Unhip-hop `Factory' paints social issues in vibrant colors

Music Review

May 21, 2007|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,sun music critic

The uglier side of urban music, represented by the inflammatory and derogatory lyrics that have come to represent hip-hop culture, take a direct hit in Paint Factory, an ambitious, often effective, evening-length work for rappers, chorus and orchestra by Darin Atwater.

The new piece, premiered to a wildly enthusiastic reception Friday night at the Music Center at Strathmore by Atwater's Soulful Symphony (and repeated Saturday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall), is not quite "a hip-hop symphony," as the marketing had it.

Paint Factory is more of a freeform oratorio that incorporates gospel, jazz and pop idioms, with only three rapped movements out of 16 (not much fire to fight fire). Each movement is designated a color and corresponding emotion or issue: "Pink - Desire," "Yellow - Egoism," etc. There are a couple of dance interludes as well.

I was reminded more than once of Leonard Bernstein's eclectic Mass, a theater piece for singers, actors, dancers and musicians that encompasses all sorts of musical genres.

With so many styles and social themes packed into it, Paint Factory could use a firmer sense of cohesion, a unifying force.

And Atwater's effort to stress old-fashioned values to counter the more cynical, commercial-fixated hip-hop world would resonate more strongly if his lyrics were less cliched ("The sun will shine," "It's time to come together").

The idea of incorporating an arrangement of the classic Louis Armstrong ballad "What a Wonderful World" into the piece just puts more sugar on the idealistic icing.

Atwater, it seems, is a sentimentalist at heart - in the best sense of the word. He's nostalgic for "back in the day," when "the community raised you, the community praised you," and no one had heard of the "bling."

In "Blue - Optimism," a bittersweet, if overlong, ballad, Atwater played the brooding chords at the piano and wistfully sang the words himself: "I believe in a world of unity, no senseless violence, just peace and harmony."

Whatever weaknesses there are in the texts, the score has much going for it, thanks to Atwater's flair for engaging melodic hooks, imaginative harmonic progressions, rhythmic punch and, especially, vibrant orchestration.

And there was no mistaking the audience-ignition potential of Paint Factory Friday night.

The Soulful Symphony, the rap group M.E.P., the dance troupe Soul Movement and the rest of the performers had the large Strathmore audience thoroughly energized by the music and the messages of racial harmony, personal pride, respect for women, the value of prayer and community. At times, the hall resembled a gospel church service in full swing.

The most striking of the rap passages turned out to be "Brown - Equality." Here the boldly gifted jazz trumpeter Dontae Winslow did some kinetic rapping about a world that is neither black nor white, but "brownin'." (He contributed lyrics to this movement.)

There's a hot melodic hook in the number, and Winslow made the most of it. He then capped the passage with an explosive trumpet cadenza.

M.E.P. made its biggest impression in "Gold - Royalty," backed by the chorus in a litany of affirmation ("I'm not a pimp/I'm much better than that"). That was one of several movements in the work that gave off a kind of updated "Up With People" feeling - with a stronger beat.

The Soulful Symphony and its wonderfully dynamic chorus were in great form all night. Soaring vocal solos by Cynthia Renee and, especially, Shaun Mykals also added considerably to the production's emotive power.


Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.