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Sankofa:The Tortoise Hustle
By Sean Smith
Fort Wayne Reader
You could call The Tortoise Hustle, the third official album from rapper Sankofa, a well crafted album even before listening to it. Consider that it comes housed in a stamped and numbered tin, and then consider that the record is his “longest-marinating effort” yet. Finally released in September at a launch party that included Definitely Gary, Sub-Surface, Left Lane Cruiser and Rockefeller 4, The Tortoise Hustle boasts songs just as varied and creative as the line-up from that evening.
Sankofa decided to scale things back for the new album after doing a massive amount of promotion for 2005's Still Means Something. The experience of sending out promotional copies and press materials at a staggering rate helped play into the decision to limit this release to just 250 copies. One thing he did not change was his source of production. The album features El Keter, who delivers on all but four tracks. Two of those were handled by longtime collaborators FANGFACE and Ognihs, respectively. Mic.Dagger and Sankofa each handled one of the other two tracks. The recording, mixing and mastering were all taken care of by Jon Gillespie of Monastic Chambers.
The album kicks off with “The Bottom Line” and the blast of horns that cycle through underneath only help to cement the sound and image of a prizefighter returning to the ring. The first knockout punch is delivered to commercial radio. “You don't exist to make music / You live to make a profit,” declares Sankofa, before warning those who would spend their time listening to FM radio that, “You're not a listener / You're just a customer.” By the end, the song joins R.E.M.'s "Radio Song" and The Smith's "Panic" as another great song railing against toothless radio.
Next up is “Speaking In Tongues,” a tribute to sneakers and, for someone who once owned a pair of Patrick Ewing's signature shoe, it's one of the most fun tracks on the album. A great chance for sneaker geeks to reminisce, the verses drop references to Converse and Reebok. But the love is clearly held for ADIDAS, with mentions of Rod Laver, Sala II and Bromium III and the fact that he's “been living in an ADIDAS oasis / Since DMC walked down the steps with no laces.”
Things swing in another direction and the tone changes quickly as a gunshot cues the beginning of "They All Die," a track inspired by the photograph “Execution of a Viet Cong Guerrilla 1968.” The music matches the rhymes perfectly, creating a sense of nervous energy regarding the unknown. “What's a victory without a little death in it? / Uncertain future but the present is a definite” goes the chorus and with it all the anxiety and fear of our present political situation.
Just as ominous is the next track, “Tale of a Cartoon Snake.” A minimalist piano riff and a hyper snare drum fill are all that's necessary to soundtrack this story of “a sleaze bag and a slime ball.” This gives way to “And It Goes,” which is quite breezy, considering the stories of strife underneath. The music fades sharply and then there's the mention of Francis Ford Coppola, which brings us to the first truly personal track of the album and, perhaps, the best. Strings swell and horns blare as Sankofa describes the relationship between he and his mother over the years. The lines, “Prone to grope for the phone when life was a bit much / But in front of sons it was upper lip zipped up,” are something that every son can relate to on some level.
“Sharper Than Knives” addresses the relationships that develop and sometimes splinter between those in the local music scene, “They'll wish you well until you succeed / And then the winds change, seems strange but it's truth indeed.”
The title track serves as both an overview of Sankofa's writing process (“There's a stack of loose leaf with batches of thoughts / A couple lines here, a half verse there and I'm lost”) and “convenient revolutionaries who find causes cause for expanding their wardrobe,” (“Rebellion with a trust fund and a pair of Birkenstocks”). “32106” is another personal story about meeting his better half. The sampled chorus is just one of many highlights on this affirming track. “You went to 6 stores to find my brand of toothpicks,” recalls Sankofa fondly. Forget those other guys who sing about the significance of ringtones; if THAT ain't love, then I don't know what is.
“Needful Things” features the album's most stripped down production and it holds the most charm for it. It started off as an acapella vocal track, then random objects (pill bottle, whisk, flashlight, shoe, phone book and fork) were played one at a time overtop the vocals. Oh, and Left Lane Cruiser’s Brenn Beck banged on a storage shelf. With a line like, 'The river driven rhythm I'm delivering will rivet them,” kicking things off, you know you're in for a treat when you hear this one.
“Taken,” about people that Sankofa met in California who “gave great lessons about selfishness and duplicity,” went through many different incarnations. So many, that the whereabouts of the original are still unknown. The finished product is a music geek's dream come true. “Walked to K-Mart and bought the 7" with my allowance / I spun the record forever, just watching time devoured” sounds like any given day in my formative years.
RhymeWise37 of Sub-Surface trades verses with Sankofa on “Sing It Backwards” and features some of the best rhymes on the album. “Wing Council meetings to the beatings weaklings are receiving / Grieving fanbases, bleeding pamphlets, retreating,” snarls Sankofa, before passing the mic to RhymeWise37, who offers, “You stiff necked MCs better break or get Krush Grooved / My Wild Style warfare beats your street talk, so just move.”
“The Zoom Zip” serves as a tribute to Big Daddy Kane. "The way the bass line rumbles along and the minimalist organs fill just enough space while the drums clap is dope as hell to me," says Sankofa. Something tells me that Kane would be proud. “Section8” finds Sankofa trading verses with JON?DOE, Athena, Ryan Officer, iCON the Mic King, Nick Sweepah, ADRU THE MISPHIT and RhymeWise37 over a menacing beat from Mic.Dagger. The album closes out with 'Creasy,' a reference to Denzel Washington's character in Man on Fire. “This is for the people who believed in me more than I / And that is a long list, so form a line,” dedicates Sankofa over a fuzzed out guitar-based sample. A considerate way to close out what some consider to be Sankofa's final album. If it is, he's certainly ending on a high note.