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In his most recent publicity bio, Philadelphia-based rapper Marcus Alexander, a.k.a., Philly Black, candidly discusses some of the hardships he suffered growing up.  In addition to having an abusive father, who his mother got away from when he was a kid, Philly Black experienced hardcore poverty.  Rappers who describe those types of hardships in their publicity bios often come out with angry, thuggish albums.  But Who I Be, Philly Black’s third album, isn’t like that at all.  This 2013 release never ventures into gangsta rap territory, and it isn’t confrontational or in-your-face.  Instead, Philly Black favors alternative rap, offering a lot of reflective, philosophical lyrics and sometimes inspiring comparisons to another Philadelphia-based alterna-rapper: Kuf Knotz.

Philly Black favors an introspective, contemplative tone on “Moment of Clarity,” “The Come Up,” “Winds of Change,” “Food for Thought” and the title track.  He sometimes talks about the hardships he has experienced in life, but he doesn’t do so in a bitter way.  Instead, a recurring theme on Who I Be is that what ultimately shapes a person is not the difficulties he/she goes through, but how he or she responds to those difficulties.  Much of the time, this is a serious-minded album.  Who I Be has a lot of substance, although Philly Black doesn’t achieve that by going out of his way to prove that he’s hard as hell; like many alternative rappers, he does so in an intellectual and contemplative way.

But that is not to say that Who I Be doesn’t have its fun moments. “Philly Live,” for example, is a great party groove and an infectious shout out to the city he grew up in (although he was born in Annapolis, Maryland).  And another party groove on this album is “Smoke On,” which references a subject that everyone from Tone Loc to Schoolly D to Snoop Dogg to Cypress Hill has rapped about: marijuana.  Hip-hop certainly wasn’t the first musical genre that had marijuana songs: there were plenty of them back in the jazz world of the 1930s and 1940s (“If You’re a Viper” and “Reefer Man,” for example), and ganja has been a recurring theme in reggae.  But these days, hip-hop reigns supreme when it comes to marijuana anthems.  And Philly Black makes his contribution with “Smoke On.”

There was a time when hip-hop was dominated by tracks that were raw, tough and defiantly hard.  Back in the 1980s, East Coast hardcore rappers such as Run-D.M.C., LL Cool J and Boogie Down Productions often favored rugged tracks that emphasized drum beats, cuts and scratching rather than melody or harmony.  But Dr. Dre’s sleek, polished grooves (first as a member of N.W.A, then as a solo artist) did a lot to move hip-hop producers in a more melodic direction, and his influence as a producer is still being felt in 2013. Who I Be, clearly, is on the melodic side.  Selections like “Be With You,” “Moment of Clarity” and “Love, Peace, Understanding” aren’t just about beats; they are also about melody and harmony.  Who I Be has plenty of rhythmic appeal, but the material also has a lot of melodic and harmonic appeal.  And many times, those melodies and harmonies recall 1970s soul.  Hip-hop heads who have a healthy appreciation of the 1970s productions of Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff (the producer/songwriters who founded of Philadelphia International Records), Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield or Barry White should have no problem getting into the soul-drenched grooves on Who I Be.  The tracks that Philly Black raps to (some of which are downright lavish) skillfully merge a hip-hop beat with the polish of classic 1970s soul.

In 2013, alternative rap continues to be a vital part of the hip-hop world.  And with Who I Be, Philly Black makes an engaging contribution to alternative rap.

Philly Black

Who I Be

Review by Alex Henderson

4 stars out of 5

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