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I tried very hard not to get too excited about this album. It almost seemed too good to be true – one of the best rappers in the game alongside one of the best producers in the game, on an album that has been in the works for several years and which really seemed like it was never going to see the light of day. Once it finally got a release date, I prepared myself for the probability that it wasn’t going to match its promise.

Turns out I didn’t have to do that.

Accuse me of hyperbole if you want, but here’s my assessment: The Greatest Story Never Told is the best, most consistent, most heart-felt, most radical, most banging hip-hop album since Let’s Get Free. Yup, I said it. You can disagree, and that’s fine, but to me this is a phenomenal piece of music.

For one thing, the beats are *amazing*. Just Blaze never fails to bring the heat. The sampling is impeccable and the drums are banging; the soulful instrumentals provide the perfect platform for Saigon’s penetrating lyrics and emotional delivery.

With the beats out of the way (hey, I’m a producer!), let’s talk about Saigon. To me, Sai is a lot like 2pac in terms of his passion and what he represents. Saigon is most definitely a ‘conscious’ MC in the sense that he talks about stuff that matters and makes an important, radical analysis. However, like ‘Pac, he represents the kids on the corners rather than the intellectuals and the university-educated radicals. He is a voice within the ghetto, encouraging his peers to understand the situation they’re in and to rise above it.

This type of consciousness, so common in reggae, is really only represented by a handful of rappers in the US hip-hop scene (Nas, 2pac, Dead Prez and KRS-One come to mind). Saigon is a very welcome addition to this group.

Saigon talks about ghetto life, about the drugs and the violence that are designed to keep black people down, about the easy route from the projects to the system of modern-day slavery they call prison; he talks about the preacher that exploits his congregation; he talks about the single mothers struggling to feed their children; he talks about the dangers of a life of crime. Essentially, he tells his life story – the story of a kid from the gutter who fell into selling drugs at a young age and who served several years in prison. Unlike many others, Sai doesn’t glorify his life story in order to sell lots of records; he places his life in the context of the brutal racism and exploitation that characterise US society. In doing that, he starts to carve out a path away from the violent nihilism of street life – once you understand the forces acting on you, you gain the ability to act against them.

A few standout moments of the album:

The Invitation. At the moment, this is my favourite track of the album, talking about how the underground economy is society’s invitation for young black men to join the “party in the penitentiary”. Sai’s lyrics are clever and hard-hitting, and the beat is just plain banging – classic noisy soulful blues-sampling Just Blaze (reminding me a bit of ‘Public Service Announcement’).

The party is in the pen and the government is promoting it
That’s the reason I don’t be believing in all this voting shit
They bring the coke in this bitch, ain’t no poppy seeds in the Ps
Please, nuttin but a whole lot of hopelessness
That’s where all the focus is
Making sure the blacks stay in the back
It’s a damn shame, we placed in a no-win situation
The party’s in the pen and the blow is the invitation

Q-Tip on the chorus is a nice touch!

Enemies is a deep, wistful track about Sai’s relationship with street life – the attractiveness and destructiveness of a life of crime. Addressing himself to the street, Saigon says:

Don’t flatter yourself, it don’t take a genius to spell Thug
Convince a kid at the mere age of 12 to sell drugs
If you really had cheek you’d have them white kids like you had me
It was their great-granddaddies that created you
They was the ones that flooded you with gats and liquor stores
Match pimps with the whores to trade cash in for intercourse
And of course these young ni**as stay sucking you off
But I know the truth, so pooooff, I’m cutting you off

The title track, The Greatest Story Never Told, sets the tone for the whole album with some amazing lyricism, thought-provoking ideas and fresh production:

I rap about politicians, how money’s their acquisition
To get it they gotta keep us without a pot to piss in
Strugglin’ to survive, 9-to-5, ain’t making it
Turn on the TV, all I see is celebs taking it
Feeling like they got all the bread but they ain’t breaking it
I’m taking it as soon as I find the oven where they baking it

