A rapper’s social responsibility is only discussed when it is on trial. When Rick Ross raps about surreptitiously doling out Molly or the street rapper of the moment fills another faceless adversary with lead, the same questions get trotted out. Is the music a reflection of the problem? A contributor to it? Is art—and this is the conversation stopper—immune from criticism, from blame?
Guante wants to shift the conversation. Sure, he has written and spoken extensively on those issues, but pinning scarlet letters is not at the top of his to-do list. Rather, the fixture in the Minneapolis scene is committed to using music as a catalyst for social progress.
If you listen closely, you can hear thousands of readers closing this tab on their browser. Since the late ‘90s and the underground explosion, rap that brands itself as expressly sociopolitical has backed itself into a corner. There are a select few emcees who have built soapboxes sturdy enough to avoid the rot of conspiracy theories and outright condescension. As the sage Busdriver so famously put it, conscious rap failed us. Guante hasn’t.
First, the 31-year-old’s politics are decidedly progressive, but they are potent and adaptable. Guante has no stump speech, not bullet-listed talking points. He is concerned above all else with people—their fears, their aspirations, their mortgages, their agency. A writer whose chief gift is narrative, no Guante songs finds its characters believing unbelievably to belabor a point or hit the right story beat before the next chorus. Plot comes from character, not the other way around. His music is empathetic if nothing else, allowing for his invented humans to double back and correct themselves, or to contradict themselves in interesting, vitally human ways.
Guante’s most recent LP, the Big Cats-produced You Better Weaponize, is a blueprint of sorts. Look at some of the song titles: “A Pragmatist’s Guide To Revolution”; “The Invisible Backpacker of Privilege”; “To Young Leaders”. Instead of an exclusive, othering approach, it is a record that aims to teach people how to engage with difficult issues. Positing solutions without a thought as to how they would be carried out is ineffective, and that solutions that are only theoretical will remain that way forever. You Better Weaponize takes into account the fact that activists are not a separate breed; they are everyday people who have the same problems as anyone else. It’s one of the best political rap records in the last five years, because the politics never take precedence over the people.
While there are a handful of Guante projects that warrant careful, repeated listening, one could argue that his best work is Don’t Be Nice. The 2009 mixtape, produced by Big Cats, is a lean mix of wit and vitriol. The battle lines Guante draws are never crude or careless, and whether he’s deconstructing the politics of Minneapolis-St. Paul’s juice dispensaries or the systemic nature of crime in major cities, the subject matter always receives the nuance it deserves. On “The Hero”, the titular super-being first stamps out crime in his native land, before having a change of heart. Realizing that he is in a futile race to quell the symptoms of a bigger problem, the hero takes some time off before announcing in a press conference that he has set sights on the real perpetrators, then flying off to the White House. But elsewhere on the tape, the fare is lighter—Guante and Chantz Erolin, formerly of Audio Perm, spend four minutes flexing a Harry Potter motif that, against all odds, never loses its charm.
And therein lies the true appeal. Most important to Guante’s success, though, is the level on which he executes these ideas. Simply put, he is one of the finest writers in the Twin Cities, and in underground rap writ large. In fact, his prowess shouldn’t be confined to a single medium: While an impressive rapper, Guante may stand out even more as a poet. A two-time national champion, the man born Kyle Tran Myhre makes slam poetry his own by eschewing not only the clichéd approaches that turn off casual observers, but the overused tropes of other poets on the circuit.
When that writing acumen does make its way back onto wax, it does so in the form of a unique blend of humor and earnest pleas for change. Later this month, Guante will bring all this to the table as he teams up once again with Dem Atlas and producer Rube as SIFU HOTMAN. Their new EP, Embrace the Sun, will be out later this month. Where the first set from the trio was a glimpse into the kind of smart, engaged hip-hop the two emcees trade in, this one doubles down. It’s a heady listen, but it is as head-nodding as anything coming out of the Midwest this year.
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