The easy way to frame a record like March on Washington, the sophomore release from DMV-based Diamond District, would be to talk about its relation to Ferguson, its relation to all of the increased violence against young black men over the past year and a half. Such an article would talk about hip-hop’s revolutionary potential, tracing to worn lineage from Public Enemy to Common to Lupe Fiasco and the myriad of newer rappers one might slap with the label of ‘conscious,’ and how this new record is necessary in light of these events. Which would be fine, thought-provoking even, except it makes exactly the same misstep associated with politically conscious rap music in recent years: it prioritizes the message over the music, and discussion of the latter is lost in doing so.
Not to mention, painting March on Washington as an album about racism would be a deliberate misinterpretation. More so than a cry for African-American empowerment (though it is undoubtedly present), Diamond District’s battlecry is for their city. The intro, featuring Asheru, emphasizes this DC-over-everything attitude that permeates the tape. It’s rooted in self-sufficiency, both for the lower classes struggling to survive and the fact that Diamond District have made a successful independent career all on their own merit. From this narrative comes an organic, tangible empowerment, not one based on material goods or conceptual claims. When the braggadocio does come, like yU’s “That flimsy verse done made the beat disappointed,” they feel earned, and attempts at elevating rap culture instead of shots over petty beef.
Only a handful of rappers would be more qualified for this task of making politically engaged music that doesn’t get bogged down in message, and most of them are fellow members of DD’s label, Mello Music Group. The trio’s 2009 album, In the Ruff, was a perfect example of neo-boom-bap that didn’t sound like it was pining for the mid-90s. With Oddisee handling production for the group, Diamond District was able to cultivate a unique, expansive musicality in a 2014 rap landscape where DJ Mustard-style minimalism and overblown EDM/Trap mixes seem to dominate the charts. This is all to say that a huge respect is given to the instrumentals that Oddisee’s crafted, there’s no throw-away lines, no ironic detachment. Listening to “Lost Cause”, the lyrics are making a clear comment on racism (What’s a black supposed to do/sell some crack and entertain/get a bachelor and some bullshit/and a job below my aim), but the funkiness of the sample is really the star of the track. Each aspect compliments the other, and Oddisee’s obvious talent and chemistry with XO and yU has only gotten stronger since their debut.
Without a memorable beat, though, the album falls into repetition in the middle of the tape. There are moments of spectacular lyrical dexterity (Oddisee on track 10), of sharp political insight, and of soulful samples, but it’s hard to make out a clear arc of the tape beyond each individual track’s attention to specific elements of DC struggle. Taken individually, they’re all fine tracks, interesting concepts—”Purveyors of Truth” is a particularly salient indictment of authority—but one after the other, it becomes hard for the listener to grasp each interwoven reference to Martin Luther King, local DC issues, and classic rap lines. When everything coincides on “Lost Cause”, it comes after a forgettable drought.
Perhaps the issue is one of scope. DC, as evidenced from the tape, is fraught with potential issues, ranging from racism to class struggle to corrupt politicians and the inherent ironies of surviving while some of the richest people in the country work a few miles away. Over March on Washington, these issues are all touched upon, but so briefly that we only get a broad understanding of the landscape. If the goal here is to mythologize DC as the Dungeon Family did for Atlanta, we need more specificity, more tangible moments rather than general advice for empowerment.
That said, hearing Oddisee’s production will never cease to be a pleasure, and watching an independent group with real chemistry have any degree of success is an exciting prospect for rap music. As a group with overt political engagements, they do as well as anyone could hope, which is to say, the balance between music and message is not always kept perfectly. But when it is, Diamond District show that they’ve become DC vets for a reason, and will only get better with age.