It was after sunset, so the breeze bit a little harder, and the jacket I wore was a little thin. I’m usually in a better mood while waiting for my mobile reading room and writing desk (aka the 70 bus) but I had just finished a week of running ragged by oversleeping and missing my Sunday morning gig. Add to that the heart-break of my sons’ schedule not allowing me to see them, I was in the midst of one those melancholy nights, questioning my own resolve, impatiently waiting to get home. So last night, and on all the nights like this since Substantial’s Home is Where the Art It was released, I played it on my phone while staring at the bustling life on DC’s streets. From the jump, with “Spoiled Milk”, it changes my mood.
If you haven’t meet Stan “Substantial” Robinson, you’ll get the impression from his latest album that he’s a father/husband/teacher, dedicated to making himself and the people around him stronger. That’s the same impression you’ll get if you ever run into him at an Up’n’Up event at Liv Nightclub, or one of the Black Father’s Rock Events in Baltimore. Thematically, the album is the father/husband/teacher’s version of Jay-Z’s “American Gangster”. His “no retreat, no surrender” attitude towards his career and community is as singularly focused as your favorite coke rapper, but with out the self-destructive braggadocio.
This isn’t an album full of preaching to the choir about the ills of the community. It’s motivational music for those on the front line making it better. Those doing the simple and hard work that doesn’t get glorified in commercial hip-hop or evening news. Stan’s album is the closest thing I’ve heard this year to my own life, and the life of the men I’m closest to. His voice and delivery cuts through each of the skillfully produced tracks, allowing you to take him seriously or laugh at his punch-lines at the appropriate moments. He’s showing off lyrically and vocally all over this album, bouncing around one complicated rhyme sound for multiple bars at a time on tracks like “Make Believe”, or using ridiculously extended metaphors in tracks like “Shit on My Lawn”. He could hold his own with anyone on any three coasts with his delivery, but with a close listen you know without a doubt he’s from the “urea”, and proud. The album is well balanced, and perfectly titled.
Substantial and I are the same age, and from the same place, something I would’ve picked up even if I hadn’t met him. There’s a sound and a feel that men who graduated from PG County schools in the mid to late 90’s identify with. We are in an interesting cross section of hip-hop. As my partner in rhyme Haze use to say, we are “the North of the South, South of the North/ Not quite Atlanta, not quite New York”. That goes for rhyme style and production elements. We love Hit Squad style boom bap and the Dungeon Family funk. We slur enough words to adopt Scarface like a cousin, but use strong diction of the hip-hop pioneers like ATCQ. Home is Where the Art Is finds the MC right in the pocket, completely comfortable in the style and content that defines him. Stan’s track “Neighborhood Watch” has me waiting for Plug 1 and Plug 2 to jump in. “See Hear” is THE father/husband/teacher anthem, layered over an Algorythym track with an “Atliens” era Outkast feel. “Mr. Consistent” is one of those bombastically real and self-confident boom bap records you would’ve found on a Redman album. “Make Up Sex” is definitely single ready; with that southern slow funk feels like it could have been on the seminal “Devin the Dude” album.
Let’s get into that Surrock produced track, “Make Up Sex”. Every rap artist has that prerequisite track for women ready to hop into bed with him, but Substantial writes rhymes for HIS woman. This overtly sexual song somehow mixes in the daily chores, child rearing, and promises to make it home on time that make up a normal relationship. It begins with teasing you with a chopped up guitar riff, that’s going to have crate diggers busy finding where it came from. Once the syrupy baseline and gospel horn hits join in, you’re floating along on a late night slow jam dance in the living room. Grown men have all had these moments Stan raps about, “…besides you know I had a long day/ my bad for putting the onesey on the wrong way…”. The sex talk is even sexier when it’s with that one you are building with and fighting for, as he raps, “don’t be mad at me, I hate it when you holdin’ out/ you ain’t gotta front, if you mad why you poke it out?”. Who ever this Deacon is on the hook, and Olivier De’Soul on the bridge, they need to give us more of that Soul Food vibe that permeates this song. If you weren’t from Stan’s home, you’d think the track is out of place, but for those of use in his demographic it’s the perfect “one for the ladies” on this album.
The Oddisee produced “Umoja” is the only track that seems from a more modern era from the same style artists. This melodic gem sounds like it could’ve been on Common’s “Be” with it’s jam session style neo-soul groove, fully equipped with Rhodes keys and Moog lead synth riffs. Substantial uses his ample vocal skills to ride this track with his family. From blood relatives, to the community, and the wife and kids, Substantial holds everyone down. It feels like Happy Natural Day, The Black Family Reunion, Black Luv Fest and Afram put to music. It’s “home” and “art” in an mp3, the encapsulation of this album as a whole.
The Algorthym produced “See Hear” teases you with the sample that gives you no clue of the direction it’s going once the drums and heavy synth bass makes your neck snap. In it Substantial takes you on a trip through his revolution. This track is not some hypothetical battle, or some imaginary plot by the man with macro style expositions about politics and societies ill. It personal and real, the picture of the streets I see as I’m walking between teaching gigs and performance venues. The juxtaposition of the beauty and ugliness of our streets come to life as Stan explains, “First I hear bustin then bustin then the sirens/ and I see suffering from domestic violence”, before in the same line hitting you with, “…sometimes I hear laughter happiness and peace/ but I don’t see it often just to say the least/ when I see it is awesome, always glad to hear it/ and I’m proud of my people, keep it up that’s the spirit”
The album ended once I got to the Addison Road station, giving a few more stops to put a “bad” day into perspective. I mean, I did spend two hours working with one of my former songwriting students South East who had made quite the reputation all over the country as an “alternative hip-hop” artist. I spent another few hours creating tracks for clients and writing rhymes about my own purpose and goals that eerily resemble those of Substantial. It feels good to know I’m not in it all on my own. For Substantial, and all of us on the same grind, home is definitely where the art is.