Making rap nice is counterintuitive

Music Review

May 21, 2007|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

It was all ambitious but frustratingly disjointed. Washington composer Darin Atwater set out to do something daring with Paint Factory, a "hip-hop symphony" that premiered Friday night at the Music Center at Strathmore.

The program's purpose was to explore hip-hop's more "redeeming" and "positive" qualities. Splendid idea, but it wasn't realized. Instead, Atwater used shades of smooth jazz, contemporary gospel and '90s-style power pop as a backdrop for his sap-encrusted, pie-in-the-sky lyrics. The hip-hop element, courtesy of Baltimore trio M.E.P, was self-consciously G-rated and sometimes bordered on corniness.

There were glimmers of melodic brilliance, but the program begged for cohesion. Twelve of the 16 movements were represented by colors, and each color was accompanied with a song that spoke to desire, passion, equality, optimism and other unconnected ideas. But only three movements (orange for passion, brown for equality and gold for royalty) incorporated elements of hip-hop.

Hands down, the most adventurous movement was the brown one, featuring talented Baltimore trumpeter Dontae Winslow. He began the piece blowing bright, squealing, snaking lines as the percussionist shadowed him, beating a tambourine. Then the horns and strings swelled, gradually giving way to a muscular, stuttering rhythm, over which Winslow delivered the most pointed rap lyrics of the night: "Hate still runnin' through ya veins/Y'all still scared for things to change/Change is comin' and it's comin' fast/A brave new world nothing like the past." After Winslow finished his self-penned rap, the musician ended with a stirring, soaring trumpet solo. It was perhaps the most thrilling moment in the show.

But the momentum was killed when Atwater sat down at the piano and crooned the overlong, glacially paced "blue - optimism" movement. There was nothing particularly optimistic about lines such as "Homeless searching for a park bench for a bed/No food to eat/No place to lay his head/And like a night that has no end/I got the blues."

The remainder of Paint Factory was lyrically cloying as it de-sexualized black women ("Purity, purity/Saving my body just for me/Maybe I'll do fine") or romanticized black neighborhoods of yesterday ("My house was your house/My car was your car/My things were your things/That's how it was/Back in the day").

With his ambitious but flawed new work, Atwater doesn't fulfill the mission of casting a redeeming or positive light on hip-hop. Instead, he shoehorns a gloriously wild, in-your-face culture into something polite and formal - two things hip-hop has never been.

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