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V/A - In Prison

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Artist: V/A

Album: In Prison

Label: Trikont

Review date: Nov. 19, 2006

The world’s most economically powerful nation boasts the world’s largest fraction of citizens in prison. The US prison-industrial complex houses 25 percent of the world’s inmates. After another decade or so of globalization, prisons might be one of the only growth industries left inside America’s borders. And the nation’s black population remains at wildly disproportionate risk of imprisonment, whether wrongful, rightful or otherwise.

Perhaps travesties can be measured by the amount of compelling art they produce. From bluesy worksongs to twangy Southern soul to thudding, enraged hip hop, America has generated tons of gripping music focused on the plight of imprisoned blacks. There’s a rich variety here, and there’s a lot more where this came from. Not since its pair of death-centered collections has the German label Trikont issued a comp with such a “difficult” focus. It’s a rough ride, but unremittingly dour? Hardly.

On the rap side, things lean more directly political. Brand Nubian’s Lord Jamar (on “Claimin’ I’m a Criminal”) suggests that his incendiary lyrics have made him a judicial target. Dead Prez takes up the cause of Fred Hampton, Jr. (the lookalike son of the deceased black panther), then serving time for firebombing a Korean-owned grocery store after the Rodney King verdict. The unmistakable, bongo-driven Last Poets propose racial separatism (“One nation of blacks / Independent and free”) as a persecution solution. Kay Kay and the Rays play electric blues, not hip hop, but their “Lone Star Justice” draws specific attention to Texas courts, by now well known for their gung-ho sentencing and impenetrable bureaucracy.

That’s one slice of the onion. But the songs about a prisoner’s day-to-day existence and interior monologues are more painful, paradoxical and vivid.

Several narratives, including the antique worksong “Berta” (set to the slow, repetitive rhythm of rock-bustin’) and the underrated Sadat X’s verse on “Claimin’ I’m a Criminal” (“I was frustrated / I can’t do no more pushups… Got some bad news on my one phone call today”) use romantic estrangement to underscore the brutal lonely-in-a-crowd pathos of prison life. Bobby Womack’s superficially warm Southern soul tune “Arkansas State Prison” tells of axe-murdering a lusty guard and then dying on the lam. 2Pac’s “16 On Death Row” proves that he was a lot more sentimentally forthcoming in his fiction than in his autobiography.

None of these tracks struggle to redeem their fallen protagonists, but all of them illustrate agony, determination and insight under extreme conditions. By contrast, “Living Proof,” by a rotating cast of actual lifers called Lifers Group, isn’t so much a story as a grim, high-handed Scared Straight session.

Now that prisons are being frontloaded with confused drug enthusiasts, they’ve (by and large) gotten less violent, more crowded and more infernally boring. So “Locked Up,” a smooth R&B track from the unthreatening pop star Akon, may be the most of-the-moment thing here. Akon (who, unlike 2Pac, had done actual time when he wrote his contribution) shows us a dumb, scared kid who got involved with dope, “fucked around and got locked up,” and wonders why no one has come to visit him lately. Like Johnny Cash, the real-life Akon has played shows for his incarcerated fans and seems to hold faith in the largely forgotten notion of “rehabilitation.” (“Can’t wait to get out and move forward with my life / Got a family that loves me and wants me to do right.”)

For the contemporary prisoner, isolation, depression and guilt may be more dangerous specters than violence. They can be fought through psychic exorcism and through sheer, indestructible soul, both of which are on prosperous display here.

By Emerson Dameron

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