The Greatest Story Ever Told
It’s rare that a rapper’s name is imbued with as much metaphorical power as David Banner’s. At a time when most rap names seem geared towards intimations of wealth, power, or street cred (think 2 Pistols, Killa Tay), David Banner aligns himself with the everyman averageness of The Incredible Hulk’s alter-ego. But then, the Hulk is simply a marauding, rampaging mass of destructive power basically incapable of speech, while the comic book Banner is the man who memorably said, “Don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.” But of course, we love Banner when he’s angry—he’s the Hulk.
The rapper born Levell Crump could say the same thing, but instead of a seething green wrecking ball, this David Banner turns into one of the most compelling and complicated voices in modern hip-hop when he’s angry. The Greatest Story Ever Told’s opening track, “So Long,” is a manifesto and a call to arms that begins with Banner, in a spoken intro, throwing down the gauntlet: “I think for the most part, our generation is filled with a bunch of fucking cowards. And I say that, man, because we beef amongst each other: We kill and we shoot each other in our own ‘hoods, and bang each other, but we won’t bang the cops. And one thing that these motherfuckers in America know, they know we ain’t gonna do shit.” When the stuttery electro beat drops in the next instant, he’s breathing fire, and, as he said, not on some typical rap bragging tip. He quickly moves into lines about the shooting of Sean Bell by police in New York in 2006: “Fifty shots for every cop that popped Sean Bell … they acquit because they know that our generation won’t do shit. / Nothing, nada, but every rapper is a shotta or a Don Dada, / or a killer, but you ain’t killing nothing in this piece unless it’s another nigger. / Trying to raise boys to Supermen / and while I’m at it fuck Arthur J. Cooperman / it’s never justice for blacks but they send just us to Iraq / with poor whites and Latinos / I pray to God that you hear the single / This is Banner’s middle finger y’all!” Cooperman was the judge who acquitted the aforementioned police in the Bell case, in case you didn’t know, which I didn’t, until I looked it up.
But then shit gets weird, because after this fiery burst of intellect and articulate outrage at the state of America today, and following the requisite intro, we get “Suicide Doors,” a spare and starkly beautiful track wrapped around an apocalyptic piano line that begins with Banner intoning, “I could give a fuck about you niggers and you hating hos.” After lamenting the self-hatred of young black men in the first track, this comes as a shock. “Suicide Doors” gives way to an all-star track featuring Lil’ Wayne, Snoop Dogg, and Akon called “9 mm” that has Akon crooning, “I got a 9 millimeter / ready to go off any minute so you feel it / Because of the law, I had to conceal it / but if you fuck around, you gonn’ make me reveal it.” The whole record is like this: A long, convoluted ride that slams you back and forth between insight and iron sights, between hope for a way out of darkness and screeds against snitches and bitches.
I can make this simple for a lot of people: The Greatest Story Ever Told is a better, more bruising, more satisfying record than Tha Carter III, so if you were waiting for Lil’ Wayne’s new joint with bated breath, you definitely need to get this record. The beats ride hard on thumping, electronic drums whose chrome-plated mechanization is as perfect for Banner’s gruff, commanding voice as The Roots’ neo-soul grooves are for Black Thought’s, or MadLib’s jazzy weirdness is for MF Doom in Madvillain. It’s worth the price of admission just for the melancholy and placidly beautiful “Cadillacs on 22s, Part 2,” a cruising summer jam that celebrates the South, the home of black music in America for better or worse. “Mississippi is the place / where your boy came from,” half-sings Banner, “But so many people / are still afraid to come. / But I’m gonn’ tell the truth / this is real good food / and real strong people / who still refuse to move … So go and ask your momma / where you came from / it’s probably the places / that’s closest to the sun.” At it’s best, Banner’s fourth album is as deeply felt and moving as Outkast or Common’s finest, and at it’s dirtiest it’s as thrilling and nasty as Lil’ Wayne or Jay-Z.
