Elmattic judges wisely between two pillars of ivory.
The list of Wu-Tang side projects and affiliates is as long as the list of the Gospels and apocrypha. They weren’t known as Wu-disciples for nothing. Every Wu believer rides for the canonical solo LPs (The Gospel According to Liquid Swords, The Gospel According to Cuban Linx, etc.), and most every Wucclesiastical fucks with a sidepiece or two, whether it’s Killarmy or The Pillage. (Wait, did I just imply 36 Chambers is like the life of Jesus? Who gets crucified though? I guess that dude what got his nuts laid on the dresser? OK then.) But for me, there’s one record that got buried in the sands and holds the hidden truth: Killah Priest’s 1998 solo debut, Heavy Mental.
Heavy Mental is the Dead Sea Scrolls of hip-hop. It’s rap’s John the Baptist, crying in the wilderness. Heavy Mental creates its own ghetto Nag Hammadi codex, a cosmology in 20 tracks.
The Wu melded feudal China with gun clappin’ Staten, but Priest replaced the kung fu with a heady syncretism of close Bible reading, street stories and mystic journeys, swapping out the Shaw Brothers for Cecil B. DeMille. On Heavy Mental he packs an intense density of lyrical skill and references, a 2001 bookended by Bethlehem and Brooklyn, where the journey to Jupiter is in the mind’s eye instead of a Pan Am long-haul rocket. Why should you die to go to Heaven? The Earth is already in space. And that monolith looks a lot like the Ka’aba.
Legend has it that the only reason Killah Priest didn’t make it into the final Clan was that he overslept and Masta Killa got the last spot on “Da Mystery of Chessboxin.'” (Firehouse Studio or the Garden of Gethsemane? Time overlaps. The Empire never ended.) He pops up as part of Sunz of Man, on the Gravediggaz LP and Return to the 36 Chambers…and then closed out Liquid Swords with “B.I.B.L.E. (The Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth).”
The track’s a blueprint for all that followed: Priest’s stentorian flow drives over the beat with two verses of compelling, committed lyrics laying out his spiritual journey, bringing in referents from the Black Hebrew Israelites, the NOI and that “the white image of Christ is really Cesare Borgia, the second son of Pope Alexander.” We’ve heard tons of rappers say Jesus was Black. Nobody ever threw into a rhyme the much-debated theory that white Jesus derives from a da Vinci portrait of a 15th century nobleman. MCs like Lakim Shabazz and X-Clan used the pyramids as a symbol of Black pride and uplift before Priest, but he drops their lofty, preachy and sometimes self-righteous edifying. Rappers have used Revelations and UFO imagery as stupid hooga-booga Halloween masks. Priest goes deeper. First time in rap history…your mind will be tooken to a level…
Three years and some standard label/RZA-bickering later, the Heavy Mental LP dropped. A quarter of the record delves into standard rappity-rapping (“Fake MCs,” “Cross My Heart,” “The Professional”); a Song of Solomon-worthy love song (“Wisdom”); a classic example of Priest’s intense street storytelling ability (“Science Project”); and “Information,” which seemed like tedious millennial Y2K paranoia at the time that now seems a weirdly specific prophecy of the surveillance state we recently woke up to. Fact is, the album is more often than not street tales and mic prowess braggadocio. The pyramid spirituals lace it like gold thread.
Production leans heavily on a consistent Wu Elements sound (mostly provided by 4th Disciple and Y-Kim)—heavy drums, pianos, strings, and ethereal crooning women’s voices, like near-sleep memories of old earth washing up at the sink, humming, now years dead. Or was she the lover lost on “Wisdom”? Lost to who? To what? Never has a studio session backup singer sounded so much like a ghost haunting a whole album.
Wasn’t there some shitty action movie where tattooed badass angels with automatic weapons fought demons in a truck stop diner? Reboot it with Priest in a Church’s Fried Chicken on Nostrand Ave.—hell, reboot Blade that way—that’s Heavy Mental. And he needs to look exactly like this.
Or switch out the Bible for the Hagakure and just go with “Ghost Dog”: black-clad, lone wolf mourners of the past, adept in the concrete bullet-time present, spiritual seekers on unique paths. RZA’s austere soundscapes on that score were some of his best work, and Priest’s “From Then Til Now” carries huge weight establishing the film’s themes. Not only does it get an uninterrupted two minute play where nothing happens but Ghost Dog driving a stolen Lexus, it’s on a CD the urban samurai carries around all the time as part of his essential stealing cars/ninjatudinals/slicing people’s heads off kit. (The scene’s so iconic it made Rolling Stone’s ’30 Greatest Rock & Roll Movie Moments’.)
In The Jarmusch Way, Julian Rice says the song serves to show how “poetic individuals like Killah Priest, Ghost Dog or Jarmusch himself transform an ideally imagined past into an embodied present.”
The difference is that Ghost Dog is unsuccessfully trying to impose an ancient philosophy of samurai honor onto The Industrial State. Priest is superimposing slave times and Biblical times and modern times. Exodus and the Underground Railroad and the Taking of Pelham 1-2-3. And by doing so he brings gospel music and spirituals—lyrically, not musically—into hip-hop. Look at the woven couplets of “Mystic City.” Tell me that’s not some next level shit. Priest is widening the context of street-level tales backwards into history—thematically linking, and giving thousands’ of years weight to—oppression and slavery.
The point of it all is salvation. Of escape from this plane, which is hell—there are actual devils here. Which is the message of all rap music, it’s just that here the escape is not economic success, or through the transcendent Sufism of rappity rapping, or armed revolution. It’s a personal journey on Priest’s part, culminating with astral, or possibly actual, space travel. Or maybe it’s just a metaphor. Between the eye socket he builds his space rocket. Stop the tape.
Mental’s legacy is in the legion of rappers—whole record labels’ worth, in fact—of pale imitations who replace Priest’s deep reading of religious texts with watching too many Annunaki Youtube videos. There’s nobody fucking with the Rap Game Jack Kirby when it comes to creating rich cosmologies.
By way of better begats, swap out the Biblical imagery for Burroughs cut-ups and you get The Cold Vein. (Compare and contrast the birdflight imagery of “Almost There” vs. “Pigeon.”) Pass by Priest’s aspects of brother-in-a-white-dashiki-selling-scented-oils-and-weird-pamphlets-in-the-subway and tweak its Wu knob to Mobb Deep and you get the bleak stairway winds of Ka’s last two LPs. In my exegesis anyway.
Heavy Mental is one in a long line of one-off classics where the alchemy never gets repeated. Around the time it dropped, Priest flirted with rap’s then-new avant garde, lacing tracks with DJ Spooky, Praxis, and Bill Laswell’s art-rap compilation Intonarumori: the transcendent Bionic-Man-Saves-the-Tree-Leopard-People cut “Temple of the Mental.” But like Ghost Dog, he had to walk his own path. Recently, a worthy Disc 2’s worth of unearthed demos/outtakes surfaced as Heavier Mental that only furthers proof that he was on fire at the time.
Over the years Priest has held court with various team-ups (Black Market Militia, HRSMN, Almighty) and dropped over 10 LPs and mixtapes; while every one holds more than a few nuggets of brilliance, none’s as consistent as Mental. (Last year’s The Psychic World of Walter Reed was a strong return to form despite a need of some culling.) Heavy Mental is Priest’s testament, creating and destroying the Epic Bible Rap genre in one breath—Total Overstanding Rages Against Heaven.