Blue
Black broke onto the independent hip-hop scene with the 2001 release of
Soon Come. To his credit, Asheru has evolved musically over these three
years, and has supplanted Soon Come’s horn-and-piano-tinged minimalist
jazzy production with selections that offer catchier, funkier, and –
gasp? – more radio-friendly beats. The smoothness and afrocentric
positivity of Soon Come clearly influenced its critical reception as an
offering from the nouveau Native Tongues movement, a categorization
that Asheru rejects as unfairly isolating. On “Revolution” he tells us
“From the start I’ve been hitting with anti-nonsense / and critics be
so quick to label it conscious / Okay, you got me / even though it’s
not me completely / I see you wanna box me neatly / treat me as if what
I’m saying ain’t really real”, before the track reverts back into the
Nas-sampled refrain “When we start the revolution, all they probably do
is squeal.” Succinct, and perfect.

Although Insomnia Vol. 1 touches on a range of issues, two themes
prevail throughout: a reflection on the positive side of hip-hop, and
also the negative side. That might sound simple, but Asheru and his
people clearly have a mission here: they seek to reinforce and elevate
the aspects of hip-hop that make it good in and of itself – emphasizing
such values as the importance of live performance, wordplay, wit, fun,
and a space away from the trappings of street violence. But the
compilation also offers a reflection on how much of the music that
resulted has become the very opposite of those values – how the hip-hop
industry has become something of a monster, often neglecting real
talent, maintaining the mainstream and rejecting originality,
diversity, or ingenuity, and enforcing the social ills that hip-hop
intended to amend in the first place. “Old Time’s Sake” is so steeped
in reminiscence it would veer toward the nostalgic but for its stated
intent to concentrate on the present. On the mixtape’s third track,
“Holdin It Down,” Asheru lets you know he’s squarely in the camp of
hip-hoppers who, while not trying to retrogress, will stay in the camp
that seeks to reclaim hip-hop for the socially conscious, the
fun-loving, and the nonviolent. In “Get Money” Asheru cites staying
true to his core values as a justification for getting paid. In
comparison, an unfortunate mishap on Insomnia Vol. 1 is “The Hustle,”
which seems to extol attaining financial wealth through the con; this
is a weak counterpart to “Get Money,” so strong due to its emphasis on
honesty.

Many of Asheru’s lyrics are more political, but Asheru clearly sees
political awareness as another of hip-hop’s building blocks. In “WYWS,”
the presumed title track for the upcoming album (it’s abridged for this
version), Asheru speaks of his participation in protests against the
war in Iraq and his views on the futility of finding Osama bin Laden.
The live versions of some previous releases – and references to live
performances throughout the mixtape – only serve to augment the theme
of bringing hip-hop back to its live roots. But they also serve to show
where Asheru, and Seven Heads, have been since they pounced on the
independent scene. Within such a context, even the playful songs carry
an unspoken message of modernizing an older aesthetic, elevating
positivity over drugs, guns, or misogyny. Asheru just sounds like he’s
having fun on “A.S.H.E.R.U.”, in which he cites a litany of qualities
he admires for each letter in his name.

As would be expected, many of the tracks that shine on this compilation
are those that edge up on their 3-minute-plus form. The Talib Kweli
collabo is something that Asheru fans must have been salivating at
after glancing over the track listing, and it lives up to such
expectations. “Emotional Content,” two tracks later, showcases the
verbal skills of Asheru, Blue Black, and Djinji Brown. The next song,
“You’re So Vain,” employs the chorus and a sample from Carly Simon’s
song of the same name to address the hip-hop industry in general, or,
more specifically, unnamed artists who neglect their beginnings to
become the stereotype of an industry-backed, message-less, flossy
rapper. On “AshSandsLuva” J. Sands and Grap Luva mash it up over a beat
so tight that you’ll have trouble concentrating on anything else around
you. “B.M.I.G.”, whose title is something of an all-encompassing slogan
for Asheru, is obviously a gem, which is why it was already included in
the 2004 Seven Heads compilation No Edge-Ups in South Africa. Another
standout track is “Niggas,” which is more of a slam poem than a rap
song. A really, really good, sad, slam poem. (Out of respect for the
idea of bonus tracks, I won’t mention the one here. Except that it’s
hot. And as long as we’re in these parentheses, I should divert for a
personal confession: I don’t really care for love songs by MCs with
relaxed flows. Some other listeners may enjoy them, but I end up
waiting for the ends of “You Don’t Have to Worry”, “Do It”, and
“Invitation.”)

Armed with a flow all his own, Asheru never hides from his Native
Tongues influence, but melds it with an updated late-’70s/early-’80s
hip-hop aesthetic. On another of the compilations’s better tracks,
“Idea,” Asheru pays homage to old-school flows as he and he and Agent
006 trade lines within verses a la 1983. This is homage not only in
style but in message as well, as the chorus repeats “I got an idea /
that I want to share / you don’t like it / so what, I don’t care /
throw your hands up / keep ’em in the air / don’t wanna roll with it? /
fuck up outta here / we only rockin for those live ones / right here.”
Asheru speaks to the space – “right here” – encompassing all those
listening who relate to his songs; he’s comfortable enough with his
fan-base to feel that he doesn’t need to alter his approach, his
sensibility, or his family-minded mentality to maintain his
independence, even as he rises in commercial prominence. And it seems
that’s what he’s poised to do, since on Insomnia Vol.1 it’s evident
that Asheru is armed with the diligence, dedication, musical ability,
and appeal to stick to message while winning even more converts. That
some of his songs sound similar to his musical forebears or
contemporaries is a little unnerving, but in essence serve to
underscore his place in a larger movement of independent-minded,
positive hip-hop. Some small blips aside, this is a thoroughly
enjoyable offering, even though it’s just the appetizers before the
meal that While You Were Sleeping will hopefully be. So get yourself
some chopsticks, soy sauce, and – if you can find it – start digesting
this dish of dumplings.

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