“The Light,” the angriest track on the debut collaboration between Mississippi rapper David Banner and Durham producer 9th Wonder, uses this disdain-filled couplet as its hook: “Started livin’ for money, yeah most of us did/ Rappers turned into singers, preachers touching the kids.” For David Banner, there’s no difference between priests abusing the authority of the church and rappers abandoning hip-hop to sing some R&B (Rap & Bullshit?) to get the wonderbread. The Mississippi rapper doesn’t believe in gray areas.
That all-or-nothing approach defines Banner’s career: Since his 2003 debut, Mississippi: The Album, Banner’s pursued two opposing hip-hop modes with equal fervor. His albums come divided straight down the middle between big, dumb club songs like “Play” and “Like a Pimp” and street-level revolutionary raps such as “Cadillacs on 22s” and “So Long.” These two sides never conflate as they do for the oh-so-conflicted Kanye West, that other producer-rapper who came to love contradiction during the last decade. Rather, they awkwardly sit next to one another, trying really hard not to touch. What’s more, Banner is often most cogent when he isn’t rapping. His bold humanitarian efforts in the aftermath of Katrina (he used his own tour bus to send water and supplies) and ballsy testimonial to Congress while defending hip-hop lyrics (“Hip-hop is sick because America is sick,” he said) were far more interesting than 2005’s Certified or 2008’s The Greatest Story Ever Told.
On Death of a Pop Star, Banner finally forgoes ignorant trunk rattlers to focus solely on poignant, politically loaded raps. Something about 9th Wonder’s airy soul beats finally broke the poppy, pandering side of Banner’s persona, it seems. Even the album’s intro, “Diamonds on My Pinky,” runs thick with dead-eyed one-liners (“I’m from Mississippi where you let your nuts hang/ Where the white folks let my ancestors do the same”) and frightening confessions (“I tried suicide but the gun wasn’t workin”). “Strange,” featuring Winston-Salem’s Big Remo, strings a laundry list of sociopolitical absurdities. The courtship raps of “Be With You” (featuring Ludacris) and the self-deprecating loverman track “Stutter” correct the dopey strip club come-ons of “Like a Pimp.”
Better yet, 9th Wonder sounds similarly reinvigorated by the collaboration. His always-welcome though oft-predictable beats move toward something far more elegant here. Sure, those snares you’ve heard on hundreds of his beats appear a few times here. But “Slow Down,” a slab of funky, quiet storm-tinged electro, is as warm and comforting as any soul beat. “Something Wrong” is a subtle slow-burn of organ and guitar. Balancing Banner’s impassioned meathead shout-rap with fairly subtle production and hooks from world-weary crooners like Anthony Hamilton and Erykah Baduwhile keeping the whole thing to just 10 tracks and 30 minutesis no easy task. Banner and 9th make it work.
In title, Death of a Pop Star invokes the increased commodification of music, but the album doesn’t actually mess around with that thesis very much. Rather, it tells the story of pop star David Banner’s death. He’s now the rapper who no longer feels the need to spit ignorant shit just to stay on the radio and prove some contrarian point. He’s the guy who raps searing critiques with rapt attention to telling details and isn’t worried about record sales. “Boys clubs closing while they building P.F. Chang’s,” he notes, trading currency for relevancy.
Death of a Pop Star is David Banner’s rebirth.