A week ago, a friend challenged me to review albums that suck since, so far (and I agree with him), I’ve primarily been reviewing albums that I consider good. Next week, I’ll get started on that. But, for now, I want to analyze a concept album from start to finish. With the advent of websites like RapGenius, finding interpretations of hip-hop lyrics became easier. But it also has the drawback of forgoing the process of drawing one’s own conclusions in such matters. Luckily for me, what you’re about to read was written long before RapGenius was even born. Just to clarify, this is not a review. Merely an analysis of a story. FYI, this is NSFW.
A Piece of Strange was the 3rd album released by southern rap trio CunninLynguists (l to r: Kno, Natti and Deacon the Villain). Released in 2006, it is a concept album that “follows the story of a man and those closest to him in their struggles with right and wrong, love and hate, faith and sin“. The characters in the story, though played by various rappers/guests, are as follows:
The protagonist and his partner
To follow the story, you can listen to the album in its entirety on YouTube right here:
1.) “Where Will You Be?”
Biblical reference: “Unity; New beginnings”.
I think this not only represents the storyline of the album, but also for the CunninLynguists themselves. Before this album, they didn’t have much cohesion to their records and there was no overall theme. Also, Natti from Kynfolk joins the group on this outing so, in many ways, the group finally came together and created an album in which the unity of each track together is greater than the sum of its parts. In terms of the album’s concept, this is what I see: The voice singing “where will you be tomorrow, tomorrow, if it ends today?” is asking Deacon (the protagonist) to re-evaluate his life. God’s asking him to come to a decision.
2.) “Since When”
Deacon and Natti vent their frustration about Southern hip-hop not getting its just due.
“I hear em talkin bout Southern folks can’t rhyme/
Most of y’all must be out your god damned mind”
They both are talented, but don’t sell many records. This frustration leads Deacon’s character to consider being something other than himself as the Jay-Z vocal sample at the end of their verses serves to demonstrate: “See what the public, see what ya’ll did to rappers? They scared to be theyselves. It’s like…niggaz don’t think people gonna accept them as theyself.” Deacon considers conforming to the popular “gangsta” image to sell records instead of just being true to himself. This is examined in “America Loves Gangsters” and “The Light”. The high-pitched, sped-up vocal sample at the end of the track, “When you appeared…my future came true…to me…” is actually representative of Deacon, signifying Jane’s arrival and the visions he has under her enthrallment. The biblical reference for this track is “Union; Division; Witnessing”. It’s not Deacon and Natti who are divided, but rather Deacon himself. In his desire to stay true to himself, but make money and power through sin, he becomes torn. James 1:8 states “He is a double-minded man is unstable in all his ways…”. But the reference about “witnessing” is a direct allusion to the next track.
3.) “Nothing to Give”
The biblical reference for this track is “Divine completeness and perfection”. The sampled-looped piano riff and the vocal sample, “late at night, the bad don’t seem so wrong” add to the dark mood of the song. The biblical reference is ironic seeing as how there is nothing divine or perfect about the subject matter. The lyrics depict Deacon and Natti going out at night and describing acts of violence, murder, and robbery. The line about how “the bad don’t seem so wrong” indicates that, in his frustration, he contemplates on joining those involved in sin. But then, he observes “We no longer seek the light to give us power“, people turning to sin as an alternative mean to meet their needs and wants. “The Light” represents the end of the album and the end of Deacon’s journey. On a further note, Natti’s line about “in the abyss is children that get lost in the mix” is about the mixed-race baby described later on in the album. The last line is a snippet of dialogue sample from the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space 9: “A darkness carried in the heart cannot be cured by moving the body from one place to another.” Purging yourself of the darkness requires a spiritual migration.
4.) “Caved In” (feat. Cee-Lo Green)
Deacon becomes more frustrated and depressed than on the previous track. After seeing the crime that goes on at night in his neighborhood, he describes his own situation. He lacks money and the respect he feels he deserves. Cee-Lo’s hook sums up the mood of the song:
Everytime I try and help myself
Reaching out and finding no one else
I can’t hold on
So anytime you feel your soul’s in need
Realize you can depend on me
And let’s just hold on
The first three lines represent Deacon’s struggle in these times, while the latter three seem to represent God’s voice (Deacon’s last line before going into the chorus is “So I just hope that the Lord helps me last through these wars”) reminding Deacon to turn to Him in his time of need. He wants something to steer him in the right direction. The biblical reference here is “Creation; The world; Creative works”. The number 4 represents material completeness which, in a way, Deacon receives in the next few tracks that follow his story.
