On a surface level, Mahogany Jones' newest album is the sort of "safe" hip-hop you could play for your grandparents, due to its smooth beats and lack of foul language. Yet when you sit down with the album, it grabs your attention by the soul strings and makes you bounce like a puppet. And then you realize Jones is rapping about serious topics much bigger than herself.
On the album, the Kresge Arts Fellow plays with a few classic genre tropes, all revolving around a central theme. The intro track sets the tone for the album and poses a question that prepares the listener for the thematic exploration Jones indulges: "What's your definition of soul music?" A few different voices offer answers about passion, vulnerability, Curtis Mayfield, honesty, positivity, negativity, emotions, life, food, and timelessness. Throughout the album, Jones (who you might remember from BET's 106 & Park Freestyle Fridays as the first four-time undefeated champion in 2001) touches on how soul music is much more than just a genre — it's simultaneously all of these things.
My favorite answer in the song is the statement, "It's one of those things that helps people get through things." That's exactly what Jones is offering with this album. Whether you're going through some rough times or simply hate everything being played on the radio, Jones will stir your soul until you burst with inspiration.
The album title, Sugar Water, comes from the chorus on the first tune, "Bring Back the Soul." On this track, "soul" appears to be something from the past, a sweet drug that everyone was addicted to at some point in their lives, but have since replaced with things of lesser value. Jones' intentions are clear when she raps, "resurrect it, then perfect it, liquefy it, then inject it, in the hearts of the people when they least expect it, give 'em that sugar water" after verses of reminiscing on boom-bap, Michael Jackson, listening to music with her mother, and other touching memories.
After the second verse, it's clear we as a society have devolved from the purity Jones wants to bring back into music: "When being original was vital for survival, when having a rival wasn't about the image, wasn't about record sales, wasn't about the gimmicks, we was in it to win it and to win it didn't mean we had to mimic who was hot for a minute, cooled down by their second round, career was finished ... ain't nobody committed to making classics, you can feel the difference, we need soul." Amen.
Next, Jones shifts to a more literal interpretation of "soul" with the track "Gold," while still continuing the commentary on contemporary artists. A perfect Kendrick Lamar sample explains the inner turmoil Jones and many other artists will experience at some point in their careers: "Look inside of your soul and you can find out it never exist. Look inside of my soul and you can find gold and maybe get rich." Exploring the dangers and influence money can have over a person, Jones, similar to Lamar, is exploring the cost of making money off something that comes from a very sensitive place. The verses say: "don't you wanna know how it feels to make a mill," "what's real, I don't even know no more, don't even know what I'm looking for," and "is this really living, you're getting it just to make millions," which all lead up to the chorus: "your soul is worth so much more than gold."
All of this suggests that the potential millions aren't worth creating something that doesn't come from the soul. The value of the soul, and by extension, soul music, cannot be measured in gold. Jones and a killer guest feature are touching on an age-old cliché ("We broke but money can't fix") that proves the struggle of finding happiness yet needing money to survive as a human experience.
However, Jones bounces back from this state of confusion on the track "Untitled" — "lyrical Cassius, who needs cash when purpose is perfectly intertwined with rhythm and passion ... my words speak life ... resurrect the dead then they lead the masses." Here, Jones knows in her soul that her music provides fulfillment not just for herself, but for others as well. The rest of the song has two amazing features, and ends with more on the unifying powers of hip-hop. These dialogues all work to clue the listener in to what Jones is trying to do with the rest of the album.
The state of contemporary hip-hop isn't the only thing Jones is critical of on the album. On the track "Home," she delves into the soul-splitting dichotomy of living in a country that once thrived on the enslavement of her not-so-ancient ancestors and delivers a powerful verse: "This is information that's not falsified/I guess that's why I find it difficult that I reside in the land of the free and home of the brave/home of the brave is the home of the slave trade/tragic like the World Trade/tell me about a god that saves and turned around and made the Atlantic my mass grave/But how can I forget when daily I relive, no reconciliation, no recompense, no reparations."
The feeling of alienation in America in 2016 is possibly the most tragic sentiment expressed on the album, and something which is seen all too often in society at large. "Home, a place where there's love overflowing" is unfortunately not so easy to find.
Jones is not afraid to dig deep and open up about some very intense and important topics. This album is not only excellent ear candy, but an important discussion about contemporary issues. Jones uses hip-hop as her platform to address not only personal subjects, but also to further discussions we as a society have yet to resolve. This album is jam-packed with killer rhymes, smooth beats, and important topics that need to continue to be talked about. Jones closes the album with a bit of encouragement to help you get through some things, proving she has indeed brought back the soul: "Never call truce, minds never lose. Never call truce, spirits never lose."
The Sugar Water album release party is this Friday, Aug. 26 at Mo' Better Blues; Doors at 8 p.m.; 546 Larned St., Detroit; $5.