If a rapper is skilled and lucky enough to cross the 15-year mark of their career, change can be difficult. Not necessarily a change in sound, but rather a change in perspective as a writer and a change in sound as a curator of music.
Some of the most tenured emcees left, when pushed, can improve their writing abilities, finding new and inventive ways to build upon their own particular narrative, such as Pusha T’s current stint with G.O.O.D. Music, or expanding the scope of their music to channel the lives of others through their pen.
Some aging rappers experiment with different sounds as their careers progress, looking for ways to reinvigorate their own writing, much like Jay Z after The Black Album. Unfortunately, very few rappers of a certain veteran class manage to do both, and that is where David Banner has separated himself from the rest of this group.
This past Friday, seven years after his last album, Banner released The God Box, and it’s the best album of his career. Everything from the eclectic, polished production to the most qualitative penmanship of his career, proves that The God Box needed every second of Banner’s hiatus to fall into place this well. It’s an intense, jaded portrait painted with Banner’s lyrics that delves into racism, police violence, the whitewashing of hip-hop, and the ever-thinning tightrope of celebrating your American roots while lamenting its biggest atrocities, and the album works on almost every level.
Yet, strictly commenting on Banner’s successes on The God Box feels short-sided, and fails to connect the dots on the transformation of Banner’s artistry from his breakout project Mississippi: The Album, released in 2003, to now. David Banner, as an emcee 17 years into his career, does exactly what most artists of his era have failed to do: he found a second life.
When his career first began, there was always a particular ferocity to David Banner’s music. It was angry, but never off-puttingly so. Mississippi: The Album, from its opening tracks “What It Do” and “Might Getcha,” makes both Banner’s style and tone so distinctive that the listener feels disoriented by its madness. With lyrics like “I’m a Southside n**** from the state of the sip / Where the Gs and Vice Lords give me love on the strip,” Banner’s perspective is wholly established; this is an album about his life and the state of Mississippi, and very little about your journey through the album is meant to be pleasant.
Banner’s major label debut worked because of its style and because no matter how contemptible Banner’s lyrics felt, they were always a byproduct of the more sinister circumstances that he was stuck in. Although songs like “Fuck Em” and “Cadillac on 22’s” might have felt celebratory at first, songs like “So Trill” and “Mississippi” reveal that finding enjoyment in all the wrong things may be the only light someone stuck in Banner’s situation could ever find.
Another important component of Banner’s earliest music is the perspective within in his writing. For most of MTA, as well MTA 2: Baptized in Dirty Water, the scope of Banner’s writing is on himself and his particular situation. At times, he ventures outside of his own narrative to touch on the vehement racism that black people in Mississippi have been dealing with for long as anyone can remember, but his most effective lyrics always circle around his own experiences. That isn’t an indictment either, but praise on all fronts.
On “Mississippi,” Banner spits, “Where my soul still don’t feel free / where a flag means more than me,” in reference to his state’s ongoing adoration of the Confederate flag, and such a blatant truth is depressing and effective even for a listener not in that situation. Those lyrics work because Banner speaks on them through his own experiences, rarely stepping outside of himself to comment on another fellow Mississippian. That narrowed scope is what makes MTA work as such a strong debut album.
Another notable characteristic of earlier David Banner projects is the traditionalism their sound is rooted in. In other words, most of David Banner’s albums sound like your traditional rap album. Banner’s production, sporting typical hi-hat-heavy drums, unrelenting synths and all the best ingredients of Southern rap music of the 2000s, pairs perfectly with his brand of writing. The soundscape isn’t a reinvention the wheel, and neither is his penmanship, and that’s perfectly fine.
Yet, listening to The God Box, it’s easy to overlook just how far Banner has come in terms of progressing both his scope and his sound from the days of MTA and its follow-ups. A change in production is immediately distinct on The God Box's earliest tracks, like “Magnolia” and “Who Want It.” Hi-hats are traded for live drums, synths for electric guitars—no longer are we as audience diving into a familiar world in terms of sound. Even songs like “My Uzi,” which samples UGK and carries the closest sound to Banner’s previous projects, feels newly remodeled and polished. Each component of the production on The God Box feels like its own distinctive sound.
On the rock-heavy middle of The God Box, tracks like “Judy Blare” and “Traffic On Mars” feel like music from Kid Cudi’s best works, while also infusing trap drums and spoken word segments. On this album, Banner is anything but traditional in terms of what his biggest fans are familiar with, yet it never feels cheap. This isn’t an album of experimental sounds misappropriated by an artist trying to find a hit record; this is a cultivated production that felt like it took Banner the whole seven years to figure it out, and we are all better off for it.
Although, the most interesting aspect of Banner’s perspective is in his writing. Whereas MTA and other prior projects mostly focused energy in an introverted manner, describing the good and evil of Mississippi life through the lens of Banner himself, The God Box feels extroverted in every way. Banner seems more interested in the narratives of others who have gone through similar situations as himself than ever before.
On tracks like “Elvis,” Banner tackles the whiteness of the rap industry, and how the exploitation of black music has ultimately profited white people more than anyone else. He laments that “Justin Timberlake is what Usher’s supposed to do” and the fact that “White folks own Black Entertainment Television,” and that expansion in scope is refreshing and hard-hitting. Every bar on “Elvis” feels alive and meaningful, and it is doubtful the harsh realities of racism in rap music would work as well if the perspective was narrowed to only Banner’s POV.
Even on tracks like “Black Fist” and “Burning Thumbs,” when Banner does revert back to his own tragic experiences, he still weaves his own narrative in and out of a bigger tapestry of problems in America that still exist from the day he started. The ferocity from MTA is still there, but instead of his tone being that of making the best out of a bad situation, Banner on The God Box is a man tired of having to talk about the same bullshit, especially when it’s killing the young men and women who are now in his shoes.
The God Box feels less like David Banner’s return, and more like the second life of a rap career that felt complete. In his earliest days, Banner’s music served its purpose as an introduction to him as a person and the environment around him through his lens. Now, David Banner is interested in something bigger in every sense of the word.
In terms of experimentation, writing and purpose, Banner’s The God Box expands the frame and the narrative he once created, and it does it in a way most artists his age never manage to do this well. The old David Banner told his own particular story quite well. The new David Banner is ready to start telling the tale of something much greater.