Brand Nubian

The artists collectively known as the Native Tongues are noted in history as the primary purveyors of "conscious rap" during the Nineties, but New Jersey's Brand Nubian was also on the frontlines. Brand Nubian, however, despite its ability to make people think as well as move, wasn't as well received as groups such as De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, largely due to its affiliation with the Five Percenter Nation. With the exception of "Slow Down" and "Punks Jump Up to Get Beat Down," it didn't catch on with a mainstream audience the way its carefree colleagues did.

Today, Brand Nubian consists of Grand Puba, Lord Jamar, Sadat X, and DJ Alamo. Although Grand Puba and DJ Alamo left after the 1990 debut One For All, both returned for the group's last album, 1998's Foundation. Puba's voice remains one of the most recognizable and charismatic in hip-hop, and the members' vocal ease with each other doesn't suggest that they've spent a long time apart.

On Fire in the Hole, they favor cautionary tales to black youth, whether it's aspiring rappers ("Who Wanna Be a Star?"), drug dealers ("Got a Knot"), or someone who is neither ("Young Son"). There is even a moment of unabashed tenderness when they pay tribute to their origins ("Momma"). They close with the prescient "A Soldier's Story," where "Taps" gives way to militaristic chants and drumbeats.

Refreshingly, Brand Nubian avoids the hip-hop convention of overloading albums with guest artists and producers, instead sticking with DJ Alamo's competent beats. The group has sufficient talent to eschew that formula and create songs that succeed on their own merits. But good music aside, it's unfortunate that the worst of its old habits remains in its message. Ninety seconds into the album, Grand Puba utters the expletive "faggot" on "Who Wanna Be a Star?" This is the same incendiary word that stands out like an ugly sore on the 1993 hit "Punks Jump Up to Get Beat Down" as well as a good part of the group's catalog. It might have been politely tolerated fifteen years ago, but in this day and age, dissing the gay community is bad for business.

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