Dead Prez 

Get Free or Die Tryin': The Mixtape Volume 2

At first glance, you might think the beats on Dead Prez' Get Free or Die Tryin' were cribbed from Big Noyd or Keak da Sneak, because the opening cut, "Fuck the Law," sounds as rough and jagged as nails scratching through a metal safe. But check the lyrics: "Write on the record labels/Chump your A&Rs/Fuck the contract/Reach the AR." These aren't activities that your average gangsta rapper would condone -- at least, not the paper-chasing vanilla gangsters who reign over KMEL and BET. But Dead Prez frontmen Stic and M1 are all about redefinition.

Never mind their beef with Columbia Records, or their gibes at other rappers (the album's title, after all, takes a swipe at 50 Cent). These MCs are transforming the present by charging straight back to the past. Whereas last year's Turn Off the Radio was pure spoof -- a pastiche of super-pared-down but recognizable Top 40 tracks overlaid with ciphers about fucking the Man -- Get Free has less of a mixtape feel. It's sonically richer and sometimes unabashedly torchy, like the melodic beats that shore up the sentiment of "Tallahassee Days" and "When Mama Cries."

What's still most impressive about Dead Prez is their ability to reanimate the metaphors of racism, class oppression, and inner-city life that form the blueprint for hip-hop. It's tempting to turn the volume down when an MC gets on his soapbox and spits bromides about uplifting the 'hood, but Dead Prez demands you take them seriously -- they'd chump corporate hucksters or duke it out with their hip-pop counterparts at the drop of a hat. Which is a lot more than most people are doing in the mainstream rap world, where Nelly's singing about "forty acres and a pool."


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