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Southern style
Nappy Rootsí Watermelon, Chicken & Gritz
BY JON CARAMANICA

For years, hip-hopís regionalism relegated rappers from below the Mason-Dixon Line to monosyllabic booty chants or heartless, uncouth gangster tales. Even in the mid-í90s, as Atlanta established itself as the first hip-hop powerhouse outside NYC and LA, the city was perceived as an island of enlightenment in a sea of Southern ignorance. Less than a decade later, though, all that has changed. As rapís allegedly warring cities (NYC and LA) began to cannibalize themselves, and each other, the South finally emerged as a region full of talent and diversity. And Nappy Roots, a six-man collective from Bowling Green, Kentucky, are the latest group to come forth by taking full advantage of the Southís still rising profile in the world of hip-hop.

Like the Dungeon Family ó the Atlanta crew that spawned OutKast and Goodie Mob ó Nappy Roots are musical savants. Their debut, Watermelon, Chicken & Gritz (Atlantic), finds them fluent in styles ranging from hearty gospel to thick funk to brooding soul. That those are also staples of the Dungeon Family sound only confirms the ubiquity of those styles throughout the South. And Nappy Roots handle the jambalaya with maturity. “Hustle” opens with stark piano and ends with a digital dancehall groove. “Country Boyz” plays like speedy street-corner blues supported by dirty breakneck beats ó a street heartbeat that unifies the album, adding grit throughout.

Nappy Roots view their neck of the woods with eyes so wide open, itís clear theyíve been observers of the Southern condition for some time. Humility and pride are bedfellows here in lyrics inspired by valiant struggles with poverty ó so much so that you have to wonder how the group would cope with financial success. In “Balliní on a Budget,” we get the assertion “Fuck a fade/Let my hair sway back and forth.” Snoop Dogg also once rapped about letting his hair swing, but for him it was the end result of a pimp curl.

Thereís hurt, too, on the disc. “What about my sons?”, begins the lament in “Lifeís a Bitch,” “Will they do what daddy didnít finish?” Like the best blues, the song offers no guarantees. And though uncertainty hasnít always resonated well in hip-hop, honest self-appraisal is yet another strategy that Nappy Roots borrow from the Dungeon Family, and they put it to good use.

If Watermelon, Chicken & Gritz werenít such an accomplished debut, it might be easier to write the group off as just a ragtag bunch of Dungeon-riding wanna-bes. All the trademarks are there ó from the heavy affinity for P-Funk grooves to the echoes of Sunday-morning gospel choirs to the glorious sung hooks in the spirit of the Goodie Mobís Cee-Lo. But the Dungeon Family sound is so much a part of the Southern hip-hop firmament that it would be hard to separate one from the other. OutKast, in particular, have made countrified sentimentality with a bizarre edge palatable to the pop mainstream. Can you blame Nappy Roots for seeing their opening and taking it?

If Nappy Roots err, itís on the side of being too stereotypically Southern. Their album title is a gross cliché. And, in the video for “Awnaw,” they cavort in tall-growing grass and in front of dilapidated shacks. So many Southern hip-hop groups have explored these tropes that to see them all collected in one place is almost overwhelming. On “Ballin on a Budget,” for example, the guys shout out “bootleg gin,” reminisce about running around barefoot in the woods, and salivate over “Candied yams, chitlins, greens, and smoked country ham/Chicken wings, cornbread/Gran in the kitchen throwing down.” But Nappy Roots aim high in their devotion to both their Southern roots and the Dungeon Family sound. Imitation may well be the highest form of flattery, but when itís done as artfully as this, it can also be the foundation of an utterly fresh style.

Issue Date: February 21 - 28, 2002
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