Billie Holiday’s ghostwriter, Lewis Allan, coined the term “strange fruit”, through the song of the same name, referring to the Black bodies hanging from trees after a lynching. While paying respect to their southern heritage, the new album from the Cunninlynguists instead takes the term and applies it to a more biblical sense, as the cover depicts Eve in the Garden of Eden, offering a ripe, red apple. But the Cunninlynguists haven’t been typically regarded as a Christian hip-hop outfit, nor are they typically lumped in with many of their Southern counterparts. While their sophomore release, Southernunderground, helped better bridge the gap between their underground audience and their southern upbringing, A Piece of Strange helps define them as a whole, with arguably their best album yet.
The membership for the crew has always been a bit confusing, but it pretty much boils down to producer Kno and emcee Deacon. Both previous albums from Cunninlynguists have featured equal mic-time for Deacon and Kno (not to mention Mr. S.O.S, who briefly joined the group for Southernunderground). But A Piece of Strange finds Kno concentrating more on his strengths in production, letting Deacon carry the lead, who is backed by newcomer Natti, who complements him perfectly. The once scatterbrained sound of the crew now seems much more balanced than ever.
The album jumps off with “Since When”, which finds Deacon and Natti trading verses over a heavy Kno track, professing their frustration with the public’s perception that “Southern folks can’t rhyme”, while referencing classic acts from the region such as Goodie Mob and UGK. This carries over to the dark and lovely, “Nothing to Give”, a soulful local anthem that paints a vivid picture of their home different than what’s seen on television, as Natti laments, “BET showing the glamour without the blues / or MTV helping you pick out Jessica’s shoes”. The Cee-Lo featured “Caved In” is a spiritual hymn that further helps define their rich southern style.
They take a different approach later in the album, addressing topical matters, such as marijuana addiction on the supremely produced extended metaphor, “Beautiful Girl”, finding subtle influences from EPMD and Outkast; and again on “America Loves Gangsters”, which is pretty self-explanatory. Things get even deeper on the next set of tracks, which delves deep into the group’s spiritual side. It begins on “Never Know Why”, where Deacon and Immortal Technique examine a situation (which may or may not be based on personal experience), where a man won’t accept his bi-racial granddaughter because of her mixed heritage. This continues into “The Gates”, where Tonedeff apparently takes the roll of this characterr, standing at the gates of Heaven, only to be banished to hell because of his racism, which is further delved into on the instrumental selection “Damnation”, and “Hellfire”.
Rich with conceptual songs that have equal strengths musically and lyrically, the album also allows Kno to flex his instrumentalist muscle, concocting several plentiful interludes, in the vein of RJD2 or other heavy-handed instrumental specialists. Kno’s production is stronger than ever, and coupled with the finally equally matched emcee chores between Deacon and Natti, have matured the C.L.’s into indy hip-hop’s most promising new talents. Strange days are definitely ahead.
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