We was brought here to pick the cotton
Now we picking the music for massa to listen to
The clothes in which he rockin’
We don’t drive a hard bargain
All we want back is crack, some more gats
And some more of that bullshit rap
The crime rhyme is still black on black
We need a leader like me to get us back on track
When y’all make them dis records do you know what you’re doing to black community?
Market and promote the fact that we lack unity
Them white people look at you and laugh
You look like a porch monkey boy dancing for cash
Wanna get on a record and talk trash
See him at the awards and don’t do shit but walk past

If I bust a gun in the hood I get Attica or the Cat
I bang a gat in Iraq I get a pat on the back
Best believe I know better than that
This a lesson for all my listeners Ð shit ain’t just regular rap
It’s the greatest story that ever been spat
It’s gonna teach the hood and at the same time make my pockets elephant fat
Go ahead with all the irrelevant rap
Me and my ni**a Just Blaze bring the true element back

Clap, featuring the considerable vocal talents of Faith Evans, is probably the most feel-good track of the album, and has Saigon in optimistic mood:

We gotta start helping each other, quit hurting each other
Money’ll have a ni**a start thinking about merking his mother
How does it feel being slaves to a dollar bill?
I’m giving you something you can feel, are y’all for real?

Do away with the hip-hop police force
Fuck the pigs, I was taught not to eat pork
Clap your hands if you ain’t forget where you came from
Clap again if you ready to see a change come

It’s Alright is another deep track, taking the form of a letter to god, asking why he doesn’t do more to relieve the suffering:

It’s alright, I write a letter dedicated to god
First I thank him, without him I’d never have made it this far
But it’s hard, trying to think of why he not getting involved
There’s a lady with a new born baby living in the car
The police is beating us up, the hurricane eating us up
Katrina floodwater was deep as a fuck
Dear lord, are we ever gonna receive a reward
For all the suffering and misery and pain we endured
It’s like the transatlantic slave trade, the AIDS, the crack
When are we ever gonna get paid back?

To all the ladies having babies on they own
These ni**as ain’t shit, ma, for real, you better off alone
If he ain’t smart enough to know why he should stay
Then what could he possibly teach a seed anyway?

Raise your kid, you don’t need no man
Especially one that need to be deprogrammed
Type of brother that think he righteous cos he don’t eat no ham
But he keep playin’ and fuckin’ wit some kilogram
Girlfriend, you know what you doing, the time is right
You tell your little one that it’s alriiiight.

The track ends with a shout to the political prisoners rotting away in US jails – each of them incarcerated on trumped up charges; each of them victims of, and fighters against, an unjust system. It’s a great touch that the prisoners get shouted out individually, including Mumia Abu Jamal, Herman Bell, the Cuban Five, Leonard Peltier, Sundiata Acoli and Dr Mutulu Shakur (Tupac’s godfather). Sai’s message to the prisoners: “Peace! Hold your head, soldiers.”

Promise offers some great insight into the hypocrisy of the music industry:

The rap figures throwing money in the air like it’s pizza dough
People in the hood ain’t eating, no
I try to help the label see the vision
But they lowered me to a subdivision, you gotta be fuckin kidding
They’d rather me pretend to be something I’m not
I’m the new Public Enemy, I’m different than Young Jock
And nah, I ain’t dissing, this ni**as’s up in the falls
Shit, I ain’t made a dollar tryna rap for the cause
But in these next four bars, I’ll tell you about malevolent laws
They enforcing off America’s shores
Dawg, if they can have rifles on their farm
Then I can’t see why they knock TI for trying to bear arms

There are a few off moments, I can’t deny. ‘Promise’ starts off in unexpectedly misogynistic fashion which definitely doesn’t match the pro-unity vibe of the album in general (“I caught a bad case of smack-a-bitch-yitis / I came home and my wife got my daughter in shitty diapers / The rice is still raw and the meat is in the freezer / I hate that I’m too close to her to leave her”). But a couple of cringe moments shouldn’t spoil the album. Part of Saigon’s appeal and effectiveness is that he is a victim of the same issues he exposes. He is not perfect and doesn’t claim to be perfect (again reminiscent of 2pac).

All in all, it’s a beautiful album. If an album of this quality came out every year, I’d be more than happy with the state of hip-hop. Buy it, listen to it five times over, and let me know what you think (leave a comment!).

Buy the album on Amazon UK
Buy the album on iTunes UK
Buy the album on iTunes US
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