It's my job to listen to contemporary music, but I'll admit that it's completely baffling to me that Nicki Minaj is now the "highest-grossing female hip-hop artist of all time." Is she even hip-hop? Is she human?
NOT SITTING BACK Lady Essence pushes the limits.
Disregarding the speciousness of that honorific, it remains true that Minaj doesn't have a ton of competition. Hip-hop, and especially rap, along with metal and classic rock, has always been pretty testosterone-fueled. Locally, you can count on one hand the number of female MCs who've released solo albums: Sontiago . . . and . . . well . . . now Lady Essence, whose Right Now just dropped in hard-copy form.
A veteran of the In the Attic trio (her mates Shane Reis and O*Zee pop up on her solo debut plenty), Essence, like Sontiago, does well in blending the kind of braggadocio-based rap that earns her respect from the rest of the local MCs and a more introspective and world-conscious side that brings out her personality. We discover that she'll "knock ya teeth right through yer back" and that she also enjoys birdwatching.
Nor does she lack for material. There are 18 tracks on Right Now, every one of them filled to the brim with rhymes — she fills six panels of the CD packaging with lyrics, all of them in 3.5-point font — and she only rarely revisits the same topics. There's a fair amount of inspirational, can't-keep-me-down bravado; half a dose of what's-this-all-mean?; more than a little I-don't-do-it-for-the-money.
But you don't care about any of that. You care about: Can she rap? My goodness, can she. When she's angry and aggressive and working a strong beat she can hang with anyone. Anyone.
The title track is very strong. The Doris Day bite from "Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps" that O*Zee lays down as bedrock is wonderful, both a sonic pleasure and smart: Day was badder than you'd imagine. Chick was a baritone. And Essence delivers a solid piece of social commentary, bemoaning "categories" (shit! I just threw her in with all the other female rappers!) and outing the stereotypers: "I'll tell you just what nervous is/Walking onto US soil without your turban hid."
Near the finish, "Hardly Rock" lets Essence gun fight it out with duo Binary Star, battle-style: "I shatter them, with thunderous sounds . . . I'm fearless, indeed, fade or I'll raid on your shit again." This would flat-out completely suck if Lady Essence were even a hair less talented. Instead, she kills it.
We get some insight into how this all goes down in "Sarah Vs. Ess," whereby we're privy to an internal dialogue between real-name Sarah Violette and stage-persona Essence. Nothing in music takes more pure ego than to be an MC and it's interesting to hear Essence grapple with how she gets herself into that place, or, as she calls it, "rap mode."
It's easy to see how it might be difficult to balance a life that involves things like school and a job and a proclivity for shouting "get your motherfuckin' hands up!" All the more so if you're a woman.