It bodes ill for a group's future when its name seems destined to scare away the very people who'd otherwise be most receptive to its music and message. That sadly seems to be the case with Cunninlynguists, a Southern rap group whose idiotic, groan-inducing frathouse-joke of a name is sorely at odds with the somber, death-haunted majesty of its cerebral brand of Christian-tinged Southern hip-hop. The contrast between Cunninlynguists' name and music was striking on 2003's superb, introspective Southernunderground. It's downright perverse on its third album, A Piece Of Strange, as only the bouncy, exuberant "Beautiful Girl"which manages to breathe new life into the hackneyed marijuana-as-romantic-relationship tropequalifies as lighthearted, let alone wacky. Otherwise, the disc reeks of fire and brimstone as it explores a dead-serious moral universe as vast and ambitious as the stunningly assured production of Kno, who builds on Southernunderground's deft, emotional hyper-soul aesthetic with left-field rock choruses, densely layered soundscapes, and vocal samples twisted into haunted wails. Kno's masterful, adventurous production so dominates the album that at times it threatens to turn into a hip-hop instrumentalist tour de force à la DJ Shadow or RJD2, with the somber, morality-obsessed rhymes serving as just another element in the sophisticated sonic stew. Cunninlynguists boasts one of Southern hip-hop's stupidest names, but it's nevertheless one of the region's smartest, most ambitious outfits, with a sound as big as Texas and a lyrical palette that stretches from heaven to hell.
Like A Piece Of Strange, Supastition's Chain Letters is intent on shattering audiences' MTV and BET-derived preconceptions about Southern rap as the exclusive domain of tattooed, syrup-sipping crunk horndogs shouting about bodily fluids. North Carolina's Supastition guested on Southernunderground, but his big break came when he and Nicolay landed the best track on ?uestlove's Okayplayer compilation with "The Williams," an endearingly self-deprecating treatise on the past-due, bad-credit blues. Nicolay returns with three tracks on Chain Letters, and along with fellow hungry, gifted young producer M-Phazes (four tracks) and Illmind (eight tracks), lays out a soulful, jazzy vibe that's less eclectic and ambitious than Kno's work on Strange, but every bit as assured and effective. Supastition has always killed with punchlines and witticisms, but with Chain Letters, he's learned how to build clever turns of phrase into memorable songs, and memorable songs into a cohesive, consistent album. He's put all the elements together on Chain Letters, deftly alternating between vicious battle-raps, acidic put-downs of indie-rap haters, and masterful narratives like "Split Decisions," which thoughtfully examines the knotty permutations of infidelity, the way jealousy and suspicion can poison a relationship even after the initial crisis period has subsided.
Normally, 70-minute-plus run times on rap albums are attributable to a lack of quality control or an unwillingness to edit judiciously, but Chain Letters' super-sized length seems attributable to Supastition having a lot to say and a compelling way of saying it. Supastition raps bitterly about listeners' stereotyping of Southern rap on "That Ain't Me," but like his like-minded peers in Cunninlynguists, his words would ring hollow if the rest of his album didn't so brilliantly subvert and upend narrow-minded conceptions of what hip-hop south of the Mason-Dixon line is all about.