An artist I’d rather not mention by name recently said that hip-hop is the only popular music genre where artists can still do things that haven’t yet been done to death. I don’t agree completely, but I do find the general sentiment hard to debate. Take Fort Wayne, Indiana emcee Stephen “Sankofa” Bryden, for example. He’s in his mid-30s, white, Australian-born, tall, eccentric, modest and ridiculously intelligent. He writes rap songs about his parents, his wife and his young son Arthur, shoes, movies, his job, his friends and his city. Mostly, Sankofa writes about the world surrounding him in an often interesting, always complex manner. Has there been another emcee like Sankofa? No, definitely not. Some have compared his delivery, at times, to Sage Francis and AesopROCK, but I don’t hear it (and those guys both write in a much different style anyhow). These days, I think, Sankofa stands alone. After spinning his latest record, a swan song called Just Might Be, I’m convinced that he has become the most sincere, honest emcee so far in the history of the genre – quite an accomplishment.
A prolific writer and nuanced performer with a highly complex rhyme style, Sankofa’s craft has been getting sharper with each new proper release. Just Might Be, his fifth proper studio record (plus another 10 or more solid releases with friends), feels like his most labored over effort since his proper solo debut, 2004’s classic The Rosetta Stone. The beats are stronger, the rhymes, while maybe not always as heady or complex, feel more clear and honest and the performances are as strong as we’ve heard from Sankofa. This record is, absolutely, his best, his should-be signature work, his most listenable and accessible release. And, as you might have noticed above, I called Just Might Be Sankofa’s “swan song,” this because Bryden has said several times over the last year that Just Might Be will be his final album (the title, we can only assume, was a working mantra). Why his last? Well, because Stephen “Sankofa” Bryden has become a father (and a husband and a school teacher) since his last proper solo studio album, 2007’s excellent The Tortoise Hustle. Anyone who knew Bryden years ago knows that he was always, if nothing else, an artist wholly committed to his craft. Known for his regular collaborations, his heavy promotional efforts and steady concert schedule, Sankofa spent several years vying for the title of “hardest working emcee.” And he brings that same energy and passion to his final hurrah, perhaps even more so than ever.
In the past, while reviewing Sankofa records, I’ve always known who produced what beat. Not the case this time around, and I kind of like it that way. The general vibe here is, like most of the beats Sankofa selects, mostly boom-bap in inspiration. Thick bass lines, chopped up drums loops, soul samples, string arrangements, pianos plucks and occasional keyboard loops melt together, making the best batch of original hip-hop accompaniments I’ve heard in some time. Sankofa rises to the occasion, leaving no beat lonely, stuffing his songs with words and ideas, thoughts and reflections, hooks and memories. Again, I’m not sure who produced these beats (I’ll guess that regular ’Kofa collaborators Oghnis, Manic Depressive, Agent Orange, EDS and El Keter all offered up a few gems), but the collection is across-the-board strong, each track worthy of inclusion on this very personal, incredibly well executed – and probably landmark – underground hip-hop release.
In closing, I’ll let the man, Stephen “Sankofa” Bryden, do the talking for me: “Just Might Be is probably my most autobiographical album. I’ve done a lot of growing. Between finding my identity within the context of husband and father, I realized parts of me which had been core elements no longer took precedence. In short, I started off the guy recording angry battle punchline raps and finish my final album with a song about my son. Evolving to simplicity is an incredibly complex art and it is something I have always admired in others. It is my hope that people are able to find pieces of their lives intertwined within parts of this album. If nothing else, I do what I can to explain how I came to where I am. Yes, this is me writing about a rap album, but I’ve never considered myself a rapper.”