Now seemingly committed to inhabiting Fort Wayne for the foreseeable future, one-time drifter Stephen Bryden, better known to us all as Sankofa, has released his second official solo album of cryptic musings and masterful storytelling to a scene that has seen much development since his Rosetta Stone album. Already an accomplished artist, Sankofa has had a release of some sort every year for some time now, all of which have played their part to set the stage for one of the most universally celebrated local releases in recent memory with his wonderfully titled Still Means Something release.
While working at the Wooden Nickel location on Anthony in early 2004 I ran into a “truckstop mustache-clad” Sankofa, whom I hadn’t seen since the 2003 Whammy Award Show where he gave me a copy of the aforementioned The Rosetta Stone album. Where in the past he had always seemed to speak of Fort Wayne as little more than a stopping ground, Bryden seemed excited about the local hip-hop scene, as well as his current project with Indianapolis producer Fangface. As Fangface browsed the LPs looking for loops, Sankofa filled me in on a scene that, at the time, I was nearly oblivious to. As the months passed, I received updates about his upcoming album until one day he sadly wrote to inform me that Fangface had “quit rap” in order to focus on his family and professional life.
Luckily, Bryden was able to finish the 13 Fangface-produced tracks, going on to add one outside beat via Actuel, scratches from longtime collaborator Ognihs and guest verses by JON?DOE, AthenA and Kashal-Tee. Despite the loss of Fangface, Sankofa maintained his enthusiasm, going on to self-release the album to an ever-growing amount of local attention. Full of crossover potential due to his feral live show and the inclusion of “99 Goggles” on the Essentials compilation, Still Means Something has surprisingly received just as much support from the local rock scene as it has from the local rap scene, and Sankofa has been spending his fair share of time opening for rock and punk bands around town in the months since the albums release.
Hearing Fangface’s beats, you can’t help but feel disappointed at his decision to move on from the rap world - most notably on pitch-perfect beats like “A Handful of Words,” “Emily Plus 2,” “The Perpetual Motion Machine” and “Barnburner.” A master of drum breaks, Fangface’s pristine sample selection should leave any producer, local or otherwise, feeling a bit lazy. Where The Rosetta Stone felt uneven at times due to it’s use of numerous producers, SMS plays through wonderfully, only dropping off slightly on the instrumental “Vicoden Popsicles,” uncharacteristic “Stacks of Loot” and lackluster (by comparison) “Lovesick.”
The album’s anchors, “Velcro Sneakers” and “Barnburner,” work as SMS‘s two most crucial moments, most significantly the closer, “Barnburner,” which features four longtime Sankofa collaborators over the album’s most interesting beat. Easily the most impressive rap song I’ve personally heard come out of the Fortress, “Barnburner” is a classic posse cut, seeing all four emcees at the top of their game, predominantly the best emcee you’ve never heard of, JON?DOE.
The real focus on any Sankofa release is his writing and vocal performance. For those unfamiliar with Bryden’s past work, beware, he often speaks his own puzzling, delicate language. Complete with his customary slew of obscure references, inside jokes, lateral thoughts, and individual slang, Sankofa has never done his listeners any favors. (If you are to really appreciate a Sankofa track, you’re going to have to work at it; head over to www.obeseamerica.com for help with the lyrics.) While nothing on SMS is as well penned or personal as The Rosetta Stone‘s “RDB,” his writing overall, has improved along with his now-flawless delivery. Not just a student of rap’s history, Bryden’s success can be accredited to his impressive work ethic, genuine artistic drive and. most of all, his perpetual youthful spirit. And did I mention his rare gift with words? Not to discredit rap music or songwriters in general, but Bryden has more word power than your average (published) author, a gift that doesn’t come around everyday.
In my 2004 whatzup review for Rosetta Stone, I claimed that “Sankofa has unquestionably arrived with the album of his lifetime.” I take it back, as Fort Wayne’s one-time need-to-know wonder has become the current it-boy of the local music scene with his best work yet. More than just the flavor of the month, Sankofa’s passion, energy and positive attitude have played a big part in pushing our local “Fortress” rap scene to the next level. Already working on his next release, The Tortoise Hustle, Sankofa seems to be just getting started. Not only the best hip-hop album I’ve heard to date out of Fort Wayne, Still Means Something is probably my favorite - and easily my most listened-to - album from a local artist.
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