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"Chi-raq" soundtrack grabs your attention and doesn't let go

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ALBUM REVIEW Chi-raq  original motion picture soundtrack (Produced by Spike Lee and Karen Lamberton)

A diverse collection of songs. And a message about an emergency in the city of Chicago, Illinois, renamed “Chi-raq,” due to the Windy City’s increasing reputation as an out-and-out war zone.

And so in this new Spike Lee Joint (read Danny Marroquin’s excellent RDR review of Chi-raq here), we have a film – mixed with an appropriate sampling of songs ranging from Sophia Byrd (“I See the Light”) to Kymm Lewis (“I Want to Live”) – that reaches back to the civil-rights activism and agitprop of Lee’s early films like Do the Right Thing (1989) and Get on the Bus (1996). The urgency, again, is undeniable, as the theme for the film addressing Chicago's pervasive and horrific gun violence and gang culture is "This is an emergency!"

It’s a mix of rap, hip-hop, soul and gospel and from the heart and soul of Chicago’s African-American community, Lee’s film soundtrack taps into the city’s well-mined musical vein with mostly remarkable results.

"WGDB (We Gotta Do Better)" is an orchestral ballad by Kevon Carter where the opening lines reference allegations against Bill Cosby ("It looks like our favorite dad was drugging girls") and gets into the black-on-black violence with umm ... mixed results. Take a look at this article on the song for further analysis.

Fans of the New Zealand band Flight of the Conchords may remember the anti-gang/anti-violence song they did on their HBO show back in 2007 called “Think About It.” Something tells me R. Kelly is a fan of that droll duo with  “Put the Guns Down,” which also features singer/rapper Tink. Just as Bret and Jemaine takes on the excessive violence in the streets, singing: “Children on the street using guns and knives / taking drugs and each other’s lives,” Kelly – a Chicago native - begins his Conchords-esque song, singing: “Somewhere in the world a boy or girl is being buried by their mother / Somewhere in the world there is violence / brother against brother.” Again, pretty straightforward, and this in a film that is a musical. It seems to work and work well.

Appropriately enough, the first track - Nick Cannon's "Pray 4 My City" - lets the listener know that this is no longer "Chicago," for the African-American residents. 

"This is the city of Chi-Raq / Get your bed made / See death around the corner / boy I dodge him like I owe him.

The other Cannon track, "My City," complete with gunshot sound effects, doesn't have quite the power the earlier song does. 

The polished praise-and-worship gospel of Cinque Cullar's "All Power" is jarringly out of place but oh-so-appropriate in the context of the film. And Chicago native Jennifer Hudson's "I Run" rounds out the Chi-raq soundtrack, on a powerful note, as only Hudson can deliver (Hudson plays "Irene" in the film).

But a real standout for me is "Born in Chicago," featuring the Bruce Hornsby Band along with Eryn Allen Kane and Sasha Go Hard, a song where the vocalist - against a soulful groove from Hornsby & co. - emphasize that the violent world they lived in was made clear to them at an early age.

I think Spike Lee has put together (along with Karen Lamberton, who has worked with Ennio Morricone, among other soundtrack luminaries) a fine collection of songs for Chi-raq, taking on a hot-button issue in a creative manner.

Let's hope the film helps bring further attention to a situation in one of the largest city's in America that seems to be spinning absolutely out of control.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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