The biblical reference here is “Grace; God’s goodness; God adding gifts and blessings to the works of creation”. Deacon’s character is unhappy, angry, and frustrated by now. He prays for a woman to be the missing piece in his life, to fulfill him. The song title refers to the sands of an hourglass and how long it takes for the sands to pass. In summary, he’s waiting for God to answer his prayers, which He does in the next track.
6.) “Beautiful Girl”
This track is really self-explanatory. Basically, it personifies marijuana as a woman named Jane. Natti and Deacon’s character rap about Jane’s charms and how she keeps them both sane and gets them high. Here, Jane gets Deacon high and, for the next few tracks, show him his life’s possible paths, both towards and away from the Light. The biblical reference here is “Weakness of man; Manifestation of sin; Evils of Satan”. This may allude to an Adam & Eve parallel with Lucifer (in serpent form) tempting Eve with an apple, and their subsequent expulsion from the paradise of Eden. It’s also a reference to the album’s art cover with Eve holding an apple (she seems to be offering the gazer an apple in a rather come-hither stance. On her left are human skulls which may or may not be the result of the succumbing to the temptation of eating the apple). I doubt that Eve or her apple represent Jane, especially in light of the fact that Jane actually helps Deacon’s character for the next few tracks. She’s also the Hourglass woman from the previous track, she’s a gift from God as the previous biblical reference describes.
7.) “Inhale (interlude)”
The biblical reference here is “Resurrection; Spiritual completeness; Fathers perfection”. It’s spiritual melding between God and Man, which fits the mood of the track. Here, Deacon’s character is enthralled by Jane (read: “he’s high”). He’s in a different state of mind, analogous to “entering a whole new world, relax & enjoy it” as the vocal samples in the track reveal. From here, Deacon will “see things that made me search my soul” as he said in the last track.
8.) “Brain Cell”
“New Birth; New Beginnings” is the biblical reference. Here, Deacon begins his train of thought under Jane’s influence. All three rappers talk about being trapped throughout life mentally and physically, even while in utero. The lyrics mention objects that represent entrapment (boxes, rectangles, buses, blocks, wombs, jail, incubators, building blocks, neighborhood street blocks, chambers, square, cubicles, etc.) and keeps them in tune with the scratched-in Inspectah Deck hook: “Livin’ in a world no different from a cell”. The song is cleverly titled “Brain Cell”, which refers to the idea of using your mind to free yourself and become whatever you want without being trapped. This is clarified in a line in the last verse: “There’s cells in your mind that’ll free you every time”.
9.) “America Loves Gangsters” (feat. Tim Means)
I think this follows with the entrapment theme in “Brain Cell”. Even though it’s a social commentary on America’s fascination with real and fictional violence, the idea is that a life of crime is a trap as well. Here, Jane shows Deacon’s character what could happen if he follows the criminal path. The biblical reference here is “Fruit of the spirit; Divine completeness from the Father”. How this reference coincides within the context of the song..? I have no idea, unless the character gets divine reasoning from God about his lifestyle and its potentialities. For the next four tracks, the focus is on another character in Deacon’s life.
10.) “Never Know Why” (feat. Immortal Technique)
Central to this song is a character who disowns his granddaughter because of her race. Deacon describes the character in the 1st verse, saying the character won’t see his daughter or grandchild (“Ain’t even allowed visits over a child’s pigment“). The chorus is a vocal sample, “Old fashioned people, they never know why…“. Technique’s verse describes the character’s own viewpoint of his actions as he’s on the brink of death. Except for the imagery of death, much of Tech’s lyrics remain vague until the next track. The song starts off with a gospel vocal sample, “Things sho’ ain’t how they used to be“. I think that this is representative of racists and non-racists acknowledging that racism has changed in this country (particularly the South, where it was most prevalent) for better and for worse depending on your point of view. One thing I noticed is that they don’t reveal the race of this character until the next track. The ending vocal sample is, “The world is changing day to day, moves so fast it’ll leave you in another time“. I believe that this is a reminder for not just racists, but everyone, that time’s change and people need to adapt to the times, otherwise they’ll get left behind like this racist character. The biblical reference for this track is “Testimony; Law & responsibility”. This track gave the character an opportunity to testify about his actions and to clarify the responsibility he has, according to God’s law, to his family regardless of their skin color. Like the last track, the album’s protagonist (Deacon’s character), is under Jane’s effect and is being shown another possible off-course path that his life could take.
