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“Searching for Malik B.”

Rap seems like something we keep coming back to, as a culture. Fresh off a decade of women’s yoga pants populating in workplaces and a pop zeitgeist that siphoned rap beats but came across as generally more readymade than ever, we as a music listening collective are almost undeniably lacking in identity. But rap will always be there as a bastion of the last time American music was vital. And if it’s dead, then so are we, in the same sense of relinquishing our cultural direction and purpose and letting disaffection reign.

So absorbing the fact of our general schizophrenia owning to the chasm between mainstream radio and people’s ACTUAL listening habits, we can see how although rap might still be of premiere vitality within music, it’s harder than ever to make money doing it. For whatever reason, anyway, this or some other, rapper Malik B. “left the group” The Roots, according to Wikipedia within that supremely blank and indolent statement, and essentially fell off the face of the Earth, or so it seems. Indeed, since departing from the band following their inchingly mainstream-leaning but still substantial Things Fall apart from ’98, the rapper has kept such a low profile that he was hilariously proclaimed dead in Ice-T’s otherwise godly video documentary Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap from 2012, in a section at the end listing dead rappers.

And to be honest, when I started writing this article I kind of half expected to go to Wikipedia and find that he actually was deceased. I got a few pleasant surprises, though, one being the denial of this worry of mine and the other being that the guy, much to the apparent ambivalence of the entire world, actually has solo material out. I’ll get to this topic later.

Part 1: Introduction/The Malik We Know and Love

First I want to kind of introduce to the world what kind of force Malik B. was TO ME during his time as an emcee in The Roots, a group which most would agree operates on an elite level, musically. If I had to describe the basic identity of Malik B. with one word it would be “chameleonic.” He was never a “New York talker” like Jay-Z or a muscle-bound, blood-covered terror like DMX. But he did understand how to be an emcee in The Roots, adapting both his tone and diction to the individual song with headiness, in by and large cases. Like Malice of Clipse, he’d usually rap in the second verses of songs, following a fellow member of the same group. So in perhaps lacking the dramatic aspects of showmanship necessary in a song’s leadoff man, he married that condition with a compelling proclivity for going a little DEEPER, favoring disillusioned illuminations of street life over self-aggrandizing b.s. Plus, he’s even got the line “Ni**az bore me with theatrics” in “Section” from Illadelph Halflife, The Roots’ 1996 effort which Questlove in his commendable memoir Mo Meta Blues delineated roughly as the group’s epochally mandated “gangsta” project. As well, he is the self-proclaimed “Joke despiser”, per “Respond/React” of that same album, which begins almost to play as MALIK’S ALBUM, the more you think about it.

Just to get back to what I allude to earlier, the group’s and in particular Malik’s penchant for constructing these tidbits of rhetoric that are as pliable, memorable and perennially repeatable as they are erudite (I find myself employing this exact term within this connotation, as initially demonstrated by The Roots here), these are individuals who were, though briefly, collegiately educated, as highlighted in the “Millersville” reference in “Water.” (Black Thought here utilizes one of Malik’s aliases, “Slax,” short for “Slaxon”.) Even though they were only at Millersville for one year or so, the fact that they got in at all shows a certain precociousness and focus that probably would have naturally fallen from lots of young men saddled with such a ghetto-rendered upbringing as they were. In specific, Questlove in Mo Meta Blues describes Black Thought as when he met him in high school having been an individual “completely immersed in thug life,” who specifically would experience the malady of getting caught fu**ing in the bathroom, of all things.

But Malik would consistently pair an articulate verbal tenacity with an apt, exciting sense of rhythm. The group’s sophomore LP Do You Want More?!!!??! (which follows what’s arguably a pretty luke-warm, if not completely mediocre, debut Organix) explodes into the realm of pantheon on side A with “Distortion to Static” and “Mellow My Man.” It’s a later track, however, “You Ain’t Fly,” that exhibits what’s probably my favorite Malik line on the whole album, just for the tightness and rhythmic crispness of how he delivers it: the “She said ‘Malik you never called me / ‘Malik you never tried to press / ‘You never tried to push the seven buttons / ‘And address’”. Aside from this tune in general just being a bomber, continually enjoyable and supremely creative in its multifaceted structure, it represents a prime example of Malik B.’s lucid ability to sort of sew a song together, batting second like a great baseball hitter such as Ryne Sandberg or Jonathan Schoop, and righteously nailing it in terms of rhythm and also punctilious adherence to the established subject matter galaxy of the song. Elsewhere, he’s quipping that “I pledge allegiance to my cosmic god / I couldn’t fit in three dimensions if I tried”, which reminds me a little of the “infinite self” addressed in the glorious “Five Stages of Consciousness” track by Wu-Tang proteges Killarmy.

