A film about Northwest hip-hop from

Street Smartz

Dropping a second album is a difficult hurdle for many musicians, especially if their first one was well received. The challenge is to give fans enough of the same vibe that initially hooked them, but then to also introduce some new components, which allows the artist’s identity to evolve. Laura “Piece” Kelley set a high bar for herself with her complex, self-titled debut Piece in 2003. Piece was an album which drew from both the rap and poetry worlds. Hip hop tracks like “Caution,” and “Once Upon A Dream,” coexisted happily with poetic volleys such as “Gray,” or possibly her best known track “Central District.” Four years later, Piece released her second album Street Smartz in 2007. Luckily for the listeners, the energy is just as high and the quality of the tracks is equally stunning.

Street Smartz has something for everyone, and it shows Piece’s range as a performer. The snappy “We Do This,” for instance, defines inclusivity with its repeated mantra, “this movement is we.” It reminds me of the 1995 Seattle classic “Come With We,” by Source Of Labor. The expert scratching by DJ DV One on title track “Street Smartz” adds to the four-elements affirmation in the lyrics. “Street smarts, master your craft, DJs, MCs, breakdance and graf,” goes her rousing chorus. Two conscious cuts, “Peace Keepers” and “Weapens,” are calls to action and social awareness that can’t be ignored.

I found the technique of “Letters 2 Life” very compelling. In the lyrics, Piece writes letters to “Fear,” “Time,” and “Truth,” and by treating these abstract concepts as if they were people, she opens up an intensely philosophical correspondence. The vulnerability found in “Letters 2 Life” shows that Piece is not afraid to reveal her deepest personal feelings on the microphone. “Rap Star” has an easily understood, anti-materialism message. “I don’t wanna be a rap star talking about my cash flow or my dope car,” she sings defiantly. Because there are very few words on “My Precinct,” and “Keep It Moving,” the music does the heavy lifting on those two tracks, putting them in the same neighborhood as Madonna’s “Justify My Love.”

While the album bursts with creative compositions, I will say that there is not a ton of spontaneity. Similar to a live theater production, Piece’s raps and songs sound well-rehearsed. We never hear any bloopers, coughs, or off-beat rhymes that might serve to humanize the artist a little. Piece is no accidental musician, she clearly inhabits her music one thousand percent. Plus, her love of language is evident in the way that she writes. Street Smartz is impeccable and important, so let’s consider the ‘sophomore slump’ averted. Written by Novocaine132

Did we get it wrong? It happens. Send us an email and let's get it corrected right away!

A film about Northwest hip-hop from

Piece

If, “Rap music is the invisible TV station that black America never had,” as Chuck D famously described it, then Laura “Piece” Kelley is an award-winning, prime-time news anchor. Her 2003 debut album titled Piece contains instructions on how to survive in the complicated 21st century United States. The album includes themes of race, class, drugs, and gender. No subject is taboo for Piece, she is fearless like a psychotherapist, and her lyrics prove that although some topics are difficult to broach, healing can only come by confronting society’s demons. A good example of this technique is found in “Gray,” which is one of the three acapella tracks on the album. In “Gray,” Piece combines raw slurs and coded phrases that have been used to drive division and represent racial conflict in America, but then she amazingly patches these awful words together into a quilt of unity and understanding.

Laura “Piece” Kelley is not slowed by her twin goals on this album of rap to a beat and traditional poetry. By surrounding her rap work with orchestral production and singing, she avoids the trap of dull beats. In fact, the whole album is a fight against average rap. By focusing on the creative and the positive, she successfully indicts the persistent clone world of gangsters, players, and pimps without a verdict or even a trial. In the track “Endless Cleansing” she gives the listener simple tools for inner strength, “When life is a test there is hope for a lesson/What would we learn if we chose not to question?” There are little jewels like that hidden in plain sight throughout this remarkable album. “Caution” is another track that delivers this therapeutic quality. The chorus hypnotically repeats “If you believe it/Then you should be it and live it/Or leave it be.” What seems like a simple tongue-twister or play on words is actually a profound mantra about having integrity in everything we do.

Piece is a dense masterwork of hip-hop culture. The half-dozen different producers all bring heat and you won’t find any duds. “Cornerstone” has no production, but there is a beatbox performance that creates a live cipher vibe. I love the honesty of Kelley’s delivery and how she can say so much with so few words. In “Cornerstone” the line “Hip hop is colossal/Commercial is awful” makes me nod every time I hear it. (Someone should scratch that up DJ Premier style and make it the chorus of their own track.) She turns phrases and words like a magician, as she puts it, “Instant Aristotle in a bottle.” This album propelled Piece to great heights, earning her a spot on the Def Poetry Jam tour in 2005 at which she performed perhaps her best-known acapella track “Central District” at venues around the country. This track is indescribable and must be heard to be experienced; a rap with no beat begins with verses about her personal history of survival, moves on to discuss Seattle gentrification, and builds to a climax of words, rhymes, and breath. Piece is one of the best rappers out of Seattle, hands down. (Written by Novocaine132.)

Did we get it wrong? It happens. Send us an email and let's get it corrected right away!