A film about Northwest hip-hop from 2003
If rap is “the CNN of the streets” 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 breach, 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.)