With what seemed, then, to be an ease and moxie almost automatic, Malik and the group inflated their rhetorical scope into the grand panorama of “gangsta rap” on Illadelph Halflife, a project which as I mention earlier was largely the result of the general trend in the industry of EVERYBODY going thug and gun-toter. In the case of this Roots epic it’s not, luckily, a delve into phony wannabe-hoodrat fare like Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth’s cringe-worthy “Death Becomes You” (within a discography of what generally MIGHT be one of my favorite hip-hop duo of all time), but rather simply, in general, an extensive contemplation on hood life in Philadelphia — the reality, the necessities and best of all, the music. In “It Just Don’t Stop,” Malik B. raps “Then I act this way the beast unleashed / Rabbis monks and priests always pray for peace / But it’s deceased / Now only lives the true realance (sic) / Open up the mental deaths you rented through my palace” [1]. Again, the rhythm with which he raps is just so COOL — it’s like that verse in “You Ain’t Fly” where all the words are just exactly on time and all the inflections fresh, calling to mind the great Wu-Tang wordsmith and razor-sharp deliverer GZA, in the process.

Briefly in an earlier section I refer to the song “Water,” which comes on the group’s brooding, rabid ’02 album Phrenology. Before I get into the song, though, the album itself warrants some introductory rant. Honestly, I’d listened to it probably 100 times straight through, finding the whole thing enjoyable but probably “Rolling with Heat,” “Thought @ Work” and “Quills” to be the choice cuts, along with the 10-minute “prog-hop” [2] beast of “Water,” before I’d read Mo Meta Blues. But what I’d learn in this book was that the band actually went into the project with the mission of finishing a song within every genre, or style, of black American music, in the nation’s history. There’s rock-rap (“Rock You”); hardcore punk (“!!!!!!!”); poppy, mainstream rap (“Sacrifice”); gangsta (“Rolling with Heat” featuring the venerable Talib Kweli); battle rap (“Thought @ Work”); the stab at the pop charts that is “The Seed (2.0)”; puppy-makin’ R&B (“Break You off”); prog-hop (“Water”); organic hip-hop (“Quills”); urban neo-jazz, neo-soul and whatever the he** “Pu**y Galore” is then in tow as well. This represents an astounding functional ambition particularly seeing as it’s their first album without Malik B., who as I mention earlier is cited in the great, awe-inspiring “Water,” in similar fashion to Yo La Tengo’s “Lewis,” another tune written about a former bandmate (Mike Lewis). Anyway, permanent band emcee Black Thought has the following words for the newly departed Malik: “If you real ill at makin’ music / The listener feel like he livin’ through it / That’s how my ni**a do it”. Basically, what I’ve been trying to do in these heretofore sections is, more or less, show you what the he** he’s talking about there.

Part II: Analyzing and Appraising Malik’s Post-Roots Strides.

So just to rehash, first I looked up Malik B. on Facebook, dreading the idea of him having like one of those Facebook pages where he shares the same concert photos over and over, or whatever, like a total washup. To my relative relief, I didn’t find such a thing, and then to my increased amazement, as I said, I did find some solo material on the part of the artist, with some credited solely to “Malik B.” and then Wikipedia providing wind of a project the collective work of “Unpredictable (with Mr. Green).” I checked out the album on Spotify and… yikes… to be honest it just wasn’t very good, demarcating what I perceived as a fundamental glitch in his delivery that could in all truth have been the result of drug use, malnutrition or God knows what. Essentially, it’s not my business to delve any deeper into this episode, beyond simply attempting to negate an endorsement of this particular music itself.

This Mr. Green character, though, a Philly DJ and producer who according to Wikipedia has also worked with Vinnie Paz (Jedi Mind Tricks), seems to pop up on a lot of Malik’s work, like this joint “Devil,” for which the video surfaced on my Youtube search for a different song. And my friends, THIS stuff is fu**in rad. I cannot say enough about the focus, intensity, hip-hop fibre and general raw power going into this song and video, from the eerie, ominous beat, to the unsettling cinematography of those interpretive ghetto dances and confrontational sound bites, to Malik’s verbal substance itself. Again, as has ever been the case, it’s the stuff of an extreme lack of “theatrics,” employing a cutting and defiant emphasis on cold, direct truths, such as the proclaimed inner struggles on the part of the artist with lust and vengeance — the “devil,” in other words. To look at Malik’s face in the video is almost to behold an individual antithetical to daylight — he’s got the “complexion of a hockey puck,” just like Phife Dawg of The Roots, and some wearied wear under barely visible slits of eyes. But it’s an honest face. This is a guy who’s going to go to a tombstone whose engravements really mean what they say.

I google “malik b.” And there are no news stories about him. There are only questions. All we’ve got, since 1998, is questions (the quora interrogative “Why did Malik B. leave The Roots?” pops up, followed by invariably uncertain, amateurish conclusions), and this music that, when it actually does justice to his talents, paints a vociferous picture of ghetto desperation and extreme danger. In photos, Malik’s eyes almost seem to scream with focus, the bulbous irises intense enough to flank surrounding whites that shine out with aggressive passion. He tends to hang in the background, in Roots pictures and in real life, all the time straddling that fertile zone between “boy” and “man” that is “artist,” the materialization of a person capable of undeniable wit and skill but who never seemed to learn how to hide, conform or mold.

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[1] These are the lyrics provided by Google.

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[2] This ingenious epithet for the track is unfortunately not of my own devising but rather that of the Pitchfork writer reviewing Phrenology, like a conceptual adjacent to “prog-rock,” which is short for progressive rock and earmarks the long, expansive, structurally complex efforts of bands like Electric Light Orchestra and Rush.

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