When Kentucky conscious-rap collective Nappy Roots exploded onto the scene in early 2002 with a scraggly, Anthony Hamilton-aided nod to rural leisure called "Po' Folks," they felt startlingly novel, dissecting a facet of black American life that hadn't been explored since Arrested Development and Goodie Mob. The song's quintessentially Southern charm left a sizeable imprint on a hip-hop scene that was governed largely by hardened New Yorkers and other Southerners with poppier instincts, and it ushered in a brief era of prosperity for country MCs like Bubba Sparxxx.
On Nappy Roots's fourth disc, The Pursuit of Nappyness, the group juggles the melancholic soul of "Po' Soul" with synthy polish. Skinny Deville, B. Stille, and the others rap in plainspoken drawls that evoke circa-'99 Dungeon Family, and their positivity—on "The People," they advise children to follow their creative impulses and study iconic lives like those led by Oprah Winfrey and 2Pac—would make the NAAAPI swoon. When that sanguinity is married to a good beat, the result is as lovingly down-home as anything since David Banner's "Mississippi."
And the album does contain good beats, despite its near-unrecognizable list of producers: "Live & Die" rides a drizzly organ, and the forlorn country-funk of "Ride" would delight Pimp C. "Infield" is a low-key slow-burner, one of the year's more understatedly enjoyable hip-hop songs, and the jangly, guitar-anchored "Winner Take All" suggests that DJ Ko, an Atlanta producer previously noted for his work with Outkast affiliate Khujo, is deserving of more recognition.
But a persistently low-budget sound—the beatmakers in tow have names like D. Focis and Je'Kob Washington—plagues The Pursuit of Nappyness, as does the group's obtrusive lack of versatility. When they speak in simple platitudes about the importance of perseverance, they're efficient. But they tackle blither topics less competently: Few dance-oriented songs this year have felt as hollow as "Fishbowl," and dissonant numbers like "P.O.N. (Pursuit of Happyness)" hardly improve matters. This is a hip-hop landscape in which Dipset, Young Jeezy, and Rick Ross are making the best music; if they want to reclaim their popularity, Nappy Roots needs to sound fun.