I can’t say this often enough: genre is not synonymous with content. What do I mean by that? Simply that a genre label is barely enough to know what an artist’s music will sound like, and it’s hardly a guarantee of what it’s going to be about. It would be slanderous to say that all country is about pickup trucks, football games, beer, and heartbreak. Likewise, an assertion that rock music is all about having a good time would be patently false. These kinds of false standards are more than unfair; they prejudice us against certain areas of musical creativity in the same way that any other kind of intolerance biases us. Based on a name alone, we can be led to make assumptions that don’t give individual examples a fighting chance.
Such has sadly been the case with rap music. A subset of the broader hip hop cultural movement, rapping is simply a lyrical technique that involves interwoven rhyme schemes that form the foundation of songs. Although this is often associated with African-American culture, anyone can rap if they understand how to carry masterful wordplay into mature lyricism. Over time, rap has become synonymous with a certain kind of underground black culture, seen as something shady and illicit. This image has naturally been reinforced by those rappers who boast about wealth, drugs, and sexual exploits.
But I need not go on defending the integrity of rap as one of music’s most intellectually rich and artistically inviting genres. California’s Kal-El (Alec Wilson), the flagship artist of the West Coast Black Demi label, does plenty to set the record straight. His recent album, T H E F A L L, is nothing short of bursting with philosophical and spiritual themes that cut to the very heart of modern life.
The central idea behind T H E F A L L is a truly daunting one: “the dark place where we all must eventually arrive,” a time of uncertainty and testing where our personal foundations and identity feel like they’re giving away beneath us. Featuring choral and string arrangements that are nothing short of cinematic, as well as some very poignant soundbites,T H E F A L L uses modern editing and electronic instrumentation techniques to great effect. As his lyrics unpack the trials of a “free fall” existence striving for human dignity and spiritual illumination, Kal-El dispels any illusions we may have about rap as a genre light on meaning. With unabashed honesty, tracks like “Theories of Anxiety” resonate with thought on the level of Albert Camus. At times,T H E F A L L is an existential denouncement of illusory sentiments, replacing them with terrifying self-contemplation. At other moments, it can seem like Wilson is simply talking up his own greatness, but don’t be fooled; this is a man who has spent years coming to grips with an existence he struggles to understand at times.
The importance of artists like Alec Wilson can’t be understated. Again and again, the message of The Appetizer as a program has consistently been one that rejects mass acceptance of easy media. Anyone can consume music on an endless stream today. No further thought is required when entertainment is passively consumed. But when we as individuals make the voluntary effort to engage an artist’s ideas and reach into the experience of music as something communal, real power is being exerted by the only people capable of shaping society: each one of us. By confronting us in the darkest, most cleverly concealed parts of our souls, Kal-El sounds a wake-up call that pleads with us not to shrink back from life’s struggles or accept the path of least resistance. Music, just like life, demands our engagement if it’s to be understood, appreciated, or enjoyed to the fullest. And all this is vital if we ever want to really know one another.