Preeminent underground heavies like Brother Ali, Lyrics Born, The Roots, and Talib Kweli are all accomplished recording artists, but fans have to experience them live to understand the full extent of their genius. The same is true of Afu-Ra, a longtime live favorite, Jeru The Damaja protégé, and member in good standing of Gang Starr's extended family. With his lean frame, long dreadlocks, and trademark white outfits, Ra cuts one of rap's most striking figures even before he begins bouncing around the stage delivering martial-arts-inspired dance moves (or perhaps dance-inspired martial-arts moves) like some crazed, hyperactive Rastafarian version of Elvis during his '68 comeback special. Onstage, Afu-Ra comes alive Peter Frampton-style, but on his terrific new CD State Of The Arts, the excitable, enormously likeable New York rapper proves that it doesn't take crunk beats or a talk box to whip listeners into a frenzy. Though an imperfect substitute for live Afu-Ra, State Of The Arts does nicely approximate the amped-up excitement of the rapper's live show. Afu-Ra raps like he moves, nimbly flipping all over a diverse assortment of tracks with a surplus of passion and boyish enthusiasm.
Afu-Ra represents New York, but like Wu-Tang Clan, he attacks music from an international perspective, combining a pronounced affection for martial arts and Eastern mythology with an Afrocentric bent and strong Caribbean dancehall/reggae influence. Wildly eclectic without sacrificing cohesion, State Of The Arts concerns itself with both the regressive politics of commercial hip-hop and the larger issues affecting society, on tracks like the folk/hard-rock fusion "Ghetto Hell." On "Prankster," Afu-Ra delivers verbal roundhouses to fake gangsta rappers over a xylophone beat and subtle intimations of Bread's "Summer Breeze," courtesy of producer PF Cuttin'. (Needless to say, when PF Cuttin' speaks with beats this ill, people listen.) On the next track, Afu-Ra takes it back to the 36 Chambers days when he spits lyrical darts alongside the precise, deliberate Masta Killa over dramatic strings and a cheesy-but-infectious bite of Ini Kamoze's "Here Comes The Hotstepper." DJ Premier similarly takes it back to the East with his stellar contribution ("Sucka Free"), but otherwise, Afu-Ra seems to have wisely chosen his lesser-known producers for the quality of their beats, not their name recognition or commercial appeal. That strategy pays off with a tight, ambitious, musically adventurous album full of terrific songs that should translate into even better live performances.