Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Exegesis Freak

Holy-rolling through the Priest 'hood

By Brian Boling

JUNE 26, 2000:  Featured on cuts by the Genius, Ol' Dirty Bastard, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and his own group the Sunz of Man, Killah Priest emerged in the mid- to late '90s as the most promising of the Wu-Tang Clan's many offspring. But it was his epic solo album Heavy Mental that fulfilled the prophecy. On this release, Priest combined diverse elements of religious symbolism and outer space fantasy to create his own mystical universe, inviting comparison to the mythologies of Sun Ra and Lee Perry. Featuring cryptic lyrical flow deadpanned over jagged beats and interstellar production--including didgeridoo ambience on the title track--the 1998 disc confirmed Priest's status as leader of underground hip-hop's front guard.

Fans will undoubtedly feel disappointment and betrayal upon first hearing Priest's latest outing, View From Masada. Though it contains moments of dingy psychedelia, the overall production values aim for today's commercial rap market. Cheesy synth beats and insipid hooks dominate the album's second half; he even throws out a couple of party jams that sound absurd coming from the biblical scholar who once wrote meditative rhymes about demonic powers, astral travel, and expanded consciousness. Worse, he seems preoccupied with the idea of thug life, fueling public speculation that he's writing the Gospel of 2Pac by duplicating Nas' transformation into the mafioso Nas Escobar. Either Priest has fallen from grace like a once-bright angel, or he has leapt like a remorseful, hanging Judas. The album's evocative title points to the latter.

Besides referring to the celebrated mountain fortress where Jewish rebels chose to kill themselves rather than succumb to Roman enslavement, Masada is the pseudonym of Priest's thug persona. Supposedly standing for "Man Analyzing Situations and Drama Artistically," the acronym reveals the album's artifice. Whether motivated by record label politics, a desire for mainstream acceptance, or back-pocket issues (as suggested in his strip-club anthem "Gotta Eat"), Priest has submitted to a certain degree of aesthetic suicide. But throughout, he carefully negotiates the wall of good taste that separates him from his alter ego.

The album's first single, "Whut Part of the Game?," offers a key to this charade: Driven by a deep guitar break, the song serves as a call-out to player chameleons, beginning with the lines, "Oh so you a killer now? / So now you a thug?" In fact, Priest's use of the word "thug" brings to mind the name of a secret sect of Indian assassins, "sthagati," a word meaning "he conceals" in the original Sanskrit. On the back cover, he holds his index finger close to his mouth, as though miming "shhh" and pointing to his vast reservoir of etymological knowledge. Indeed, he's playing his own game of concealment here: By overusing "thug" in the record's corny choruses, Priest fools the casual listener into thinking that he's celebrating the thug life, while his deft verses unveil his disdain for rap's gangstas, hustlers, pimps, and other toughs. As he invokes such iconography as Pac's stomach tattoo and Biggie's foreboding Ready To Die, the two late rappers arise as thug anti-heroes of the album's passion play. And why not? They've both been resurrected by posthumous releases.

When the production attempts to copy marketable styles, Masada's strategy occasionally fails. The masturbatory "Live By the Gun" sounds like a straight-up Bone rip-off. Apparently "swinging double-edged swords to slay the Beast," Priest not only pleads forgiveness for his fetishism of polished firearms in the predictable harmonies of its scimitar hook, he belabors the point by opening the track with a repentant prayer. Despite these and other clever hints at parody--for instance, Priest claiming to have sold crack since 7, then interjecting "BC"--the song's acidic irony cannot transmute base booty beats. Other cuts, however, display such ingenious emceeing that the lackluster production fades into the background before reappearing as a subliminal voice whispering counterpoint verses, bumbling falsetto, or sublime hushings.

Sometimes simplifying the esoteric lyrical style found on Heavy Mental, Priest strengthens his messages without surrendering his unique flow. Down-to-earth rather than dumbed down, he eschews his sci-fi obsessions, concerning himself instead with more realistic matters, though he retains his characteristic allusions to perverse spirituality. Even so, when discussing the socioeconomic basis of crime in "Hard Times," he literally mocks his former know-it-all pretension of once quoting biblical book-chapter-and-verse in a rhyme, rhetorically wondering, "Was it the prophecies / of Deuteronomy / that drove us to this poverty?" At the same time, his hardcore raps manage to stay lighthearted. On "Bop Your Head," Priest summons forth vivid cartoon violence suggestive of the best work of the Ultramagnetic MCs, only he needs none of the Wu's tired kung-fu samples to set the scene.

On certain cuts, the production meshes with the libretto to match the brilliance of Priest's earlier work. "Maccabean Revolt," the album's standout track, features extended metaphors delivered over orchestral arrangements and echoing drum loops. Reminiscent of a Shakespearean history--part true confession and part social protest--Priest appropriates the story of the Jewish rebels who overthrew the Greek conquerors of Jerusalem to dramatize not only his personal battles with substance abuse, but also the plight of every political prisoner. In this song and others, he advocates a release he can find only in writing and in courting wisdom.

As the listener uncovers more of the album's secrets, the dismal View From Masada becomes scenic, and Priest's nonstop flow becomes breathtakingly expansive. A self-professed sellout, he continues his struggle against modern culture by hostile takeover, proclaiming rebirth in the lineage of Judas Maccabeus instead of the well-known traitor apostle. Beseiged, he builds higher walls for his opponents to scale. Perhaps Masada will lead the masses to embrace Killah Priest's whimsical Gnostic heresies. Or maybe--like the spaceships he once spoke of so fondly--he will hover over headz, merely alienating his loyal congregation.

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