It all looks so effortless. The master’s sword dances through the air, writing its signature in bold swoops and stings. Try to emulate the motion yourself and you’ll be suddenly and rudely aware of the skill and dexterity of the master. So it is with Praying Mantis’s rapping. He delivers multitudes of beautifully crafted multi-syllable delights and, as always, he makes it sound easy.
The Legend of One is the work of a rap veteran. There’s some of the funk-fuelled, emphatic punctuation of Masta Ace, the furrowed brow intensity of Inspectah Deck and the brimstone wit of Chester P. The producers are magpies, finding gems from hip-hop’s NYC golden age as well as sharp, glittering sounds from various UK hip-hop junk shops. The snares throughout are mesmeric. Listen to Guttah Breath and join the snap of a thousand necks. Together the production and the imagery exude late 20th century summers and the metallic taste of blood after a lip-busting scrap with a rival gang. It’s scuffing your prized British Knights as you scrabble over a wall chased by a Dobermann. Mantis recounts both the warm and cold memories of the past.
This is an autobiography which tussles with the bruising, humbling realizations of unfinished business. The choruses are strong and contagious, and the guest vocalists bring complimentary vibes, adding further gravitas to the ideals and ideas. One gripe: only the album opener features cuts and scratches. More rhythm-elbowing turntablism would have been welcome.
Mantis talks about his zig-zag killer flow, referencing Wu-Tang Clan’s leader, the RZA. The Legend of One wears its Wu-Tang influence on its sleeve, underlining Mantis’s rap journey and celebrating the sounds that hyped up and captivated his younger self. For those new to Mantis, the playful ruggedness of the track RIP attempts to bring you up to speed.
We hear the sheer joy of flow and a vocalist sparring with the snare drum. A deep seam of spirituality runs through the album. Mantis is vocal about his gratitude for the journey he’s being on and the grace of God. At times he stands his ground, weapon raised, roaring ‘None shall pass’ yet at other times, he’s on his knees, open- handed, ready to break bread and talk to the Oracle.
Mantis aims the biggest, most challenging questions at himself. What are the foundations of my life built on? Can I escape the colonization of the soul? Inevitably we the listeners start asking the same questions too. Sonically and rhythmically The Legend of One is part-nostalgia, part sabre-duel in a cultural snowstorm. It’s digging in the past rather than breaking much new ground, but the unflinching honesty is brave and the poetic techniques are ice cold.
Jeremy Cronin has been an anti-apartheid protestor, a political prisoner, a secret poet and now a national treasure. We unravel the life story and artistic output of the famous South African dissident.