Marcus K. Dowling
There’s a great argument to be made that Northeast DC native Oddisee is the best rapper in the world not named Kendrick Lamar. However, in opening his just-released EP Alwasta‘s first single “Asked About You” with the line “these are good days for bad people,” the now Brooklyn-residing emcee’s follow up to his 2015 album The Good Fight features eight melancholic songs that tell the story of an artist that is independent, angst-ridden, aware of being under-appreciated and still somehow unbowed by the pressure of being the best rapper at possibly the worst time. Feeling here like a spiritually and emotionally homeless homie of all homies, he’s impressively still slipping and sliding in margins of life and finding success via his own unique path. In Arabic, the EPs title “alwasta” means, “the plug.” Similar in meaning to the colloquial English phrase “the plug,” Oddisee’s career finds him excelling as one-man power source for his success and those of others as well. Though he’s no longer residing in DC, there’s something in studying how Oddisee defines his “plug”-like sustainability in the shadows of the mainstream that may also provide answers for disenfranchised DC residents figuring out how to make it through these difficult times.
The aforementioned “Asked About You” has Oddisee saying “it costs an arm and leg to get ahead and you get no eyes / shades on at night means that you can see the demons that hang around us.” Even further, the ultra-soulful “Slow Groove” samples Eddie Kendricks’ 1977 hit “Intimate Friends,” but in discussing the perpetual nature of his hustle and grind, he mentions that homies “have stolen [his] dreams and tried to sell [them],” and recalls the names Jimi Hendrix, Marvin Gaye and Miles Davis as the artists whose drink, drug and depression-addled legacies he’s trying to avoid. It’s a cold rush of blood to the head to hear an artist who again, is to independent rap what Kendrick Lamar is to top-40 radio be so utterly crestfallen, but in noting that he’s still surviving and about to head out on a 30-city world tour is a noteworthy counterbalance to his angst-ridden sadness.
I’d wager to believe that there’s something in Oddisee that comes from being raised in what PJ Harvey knows is a city plagued by “drugtowns” and “zombies” that probably allows Oddisee to know that for as bittersweet as his success is, that if he were back at home, it could easily be so much worse. If you’re a DC resident living East of the River or recently displaced from your home, office or business, you know part of Oddisee’s plight well. However, unlike the artist born Amir Mohamed “in the shadow of The [US] Capitol,” you haven’t escaped DC yet, so gentrification and the failure of trickle-down economics to benefit ALL DC residents is kicking your ass, and you may have lost all hope. Thus, if needing solace regarding whatever your condition is as you’re attempting to navigate incredibly transformative and oftentimes socio-economically difficult times in DC, do know that Oddisee may have largely built his status as being the best rapper in the game right now on a foundation forged by where you’re at right now.
“Lifting Shadows” is twinkling and optimistic, outlining how though the Sudanese-American Oddisee hates the politics here, he still loves America. In fact, he also notes that it’s a country where he can earn such a comfortable living that he can take $10,000 of the country’s dollars back home help his family. Of course, once he boards that plane to the Sudan, he’s aware that he’ll be searched and ostracized because of the color of his skin. Moreover, in the face of all of this, the song also provides the space where Oddisee opines — in a way that DC residents need to know –that it’s actually community-driven hope, pride and service that are the solutions to the doubt and depression facing 21st century urban-dwelling Americans.
He’s trying to “lift the shadows but the clouds ain’t got no give” in “Lifting Shadows'” hook. However unsuccessful he is in that Herculean gambit, he still proudly highlights that under this metaphorical “cloud” coverage, he’s “got a cousin who will drive your taxi, got a cousin who will make your food, got a cousin who will watch your kids, got a cousin who will pump your gas, got a cousin who is good with tools, [and] got a cousin who will be your doctor.” Clearly, he wants all to be aware that there’s sustainability in the “shadows” he’s discussing for those who want it. Add into this the recent data that shows that illegal US immigrants are far likelier to be working than American men, and there’s some real things to consider regarding making it happen in DC by the sweat of your own brow in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
There’s an old saying that gets repeated in epic 1972 soul concert/documentary Wattstax that says “if I can’t build or make it, I’ll steal and take it.” Hard times call for direct measures. If “stealing” a job means having to create an independent income stream that services your own under-served community in a mainstream-dominated industry, then you’re ultimately doing exactly what Oddisee has done for the better part of almost 20 years.
At-present, the populations residing in DC are divergent, communicatively dissonant in relation to each other, and socio-economically trapped somewhere “between the trap house and the White House.” However, One listen to Oddisee’s latest release teaches that in embracing a solidarity borne of pride, cross-city community building and adopting a desire to survive and succeed, DC’s residents themselves can be “the plug” to creating our own sustainability.