The Ruby Kid & Dan Angell – Maps (rap/ poetry)
self released, 2010, CD/ DD album, 37 46s
Poetry isn’t the same thing as lyrics; lyrics are not poetry; and rap is neither poetry nor song lyrics. All of these things have their own uses, their own conventions and their own needs. You can take a beautiful example of one, you can use it as the other, and it’s most likely to end up sounding stupid, and failing to convey the meanings it channelled in its native context. Obviously there are exceptions: poems have been successfully set to music (leaving aside the classical tradition, where singers’ texts have fewer idiomatic requirements), and, less frequently, some lyrics have stood up well on the page; rap lyrics are less likely to survive the loss of rhythm, but more likely to work in the absence of accompaniment. Then of course, there are the writers whose works cross idioms: Bob Dylan is a master lyricist, but a pretty banal poet, while Leonard Cohen, to pick another example from the same era, seems to work with equal success in both arenas, and seems capable of producing texts that can function in both modes. No mean trick, but not a unique one. The Ruby Kid pulls it off too.
Personally, I wouldn’t want to defend any particular definition of poetry, but I would argue that rap needs to maintain its distinction as such, rather than rushing to claim some perceived status and artistic validity; the alternative is to risk redefining itself as doggerel, because, let’s face it, some superb lyrics would look really crap if we read them as poems (‘Fuck Tha Police’ for example). A lot of the lyrics on Maps sound very self-consciously ‘poetic’, juxtaposing observations from the natural world with more prosaic descriptions, and sometimes delivered with the poet’s lilting vocal gesture at the infinite (or the general, at least). This is never a weakness, though, because the flow is always tight, with the rhythms of rhyme and meter crossing over and generating a topspin that leaves the listener chasing meanings which evade attempts to predict them or pin them down. References to Renaissance drama, Romantic and Modernist poetry, nineteenth century painting or medieval theologians are passed off lightly, alongside commentary on urban counterculture and tales of the individual struggle for identity in a homogenising society. Dan Angell’s predominantly jazzy beats provide a coolly atmospheric setting, letting the voice keep centre stage, although some crunchy synth bass gets the booty moving in ‘Ends/ Means’; for the most part the mood of the whole assemblage is reflective, although it is consistently kinetic and forward moving. For a man with his name on the album this is a very restrained producer, taking a bass-player type approach to supporting the whole, without drawing attention to his own impeccable contribution.
The Ruby Kid’s flow is crisp and precise, but there is a sense in which it feels disconnected from the ground pulse, or independent of it, at least: he seems to leap from peak to peak, floating between the beats in a way that privileges his verbal meanings over the physical impact of the music, and encourages the attentive listener to seek a complexity of meanings, which continue to unfold the more you excavate. The title of ‘Growing Up Is A Euphemism For Knowing Your Place’ gives a clue to the sense of radical resistance to be found in this work, and a clue to what it’s resisting; as to what alternatives might be advocated, that’s a little less clear. ‘Build a wall/ build a city/ build a scene/ build a different dream/ from the ones that you’re watching on the screen’ he suggests in ‘Ends/ Means’; such an admonition to seize the initiative and seek autonomy is never amiss, although this sort of crypto-anarchist optimism is starting to feel a little nebulous. It would be a bit of a big ask to expect a fully fledged alternative, however: I know I don’t have one up my sleeve. What makes the politics of this album more than a callow appeal to the force and goodness of individuality, is its concern with personal experience and identity. Its territory is a specific one, an urban one, but it is not a limited or blinkered view: The Ruby Kid knows that there’s a world out there, and he addresses it in terms of the world in here, mapping its routes and contours to his own experience.
The cover of Maps is a wonderfully apposite signpost to its contents, with the intersecting connections between the subject and his landscape related to an urban physicality that primes the listener for the sort of metaphorical conceits they’ll encounter, although not in that literal form. The tube lines on the cover point instead to the busy traffic between inner and outer lives that afflicts and inspires the individual in a time of problematised identity. The Ruby Kid is trying to feel his way to some answers, or to a way of being, and his meanings seem open as a result; but his work is animated by a generous honesty that never dissembles that uncertainty, instead writing it in huge graffiti as a badge of his humanity. Maps, he seems to be saying, are what we need, because our journey has no final destination, and by means of his very considerable skill with language he’s been good enough to share his own tentative survey.