Various Artists 


While the current Broadway production Topdog/Underdog is not a musical per se, the music in the show does play an important role in providing a setting and mood. As such, the soundtrack's twelve tracks relate heavily to the themes of black masculinity, symbolized by the show's protagonists, played by Mos Def and Jeffery Wright. (It's particularly revealing that no female artists are included on the album.)

The soundtrack also becomes kind of a litmus test for how those themes have differed from generation to generation. The album's breadth covers everything from the deep Delta blues of Robert Johnson, to the city-slick Chicago houserockin' sound of Muddy Waters, to the proto-funk of James Brown, to the intellectual jazz of Wayne Shorter, to the contemporary hip-hop of Jay-Z, Wu-Tang Clan, and DMX.

The blending of old and new gives this album a road-trip-mix-tape kind of feel that's held together more thematically than sequentially -- with the exception of the back-to-back-to-back blues of Howlin' Wolf's "Poor Boy," John Lee Hooker's "Boom Boom," and Johnson's "Hellhound on My Trail." It's a little surreal to go directly from rural-identified, three-chord progression heaven to the urban purgatory of inner city New York, via the Wu-Tang antipolice brutality anthem "Let My Niggas Live" (which makes the most of a blistering Nas cameo). Still, the song stands out way more than it did on Wu-Tang's album The W, where it first appeared. Another highlight is Mos Def's "3 Card," which has more in common with pre-hip-hop toasts than today's so-called gangsta rap: "If you scared to play, then I do not pay/But if you show some heart then I'm ready to start."

If there's a take-home message to be found here, it's that hip-hop is already part of black music's oeuvre, flawed though it may sometimes seem.


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