Lightyear Entertainment 2019
Penitentiary riddims as a means of redemption – tunes from the inside to look at the not-so-bright side of life.
Imprisonment has long been part of American social landscape and songs from the lockup has long been part of American lore, yet recording inmates was usually reduced to crowd noise on LPs like Johnny Cash’s “At San Quentin” – although there’s a number of platters, such as “The Truest Shit I Ever Said” by C-Murder, that got actually laid down, over the cellular or with lawyers dictaphones, while serving time. But “16 Bars” is a different kind of project: devised by Todd “Speech” Thomas of ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT and documenting an initiative of Richmond City’s correctional facility, where Virginian jailbirds are encouraged to create their own music, it’s a riveting slice of contemporary culture.
The four artists, two black and two white, whose voices are captured here, run the creative gamut from rap to spiritual, and the results, while not raw in sonic terms – the producer augmented basic tracks and vocals in his studio – bare the performers’ raw nerve via stream-of-consciousness rhymes, given scope by snippets of Speech’s interviews which intersperse these pieces. Whereas Teddy Kane’s metronomic “Inspire” is shot through with a heavy bass line to let horror be lifted once the angelic strands of children’s choir ascend on the track, shadows of slavery hovering over Garland Carr’s “Lay My Burden Down” propel communal unity to cathartic, yet dreadful, heights. There’s cosmic vibe to “Lost One” – a hypnotic attack on the unjust system – from the former, and the country pining – adorned with pedal steel and mandolin – to “Two Stamps” from the latterm but if Anthony Johnston’s stumbling “Recidivism” turns gangsta stigmas inside out to convey inner turmoil and hopelessness hailing from the lack of choice in life, Devonte James’s “Broken Chains” channels defiance and acceptance in equal measure.
Whether experiments like this succeed remains to be seen. What leaves no doubt is the fact that talents on the inside are the material of which stars are born.