THE TORTOISE HUSTLE
Before landing in Fort Wayne, Stephen "Sankofa" Bryden was a self-proclaimed "Nowhere Man," distant by design to pretty much everyone he didn't call "Mom." At the time he had one substantial solo recording to his name, SA-2, a nine-song EP recorded with an excellent (though now defunct) California production team called the Suspended Animators. In those days Bryden hid behind an epic beard, rarely smiled and spoke in obscure references and dense cleverisms. He was very distant. To this day SA-2 is my favorite Sankofa release, not because it's his best work but because it was such a memorable (read: shocking) and cohesive introduction to an artist with a unique approach to phrasing and storytelling. Listening to said EP in conjunction with his just-released third proper solo album, The Tortoise Hustle, puts into perspective how much Bryden – the man and artist anyone involved in the local music scene knows as a self-assured scenester – has changed since first wandering into the West Central neighborhood six or so years ago.
The beat for "The Bottom Line," Hustle's opening track, is loud, catchy and energetic, a far cry from the dusty, dark mood of SA-2 and a perfect example of the artist's new strut. Sankofa's delivery – full of more energy, fire and confidence than ever – is starkly different as well, presenting him as an artist who has finally become comfortable with his craft. Still the same overly literate social critic he was in 2000, Sankofa is now much more sincere, less masked and, most surprisingly, outwardly happy with his day-to-day life. But that's not to say he isn't still a critic-of-all-things, armed with keen observatory skills. Wound up as much as ever by the artless politics of the music industry, Tortoise's excellent opener sets the mood of the remaining 15 tracks, which play out as a balanced batch of self- and social observations that are honest to the bone.
Produced almost entirely by El-Keter (Fangface, Mic Dagger, Ognihs and Sankofa himself each contribute a beat as well), The Tortoise Hustle plays through with balanced cohesion, an all too rare attribute these days in hip-hop. Keter's beats, much like Sankofa's modus operandi, are stooped in timeless, dusty sounds influenced by hip-hop's early classic era where artists with names like Kane and Prince Paul were commonplace. The most refreshing aspect of Sankofa's topical third album is that he finally seems less concerned with being respected or commercially successful and thus finally comfortable just being himself: an artist (named Stephen) with uncanny word power (and better-than-ever beat selections) who creates some of the best underground hip-hop music anywhere. He's not rewriting the book on The Tortoise Hustle, nor is he writing a best-seller; those aren't his goals. Sankofa is simply making music that he and his friends are proud of and will still listen to in five years; the fact that it's better than most hip-hop out there is a bonus, but hardly the point.
"Hoping" might be the most important song on The Tortoise Hustle, as Sankofa punches through one-liners, examining his history and relationship with his mother, whom he originally settled into Fort Wayne to be closer to. Keter's unpretentious beat sets the perfect mood for 'Kofa's most personal song since The Rosetta Stone's "RDB," which still stands as his masterwork. "Now I call Fort Wayne home in nearly ever song / 'Cause when you're following your heart you can never go wrong," raps Sankofa proudly. "Speaking In Tongues," a song about shoes, and "They All Die," a song inspired by Eddie Adams' Pulitzer Prize-winning photo, "Execution of a Viet Cong Gorilla (1968)," perfectly display the range of both serious and loose content throughout Tortoise. Other topics 'Kofa tackles include a critique on the cripplingly competitive local music scene ("Sharper Than Knives"), how he met his fianc ("32106"), what he calls the "sugarcoated pedophilia" of young females ("Shiny") and the much deserved accreditation he saw in 2006's whatzup Battle of the Bands ("Creasy"), which closes the album out with a sing-along bang.
Packaged in a hand-stamped tin (complete with "Cracker Jack-type goodies"), The Tortoise Hustle is Sankofa's self-proclaimed longest marinating album to date, and it shows. While his official debut full-length, The Rosetta Stone, was lyrically and vocally brilliant, The Tortoise Hustle, like 2005's Still Means Something, is a fully baked "complete package" with endless repeat value. On Saturday, September 8 at 9 p.m. Sankofa (armed with friends/performers Left Lane Cruiser, Definitely Gary, Sub-Surface and Rockefeller 4) will officially usher in his new album with a release party at the Brass Rail. Come out, have a drink, enjoy the show, pick up one of the year's most anticipated local albums and witness the only writer/artist who has successfully crossed "real hip-hop" over into Fort Wayne's mainstream music scene. (Greg Locke)
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