But for me, Banner’s fourth album is also the latest salvo in an ongoing discussion/argument I’ve been having and hearing since at least 1999 over hip-hop. In ’99 I was working at New York hip-hop label 3-2-1 Records, which did a lot of good things (like releasing Blackalicious’ A2G EP and lining up releases by Micranots, Big Juss, and Rubberoom) and a lot of bad things (like pretty much everything else related to being a label). I worked with a guy named Wilkins who came from the Dominican Republic, and almost daily we’d get into it over Puff Daddy and Mase, who were ruling the charts at that time. I thought they were musically (and morally, in my worldview) bankrupt for ripping off their hooks from ‘80s songs, rapping about dumb shit, and selling millions of records. Wilkins couldn’t see anything wrong with it, though, because when you come up in an environment where there’s no way out, where the system is geared towards keeping you down, you make whatever sacrifices you have to to get out of there and take care of your own. Making a buck off of an old hit song hardly seems like a crime viewed through a lense where the other option for quick wealth is selling drugs.
The essential drift of this argument came to the surface again several years later when I first moved to Minneapolis and found myself listening in and occasionally contributing to an argument between Doomtree rappers Sims and Dessa at the CC Club. The topic was Jay-Z, the rapper whose work more than any other’s has to me epitomized the complications of the modern rap career. A ferocious and prodigious talent, Jay-Z has always admitted that he dumbed down his style to sell records, has leaned on his past as a drug dealer to burnish his tough guy image, and has penned plenty of misogynistic lines, even as he’s given money to help inner cities, gone to Africa to help efforts to get clean water to people there, and formed one of modern music’s most powerful power couples with “Independent Woman” Beyoncé Knowles.
The argument basically came down to this: How do you make sense of this? How do you reconcile such talent, intelligence, and artistry with a willingness to subsume these qualities with violent, shallow, and misogynistic songs in the name of making a dollar? And how do you do it with sensitivity to modern black culture and circumstances? Can you even have this conversation without offending someone or, worse, falling down into a politically correct rabbit hole where you can’t really get at the meat of the discussion?
I still don’t know, but David Banner has now become the ne plus ultra of this discussion for me. Much of The Greatest Story Ever Told flatout makes me uncomfortable: “A Girl” revolves around a hook so gleefully gutter-iffic (“Do you want to fuck right now? / Well, let me see your panties on the floor”) that it’s impossible to tell if Banner’s tongue is in his cheek a little, or a lot, or not at all. Every utterance of “bitch” or “ho” makes me wince, and when he calls out “your cousin or your homeboy that told on Mike Vick,” he totally loses me. I can understand anger at a system that keeps young black men down, but I have no sympathy for asshole millionaires who run dogfighting rings in their houses.
But that line isn’t the end of it with regard to the song it comes from. That track is preceded by an interlude called “Freedom” that features Banner unpacking a wealth of regret and hurt against an empty backdrop. “Man, listen: They look at us as cotton pickers. / They might as well ‘cause we love to call ourselves niggers … Every rapper I see has a ki / but not the key to be free … The greatest story ever told?/ What if I said I didn’t want to tell stories no more? / What if I wanted to tell the truth? / We fucked up.” The twist in that last line is momentous on a rap album—a moment of clarity that signals the wall that separates a rapper’s persona from who he is, but immediately “Freedom” is swallowed whole by “B.A.N. (A Love Song),” which opens with a sample of someone shouting “Bitch-ass nigger!” over and over again. The song, which grinds and swells over an epic, string-laden track, is an anti-snitching song that clearly lays out the punishment for turning against your own. Then comes “Fuck You Hoes.” You can see where this is going.
So maybe the sense you can make of this is that you can’t make sense of this. The part of America that was not simply dismayed by Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s well-publicized outbursts, but genuinely shocked to hear that a contigent of black America is well and truly pissed off aren’t ready for this record. A recent New York Times/CBS News poll found that 70 percent of blacks said they had encountered a specific instance of discrimination based on race, compared to only 26 percent of whites. That disparity seems somehow both shocking and depressingly expected, and then here comes David Banner with his big middle finger, y’all.
So maybe The Greatest Story Ever Told won’t be complicated for a large swath of the population, but it will be a difficult listen for a lot of people, and it deserves to be heard. Music is entertainment, and so I can’t demand that you listen to things that make you uncomfortable, but I can make a plea: If we won’t listen to what everyone has to say, we’re never going to figure this ridiculous mess out. Until we can accept cultures whole—including all the contradictions and complications that come along with them—we’ll never be one step closer to overcoming our differences. The Greatest Story Ever Told is as ugly as it is beautiful, a burning, ferocious, confused conflagration, but it’s not for everyone. And that’s too bad.