11.) “The Gates” (feat. Tonedeff)
This track begins where the last one left off. Tonedeff plays the character depicted and described in the previous track by Immortal Technique and Deacon, respectively. The biblical reference for this track is “Disorder and Judgment“. We learn more about the character in this track. We learn that he was a White firefighter who was married to mulatto woman who died sometime after giving birth to their only child, a mixed-race daughter. He lovingly raises his daughter, but because of the circumstances of his wife’s death, becomes a racist in retrospect, thinking that if he had married a White woman, then his life wouldn’t have turned out as it did. He arrives at the gates of Heaven after his death in the previous song and encounters St. Peter (portrayed by Deacon). Tone’s character argues that he raised his daughter as a good father should and that he never sinned. St. Peter tells him that he disowned his daughter after she had a child with Black man, but Tone rationalizes this by saying he didn’t want his daughter to “making the same mistakes that crushed my life” and that he is not a racist. St. Peter counters by reminding him that he is indeed a racist, a vain one at that. He only became a firefighter for fame, not out of a genuine desire to help people. He also left Black children to die in burning buildings, purposefully not saving them (this clarifies one of Technique’s lines in the last song, “I survived disease and political crisis/by backstabbing those who are now lifeless“). In an ironic twist of judgment, St. Peter tells him, “sadly, your glory’s to come urgently/sentenced to fight fires for eternity!”
12.) “Damnation (Interlude)”
The biblical reference for this track is “Governmental perfection“. The number “12” is a perfect number and denotes “perfection of government” whether by tribes, apostles, measurement of time, or in things which have to do with government in Heaven and Earth. This track employs both a guitar and vocal sample. The singer is chanting “Pull down the shutters for damnation is near!” The track represents the racist firefighter from the previous track falling towards Hell. The scratched-in sample, “The Devil takes many colors and shapes walking through Hell“, is ironic, but fitting. The firefighter, following the death of his mulatto wife, became a racist in retrospect. While the firefighter was racist during his life, the Devil himself doesn’t care about skin color. He hates everyone, even those who do his deeds. Deacon singing “won’t you come and help me, Lord…” is the firefighter pleading for God to absolve him from his sentence.
The firefighter arrives in Hell. A sample of Arthur Brown’s “Fire” is chopped and reconfigured to suit the intended imagery of the song: To depict Lucifer torturing the sinner. Deacon and Natti’s lyrics represent that very torture with lines that utilize fire-related wordplay/metaphors. The scratched-in Nas sample, “Hellfire can’t scorch me“, is representative of the firefighter. Which shows that, even after death and judgment, he still remains vain in that he believes (or really, he’s just trying to convince himself) that his pride will protect him. The biblical reference for this track is “Apostasy; depravity & rebellion”; which personifies the firefighter’s racist actions. Not only that, but it also refers to the rebellion of Lucifer and his army during the war in Heaven, the aftermath of which resulted in 1/3 (that being Lucifer and his army) of Heaven’s legion banished and led to God’s creation of Hell. Apostacy (interestingly, the first four letters of that word can be construed as an acronym for the album’s title, A Piece of Strange) is defined as “a total desertion of or departure from one’s religion, principles, party, cause, etc.” Through their actions, the firefighter and Lucifer departed from God’s principles, but it also alludes to what could happen if the protaganist (Deacon’s character) moves away from his path toward the Light.
14.) “Remember Me (Abstract/Reality)”
The biblical reference for this track is “Deliverance; Salvation”. With the exception of the two vocal samples, this is an instrumental track. This track depicts Jane (the Hourglass woman, marijuana, you decide) fulfilling her task. She’s shown Deacon’s character what could happen if he gives in to the darker path away from the Light. In effect, she is his salvation. She gives him the courage to make the right choice about his life’s path. The Talib Kweli sample “The abstract then becomes the reality“; represents Jane’s effect wearing off. While Deacon is coming out of his high and back to reality, she urges him to “remember me”; to remember what she showed him and apply what he’s learned.
15.) “What’ll You Do?”
The biblical reference for this track is “Rest”. Deacon is taking a respite to make his final decision after everything that Jane has showed him. He chooses the right path. On “Since When”, he was complaining about being a southern emcee and not getting respect and money despite his obvious talent. The lines that clarify this: “We reach heads, but the only bread we see is off shirt sales…but believe I ain’t complaining, rather explaining, that unless this southern rain (reign) ends, show proof we as real as you”. He knows the consequences that this life will bring, but he enjoys making music and being a rapper regardless.
16.) “The Light” (feat. Club Dub)
Deacon chooses his path and reaches “The Light”. By doing so, he’s found that being true to himself is what matters. The biblical reference is “Love”. Deacon’s learned to love himself, and by doing so, he’s denounced the negativity he contemplated before. Though he’s not a perfect man, he has achieved the biblical theme of number 9: Divine completeness from the Father.