With the Hummingbird Rotation, we hope to give folks a closer look at the songs that get the most play at Hummingbird HQ. This installment, hear about Iron & Wine, The Marleys & Black Thought, and Salaam Remi.
The Desert Babbler // Iron & Wine
By now, you all should know I’m a sucker for cryptic, abstract lyricism. Folk music is a great place to find it, which may explain my love for the genre. “The Desert Babbler” is by Iron & Wine, definitely a folk artist, but the song includes a generous array of flavors past just folk. The drums bump out a steady, cruising rhythm with an old-school country feel to it like many classic travelling songs.
Sam Beam, the man behind the band, uses a variety of instruments. Though the backbone of the song are the bouncing drums and groovy, active bassline, “The Desert Babbler” finds space for much more, including mellow brass, delicate “ooh” and “aah” harmonies, and warm, nostalgic piano. As the song progresses, other instruments and melodies emerge in a call-and-response with the vocals, rising up as Beam’s voice trails off at the end of each line.
But let’s get back to this delicious lyricism. The opening lines have a fun poetic misdirection: Beam opens with “It’s New Year’s Eve,” a familiar, happy feeling to kick things off — before it’s sabotaged by the following line — “California’s gonna kill you soon.” Sheesh. Hell of a tonal shift. The latter line is sung with a casual resignation no different from the rest of the lines, as if this impending death is a simple fact of the matter, plain to see but impossible to stop.
With crosses barely hanging on the wall, quietly-lost years, and California soon to claim a life, “The Desert Babbler” describes the inevitability of change, no matter how much we may prefer things to stay the same or run in reverse. “Who knew what you could learn to live without” is a standout lyric in not just this but any song — heavy but gorgeous, bleak but strangely positive all at once, the poetry of Beam’s writing is undeniable.
“The Desert Babbler” is beautiful, but not without a tinge of homesick loneliness. Its lyrics are knotty and scattered, but the emotive quality of the music points you in the right direction. It’s a shining example of how music’s expressive capacity can clarify and expand the meaning of lyrically-told stories, building otherwise-incomplete snippets into rich, vibrant experiences. This teamwork of verbal and musical expression enable ‘The Desert Babbler” to explore apparent contradictions and multiple dimensions like these, making perfect, intuitive sense all the while.
Pimpa’s Paradise // Damian Marley, Stephen Marley & Black Thought
Before we get any further: yes, the Marleys of this song are Those Marleys. But this is no musical Meghan McCain situation; for all the people in this world who seem to enjoy success only because of who they’re related to, it’s refreshing to see a supercelebrity’s offspring actually deserve (at least some of) the attention they receive.
Damian and Stephen continue the Marley legacy while adding flavors of their own from the modern music scene, at which they’re actually solidly good. Though there’s no doubt that they had a leg up on your average joe with dreams of reggae superstardom — seeing as their father is, y’know, actually Bob Marley — it’s clear from “Pimpa’s Paradise” that, by now, their success is due to more than just their father’s influence.
Also featured on this song is Black Thought, a man with a knack for crazy rhymes and storytelling. On “Pimpa’s Paradise,” he rhymes “Keep her head up in space like a satellite / cause she got an insatiable appetite,” a multisyllabic rhyme most rappers would spend weeks trying to imitate. Thought never compromises his storytelling for technical prowess or vice versa, giving his bars an air of effortlessness. You’d almost think he exclusively communicates like this, holding everyday conversations in perfectly calibrated rhyme and rhythm.
“Pimpa’s Paradise,” if you’re only passively listening, is a breezy, sun-soaked reggae jam, perfectly channeling the vibe that reggae is so good at evoking. Acoustic guitar strums, shakers, and melodic electric guitar plucks, eventually joined by a shuffling electronic drum beat that creates a primal urge to get up and groove, form the simple, effective backbone of “Pimpa’s Paradise.”
And there’s nothing wrong with passive music listening. But if you’re looking to really submerge yourself in a piece of music, “Pimpa’s Paradise” won’t leave you hanging. Its deceptively sunny, upbeat sound hides an unfortunate tale of addiction and self-destruction, deftly told by the Marley brothers and Thought. The song works on any level of engagement, rewarding the analytic, attentive audience as much as the casual-listening crowd who just needs to groove.
Fentanyl // Black Thought & Salaam Remi
Black Thought pulls no punches.
He’s not the type to drop tracks just to build hype or collect a check, so when he finally does get behind the mic, you know it’s all business and bars. His song “Fentanyl,” produced by OG legend Salaam Remi, is about exactly what it sounds like, and despite telegraphing its subject, it’s still shockingly fearless and incisive. I promise, you’re not ready for this song — even if you’ve heard it before.
Thought uses “Fentanyl” to address things most of us are subconsciously aware of but often uncomfortable discussing out loud. Black Thought, however, is not most rappers — “deadly as the Fenanyl that killed Prince and Tom Petty,” as he so brutally puts it himself. His rhyming skills are matched only by his awareness and knowledge, making lines like “While the wolves pull the wool on and prey on vices / still the dawgs with the hood on is way more frightening” equal parts lyrical mastery and concise, eloquent social commentary.
Remi provides Thought with a gritty, clanging old-school beat that puts Thought right in his comfort zone. And Black Thought is a dangerous man in his comfort zone. He’ll speak the truth, regardless of how it sounds and who might not like it, like when he holds pharmaceutical corporations, instead of victims responsible for the opioid crisis: “Overdosing’s just a marketing scheme / It’s all as dark as it seems.”
Maybe it is all as dark as it seems, but as long as we have conscious, fearless artists like Black Thought committed to speaking truth to power, we’re not doomed just yet. As Thought himself rhymes, “Better believe the truth stings.” It may sting, but it’s a necessary pill to swallow, and there are few rappers better at condensing and articulating that truth than Black Thought.