A friend and I jokingly call Cornel West "one of the last real soul brothas," something of a relic with his crown of kinky hair and penchant for dignified dark suits.
I've long admired the scholar's work, especially the fluid, lyrical way with which he delivers his lectures. Even as some of what he says sails way over my head, I dig his passion and old-school, scat-like style.
Although the author and Princeton University professor of religion lectures with an almost musical delivery, West still shocked many when he tried "danceable education" and recorded a much-maligned rap CD, 2001's Sketches of My Culture. Among the album's biggest critics was Lawrence Summers, president of Harvard University, where at the time West was a professor of African-American studies.
Summers and several others in the academic world saw no merit in the CD, and West soon left Harvard for his professorship at Princeton. The pop audience the scholar hoped to reach ultimately ignored his rap efforts.
But that hasn't stopped West. Never Forget: A Journey of Revelations, his second album and debut for Hidden Beach Recordings, hits stores Tuesday. As to be expected from West, the 14-track CD is a heavy listen as the mostly biting lyrics center on topics people don't usually discuss at the office water cooler: government deception, racial profiling, the painful legacy of the "n-word."
Granted, West is no Common or Talib Kweli - far from it. But the subjects of his lyrics are much more compelling and complex. What else would you expect from a man who enrolled in Harvard at age 17 and graduated magna cum laude three years later; a man who's as conversant with the theories of Marxism as the lyrics of Curtis Mayfield?
"This is a whole new different level to connecting the spiritual with the political," West says of the album. "I'm bringing to hip-hop that old-school sensibility. Let me try to bring a sense of history. Let's give our younger people a knowledge of their rich history."
To help enrich his brand of edutainment, West enlisted talents from black pop and underground hip-hop, including Kweli, Black Thought of the Roots, Rhymefest, Jill Scott and the late Gerald Levert. The biggest name on the album, and a real coup for West, is none other than Prince. The Purple One contributes the finest track on Never Forget, a funky, swaggering mid-tempo number called "Dear Mr. Man."
"I've known Prince for years," says the author of 16 books, including 1993's best-selling Race Matters. "But he usually works with his own production group. When he said yes to this project, I was like, 'Good God Almighty!' Then it all just spilled over with all the other talent coming on board."
Never Forget features more than 20 guests with a musical backdrop firmly rooted in modern hip-hop and "neo-soul." The glue connecting the tracks is West, whose role seems to be that of Greek chorus. The guest artists dominate the tracks as the professor elaborates on the lyrical theme, usually midway or at the end. This time, he's not trying to be a rapper per se. West says he wants to use the music more as a continuum of his academic work, as a viable way to deliver more political and social truths as he sees them.
"Black music, my brother, is a reflection and refraction of the soul of black America," says West, 54, calling from a New York hotel on a recent weekday morning. "The music reveals a lot about who we are and where are right now. My calling is as an educator. The text is readable education. The CD is danceable education."
Although the production on Never Forget is for the most part focused and nicely textured, it's doubtful that clubs and urban radio will embrace music so laden with insightful political and spiritual commentary. And besides, West's intense, Southern-preacher cadence still doesn't flow with the sounds of modern hip-hop. But he still believes in the culture's influence.
"Hip-hop is a powerful cultural force that can be used as a link to freedom," West says. "We've always had a group of prophetic musicians that fused the social, political and historical. Hip-hop as a force of change that may not speak directly to the Curtis Mayfield generation, but it speaks to young people and their children. And, my brother, we can't give up on our young people."
Spoken like a real soul brotha.