Review Summary: White, female, co-ed hip-hop. But it's good!
Whether by accident or design, every kind of music that produces a 'scene' will generate exclusivity. It's true of all the trance producers worldwide who remain secretive about their methods and aloof towards more inexperienced people in the genre, true of the lack of women found in first-wave punk bands and the alarming experiences the likes of Siouxie went through at the hands of the men dominating the genre, and true of reggae, where white people still experience great difficulty when it comes to being taken seriously. Rap, with its constant obsession with being 'real', is clearly no different. Women consistently struggle to achieve the success of their male equivalents, and when they do, rumours start that they've been 'fuc
king for tracks' (thanks for that one, Dallas Austin!). Before Eminem, white people were instantly compared to Vanilla Ice; nowadays, every white rapper is riding Eminem's di
ck. And the rappers who never sold drugs to get by? The rappers who never got shot or shot someone else? The rappers who weren't in gangs? Forget it.
There are exceptions, naturally - Missy Elliot's one of the most respected names in the game, and nobody's doubting Brother Ali's for real - but rap culture is volatile, and any weaknesses are quickly, and constantly, exposed by rivals trying to get their names out there. If you are white, or female, or rich, then you're gonna have to prove a hell of a lot of people wrong before people start taking you seriously.
Which brings us to Northern State. Born as Julie Potash, Correne Spero, and Robyn Goodmark (yup, they're all women) and educated in Dix Hills (yup, they come from a middle class area), they briefly gained a little notoriety earlier this year for being possibly the first rap group to cover Radiohead's "No Surprises" (yup, they're really, really white). Not the best start for a rap group, you'd have to admit ("Mic Tester" contains the line 'I don't give a fu
ck if I rap like a white girl', so seemingly they're happy to admit it too). And yet, they've worked with ?uestlove (he of The Roots drumkit fame), Adam Yauch (a Beastie Boy), and DJ Muggs (Cypress Hill's producer). For extra indie cred, ***ake Monkey was drafted in to help out with the album's production. Their cross-market appeal also means they've toured with the good (De La Soul), the bad (Gym Class Heroes), and the really, really ugly (Beth Ditto). So if they are having problems with being accepted by the hip-hop fraternity, it doesn't seem to be holding them back too much.
The fact that it's not holding them back as much as it might is down to one simple fact that serves as both the band's greatest strength and its biggest weakness - Northern State really don't sound like they give a *** about being credible. Although the Beastie Boys are the most obvious influence on proceedings, the could-care-less vibe actually makes this album sound more like Bran Van 3000 than anyone else - an impression that the occasionally distorted vocals and rock influence encourages.
Still, this isn't necessarily so bad. Hip-hop's been taking itself too seriously for roughly 20 years now, and whenever somebody appears that clearly has a sense of humour and absolutely no fear of being ridiculed, it's always refreshing. That's why albums like The Further Adventures of Lord Quas
and Dr. Octagonecologyst
are such cult classics - they're silly, and ultimately that's a big part of the reason why they've endured better than something like Coolio. So while the subject matter is mostly one-dimensional (gentle braggadocio and sass are the order of the day, with these girls more likely to rap a line like 'I heard your mum drives an ice-cream truck!' than 'I'm gonna shoot your kids and eat your family!'), and the rapping is unspectacular, this still feels fresh. The one song that proves an exception is "Iluvitwhenya", a sub-Lil' Kim sex rap that succumbs to rap cliche, fails entirely to be sexy, and near-derails the album.
There's enough highlights to make up for that one blip, mind. "Sucka Mofo" sounds a lot like something from The Eminem Show
, and it would have been among the best songs on that album - it's certainly the best thing here, and it's not hard to see it becoming a minor club hit. "Better Already" sounds a little like Rihanna's "Shut Up And Drive", but it also betrays how little Northern State care about sounding white - were it a little faster, the chorus here could easily have come from one of Sum-41's better tracks. Meanwhile, the more gentle "Run Off The Road" sees the band experimenting with their sound, as well as playing their own instruments. There's no rapping here, just singing; the girls are equally adept at doing either, as they prove on several occasions across the album. "Away Away" and "Cold War" offer other highlights.
Ultimately, while there probably isn't anything here truly great enough to draw any more attention to the band, this is a perfectly good album that displays an awful lot of potential. You could do worse than this if all you want from your hip-hop is a good time. And for the record, everybody accusing Northern State of ripping off early Beasties should take note - this is better than Licensed To Ill