If the current state of the world frightens you, don't go to Oddisee for reassurance that everything's gonna be alright. As an African-American Muslim and son of an immigrant—not to mention a student of history—the rapper, born Amir Mohamed, isn't exactly hopeful about the near future. But if it's any consolation, he will remind you that, as historically shitty as everything seems right now, for part of the population, this is how it's always been.
"It really doesn't feel any different to me," Mohamed says on a crackly phone line from somewhere in Colorado. "Islamophobia, profiling, prejudice, racism, the economic gap between rich and poor, the overtaxed of the middle class—it's just another year."
Don't mistake real talk for cynicism, though. Mohamed isn't surprised America elected an outright bigot as president, but if it's helped shake others out of their patriotic delusions, that's something to build on. On his new album, The Iceberg, the 32-year-old D.C. native initiates a conversation on the problems that have plagued this country since long before the arrival of the orange menace. Not one to lecture, Mohamed instead uses plainspoken storytelling, dry humor and—to ensure you'll stay engaged—warmly funky production to drill down into some monumental issues, from wage inequality to mental illness. For the already enlightened, it's a reminder the struggle didn't just start last November, and is a long way from being over. And for the newly woke, consider the album a primer on the reality you've been sleeping through.
Wrestling with big topics isn't new for Mohamed. A veteran of the East Coast underground, he's been making politically astute hip-hop for over a decade. When he first conceived The Iceberg, over a year ago, he intended it to be a more personal project, looking at the American condition through the lens of his own experience. After the election, with much of the nation shell-shocked, he felt the need to speak in broader terms.
"It really scared me to see the lack of critical thinking going on in our society," he says. "So I decided to expand the subject matter of the record to explain why things are the way they are in more than just my own life."
His own life still factors in, though, and one of The Iceberg's strengths is the way Mohamed ican pull the focus in and out. On "You Grew Up," he connects the story of an embittered white friend from childhood with that of an Islamic radical. "Like Really" raises an eyebrow at pervasive racial bias, including in his own career, while on "Hold It Back," Mohamed laments getting paid more than his college-educated sister, which "annoys [him] more than cargo shorts."
While the production, done entirely by Mohamed, is bright and organic—he employs live musicians, in the studio and on the road—the aim isn't uplift so much as hard truth-telling. But it's not a record without optimism: On "NNGE," Mohamed reiterates his point that 2017 is "just another year" for black America, but adds that, when you've already survived centuries of oppression, what is there to fear? Maybe it's not "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize." But Mohamed finds comfort in his community's capacity for perseverance, and believes others should, too.
"This is life. Life is hard, life is difficult, life has tons of chaos," he says. "Our human existence is based on the necessity of living in proximity to chaos. We need to live next to the volcano. We have a direct relationship with the yin and yang, and it's going to continue to happen as long as we're on this planet. We have to get used to it."
SEE IT: Oddisee and Good Compny play Hawthorne Theatre, 1507 SE Cesar E. Chavez Blvd., with Olivier St. Louis, on Wednesday, May 10. 7:30 pm. $15 advance, $18 day of show. All ages.