City of God's Son redefines the hip-hop concept album genre

    Photo by naughty architect on Flickr, licensed under the Creative Commons.

    At this stage in hip-hop’s life cycle, a strong argument can be (and very often is) made that the forces that once made it such an important form of expression have waned. Not to be that guy, but original concepts, engaging personalities and societal relevance — right now, it’s pretty much accepted that none of these things are currently as strong as they once were within a musical genre that gets more hate than any other. So as the music industry gasps for air, what more can hip-hop do? What more can it be?

    Relatively under the radar, video producer/director and digital artist Kenzo Hakuta, known by his alias Kenzo Digital, has provided an answer to that question. It’s called City of God’s Son, it’s different, and it’s spectacular.

    In the same vein as a rock opera, City of God’s Son is a kind of hip-hop opera, dubbed by its creator a “beat cinematic.” It stars iconic rappers Nas, Jay-Z and The Notorious B.I.G., among others, stringing together old verses of theirs, sampled sounds, sound bites and original dialogue to construct a coherent narrative.

    The premise: Best friends Nas, Jay and Ghost are young men coming of age in a violent concrete jungle. Jay’s father is King Sampson (portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson via clips from movies like Formula 51), the godfather-like head of a vast criminal empire. Reveling in his 20th birthday, on which most of COGS takes place, Nas must walk the thin line between the influences of his own father (Lawrence Fishburne), an honest man who never turned to crime despite Sampson’s entreaties, and the criminal underworld he finds himself rapidly becoming a part of. Biggie is Jay’s older brother, already a lieutenant in Sampson’s empire; Raekwon of the Wu-Tang Clan is Ghost’s cousin, and Delroy Lindo plays Ghost’s dad and Sampson’s right hand man.

    COGS is a reconceptualization of ’90s mafioso rap, a hip-hop subgenre the artists featured in COGS helped define. Verses come from albums like Nas’ Illmatic, Raekwon’s Only Built for Cuban Linx and Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt. The focus of those albums is the persona of the rapper as a crime lord, brought to life by a collection of loosely related gangster narratives and street tales. The genius of COGS is that it takes that ghetto mafioso concept a step further, adding a coherent plot in which those personas become full-fledged characters. The beauty of COGS is that it works.

    Think of it as a concept album with movie-rigid narrative as its concept. Or as someone’s wet dream of the tightest “what-if?” posse album ever: a group comprised of Nas, Jay-Z, The Notorious B.I.G. and Ghostface Killah. Or think of it as another classic gangster movie, like Scarface, or epic trilogy, like Star Wars, or epic gangster trilogy, like The Godfather.

    My friend Andy Feldman, a Weinberg junior, was so impressed by COGS that he transcribed the whole album, writing down the dialogue and narration, which songs start and end where and which song and album each verse originally came from. Essentially, he reverse engineered the script.

    “It’s totally groundbreaking and unique,” Feldman said. “As a fan of all media, movies, plays, books and music, I’m drawn to how City of God’s Son represents a fusion of these forms. I think the dialogue is very unique and worthwhile and I wanted to make it more accessible by documenting which songs started and ended where and which albums Kenzo Digital drew from.

    “The ghetto youth experience is a prevalent one in our society, yet still outside the realm of mainstream fictionalized dialogue. This is the poetry of our times.”

    Like Hakuta, Feldman has done something no one has before and if he continues following and deconstructing the COGS installments, he’ll definitely keep busy.

    COGS is actually just the first of three musical installments, but the crazy thing is Hakuta says the music is “just an appetizer” for a cinema/theater/opera installation he plans to put on this summer at a New York art gallery. “If you can follow me from the trailer to the music,” Hakuta recently told, “then I’m asking you to follow me from the music to a whole new form of cinematic immersion that no one has ever seen before.” As he described on his Web site, it will be an immersion of “psychedelic abstract combination of visual and audio sensory over stimulation and deprivation in a unique outdoor setting.”

    Considering the mind-blowingness of this so-called appetizer, what is the actual installation going be like? A psychedelic landscape of projections and flashing lights and music? Some kind of interactive concert where live actors rap Nas and Jay-Z’s verses? Where Nas and Jay-Z themselves rap their own verses? Where Biggie raps his own verses? Could Kenzo Digital possibly be planning the reanimation of Biggie Smalls?

    Probably not, but it’s not hard to envision another beat cinematic. Aside from the original narration and beats, COGS draws entirely from existing material, so anyone with music technology skills can create one. An artist could also conceivably write original rhymes for a beat cinematic and release it as they would a typical album.

    The possibilities for beat cinematic are endless. Who knows where this thing could go if it picks up steam? The concept is impressive and with the right execution, the results are unlike anything else out there in the music world today.


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