Nigerian-born percussionist Tony Allen died in April 2020, leaving behind one of the richest and most influential legacies in modern improvisational music. More than merely a master musician, Allen was a master collaborator; invoking the spirit of the African proverb “I am we” (which Huey Newton updated as “I, we, all of us are the one and the multitude”), he found his richest fount of personal expression by melding his musical voice with those of others. That gift, as well as his own relentlessly exploratory imagination, is in full flower on this, his final recording.
Allen had collaborated with rappers for years, but this was his first full-length hip-hop project. It’s not for the faint of heart—aside from samples of his drumming (usually looped and/or electronically tweaked) and the voices of the featured rappers, poets, and singers (also, for the most part, electronically enhanced and often distorted), few “organic” sounds are on offer. Admittedly, this means that the flesh-and-blood immediacy we usually associate with live music is largely absent. Nonetheless, as in the best of hip-hop, the relentless sonic harshness enhances the urgency of the songs’ messages (“Descendants of slaves / The niggas who grew up living with their internal pain / It’s just clocks spinnin’ to infinity / Wishin’ we could buy back the minutes when we really get paid,” from “Rich Black,” featuring the Koreatown Oddity). Using electronics as deftly as he once used traps and hand drums, Allen proves himself adept at creating heretofore unimagined textural, sonic, and rhythmic colorations from the new palettes at his disposal.
Even those who still live by Duke Ellington’s dictum that “a drum is a woman,” and fear what could happen if someday she were abandoned in favor of an android, need to listen carefully and heed the message—musical, emotional, political—that sears through this music.