Artist: Carlos Mena
Album: Hip-Hop Meditations
Rating: 6.5 / 10
Reviewer: Dr. Franklin
If you ever wished for an emcee with the flow of Eminem and the ideas of Deepak Chorpa, the universe was preparing you for Carlos Mena. Mena is the complete antithesis of your average Gz-up, iced-out, guns-and-girls mixtape emcee; he’s a unique bilingual, soul-elevating, old-school-revering, incense-and-meditation soul poet. His record, “Hip-Hop Meditations”, is more ashram than street or party, but dynamite production and inventive delivery keep Mena’s spiritual concepts grounded enough to avoid being completely pretentious. Listeners ready to explore a new take on beats and rhymes (as well as space and time) will be rewarded with a very entertaining and potentially enlightening CD. However, as with an Eminem, you may end up feeling there’s more style than substance, and the explorations are not always as deep as they seem.
Mena defines who he is on the very first track ‘Introduction to Carlos Mena (Canto for Eleggua)’, opening up with an organic hand-drum beat which gives way to a 3D biographical tale; Mena delivers a slightly different version of his life story on each speaker, before coming to a definitive and challenging statement “I am hip-hop…I AM hip-hop…if I am anything, I am hip-hop…I AM hip-hop”. Follow-up tracks ‘Auction Block’ and ‘God Is You’ further demonstrate Mena’s definition of himself and his art, flexing intricate rhyme schemes complemented by haunting female vocals with intense drums and perfectly-crafted tones. Fans of the Roots’ work with Jill Scott will probably get into these. ‘God is You’ offers a sample of Mena’s lyrical skills and obsessions
“See eyes third/see word scripted by the Divine
be undeterred, be heard, be lifted by the rhyme
distant peeps, I try to reach
spiritual guides throw me a line
lucid beats with our dreams speak
you battle me, you must be blind
it’s not about the dissin’ or the competition
just listen, I’m just trying to feed the malnutrition
to make you self-sufficient
and stop switching
I’m not Special Ed but that’s my singular mission
uplift the spirit, help you be free
speak with the trees, dance with the breeze
I know it sounds strange, but the truth is
God is you, God is me.”
“God is you, God is me” is a theme you will find repeated throughout the lyrics and interludes. He says it on at least four songs. Mena’s lyrics don’t always stay consistently deep; he’s not above the corny puns that pass for wordplay among a lot of hip-hop heads (“not a Secret, so it’s not popcorn” in ‘I.T.S.I.N.Y.O.U.’, for instance). He also has a slightly annoying habit of pointing out where the breakbeats are, as if we are in some kind of remedial DJing class and have never heard one before. In fact, some of the best parts of the album barely get touched by Mena’s voice. A slew of strong female vocalists (particularly Suashia on various tracks and Nonameko on Obtala (Meditation No. 2) )and Michael Spiro’s percussion work gives many tracks on the album a totally unique groove. At times I found myself wondering what a more conventional MC could do with these especially powerful and inventive tracks. After a while, you realize Mena has said all he has to say with his criticisms of materialism in hip-hop, but he’s intent on saying it over and over again. In particular, the weak spoken word and anemic pseudodancehall chorus fail the strong track of ‘Orisha Drink (Voices in My Head)’. ‘Sheets of Sound (for Coletrane)’ will only escape the skip button if you are an open mic coffeehouse/slam poetry groupie, or if you have never heard of “A Love Supreme”.
Things get back on track with ‘Busacndo Luz’, featuring blistering contributions from Speech and Nonameko. Sadly, again, the best parts of this track are the ones where Carlos isn’t involved. ‘Eggun (Meditation No. 3)’ is a blistering instrumental. ‘Red, White, and Blue’ and ‘Crossroads’ suggest that Mena may be something of an anomaly: unlike many artists who would be better off doing straight-ahead spoken word than attempting to rap, Mena is a true rapper whose spoken word comes off as precious and self-important. The more he drifts into the style of the Nuyorican Poets and Saul Williams, the more apparent it is he lacks their cleverness and verbal dexterity when away from the regular flow of a rap song. Mena must realize this, as the liner notes acknowledge “So if you aren’t asleep yet” in description to the ten-minute ‘Breathe (Meditation No. 4)’, a nearly ten-minute-long guided meditation session.
“Hip-Hop Meditations” back cover features positive reviews from several prominent hip-hop sources. For heads who only know G-Unit Radio and have never heard of chakras, this stuff must seem unbearably profound. The first half offers an inventive take on hip-hop that probably stacks up with any independent release of the year. As the record wears on, however, it becomes apparent Mena is less a guru than a guy who works weekends at the new age bookstore. There are a lot of things to like about “Hip-Hop Meditations”, and a lot of people who will like some or all of it. But if you don’t, don’t let anyone else con you into thinking you’re missing the Secret of the Universe.