A Thoughtful Analysis of Brand Nubian’s “Allah U Akbar”

In 1993, the rap group Brand Nubian released their sophomore album, In God We Trust. Two members lighter after the departure of Grand Puba and DJ Alamo, the group returned with a more aggressive, militant edge. But unlike the namesake of the departed DJ Alamo, I cannot remember most of these songs, even after repeated listens.

The album closer, Punks Jump to Get Beat Down, is a brilliant song with lyrics so problematic that some lines had to be rerecorded for release on their subsequent Greatest Hits compilation. Still, it is an undeniably potent evocation of the guilty pleasures of beating down punks who jump up for that very purpose. It also features an amazing beat from peak-era Diamond D, with a sample of “Gonna Fly Now” from the movie Rocky that dazzles us with its sheer hubris.

The album opener, “Allah U Akbar” (sic), is equally impressive in its own way. So impressive, in fact, that it deserves a detailed chronological analysis –  If not for its lyrical details, than at least for its weird sonic world and overall concept, or lack thereof.

Listen to the song on YouTube – But check out the timestamped links below for detailed analysis!

Read the lyrics on Genius

0:00: Initial observation: this is not the orthographically accepted spelling of “Allahu Akbar”.

0:00: Sample 1: Yes, it’s true – literally the very first thing you hear on this album is a sample of a man chanting “Allahu Akbar”, apparently in a call to prayer. This is obviously very problematic, and many YouTube commenters agree; It’s definitely not something I would attempt to defend. As far as I can tell, given that Brand Nubian subscribed to the philosophy of the Five Percent Nation, which is a quasi-atheistic belief system which teaches that the Black man is the living God, Brand Nubian may not have even been using this in any commonly accepted religious context. The lyrics don’t seem to shed any additional light on this connection, insofar as they don’t actually seem to be connected to anything in particular.

0:09: Sample 2: As the first sample loops, we hear a single, inexplicable James Brown grunt in the background – Another tantalizing indicator that we are entering a truly weird sonic world. (Unfortunately, the rest of the album doesn’t really live up to the expectations created by these opening moments.) At this point I should mention that all of the production on this album – with the exception of the all-time Diamond D classic at the end – was handled by Brand Nubian themselves.

0:18: Sample 3: As the grunt continues, we realize it’s another looping element that will stay with us throughout the song, as part of the ever-changing, endlessly surprising sonic texture. The drums fade in mostly pleasingly as the James Brown+problematicness loop plows fearlessly ahead.

0:28: Samples 4 & 5: Two vocal samples are added to the texture. In all the times I listened to this song, I was never able to figure out what either of these samples was saying, and I had no actual idea until I consulted the lyrics online. The first sample sounds like Sadat X (of Brand Nubian) saying “We rep time is here, so let’s get paid on free loops”, and an unknown voice saying “Kick a little step as the ep is sorn”. Yes, that’s right – I can’t even mentally contort the second sample to the point where I can imagine real words being spoken. According to user-contributed lyrics on Genius, the samples actually say “Wreck time is here, so let’s get paid on free loops”, and “Kick a little step as the Ep gets swung”. I sort of understand the first line, without understanding how it applies to this song; I don’t understand the second line at all, in or out of any imaginable context.

0:49: Sample 6?: So much has happened in the first 49 seconds of this song, without a single line actually having been rapped. And right before Sadat X kicks it off with the first verse, we hear a faintly echoed “Yo!” that overlaps with the start of his first line. Is it a sample from something else, or did they just record an overdub? These are the kinds of questions that Allah U Akbar (sic) causes one to ask!

0:50: Sample 7: In another brilliant touch, the bassline kicks in and the chanting stops at the moment that Sadat X starts his verse. At this point, the number of mismatched but strangely serendipitous samples that have been layered together ensure that anything he says is going to sound amazing. Plus, his nasal-yet-imposing voice sure doesn’t hurt.

0:50: At this point, the actual lyrical content of the song seems almost secondary to the fearlessly kitchen sink-y production. I’ve never found Sadat’s lyrical style the easiest to digest, but as far as I can tell, he is rapping about how far Brand Nubian have come as a group, his dogged work ethic, and the types of kids he raps his words of wisdom to:

I kick for kids that’s paid, I kick for kids with no funds
Whole blocks come for classes
Kids with contacts, kids with glasses
Hard-rock punks, crack-heads and even drunks
Wanna know the truth, so they flock to my roof

In case you’re wondering – no, he is not referring to literal children here.

0:50: Sample 8: If you thought the song was done haphazardly throwing in new samples for the sheer hell of it, you are most certainly wrong. Apropos of nothing, an eerie instrumental excerpt flickers in, seemingly borrowed from UFO by ESG, one of the most-sampled and most influential songs in hip-hop history. I can’t find any record of this (feeble pun barely intended) on whosampled.com, but I will not allow this inconvenient fact to deter me!

1:59: Sample 9: Apparently the production team behind this song are just full-on fucking with us at this point, as they toss in a hilariously recognizable James Brown stinger – “One, two, three, four, hit it!” Both the hackneyed familiarity of the sample and the fact that the Godfather of Soul implores us to “Hit it” at the end of the first verse makes me wonder if Brand Nubian are engaged in some serious sonic trolling. Unless, that is, James Brown is actually telling them to “hit it” with a loop of chanting combined with nigh-incomprehensible vocal samples? (The repetition of which, incidentally, makes it clear that this is as close as the song will come to having a chorus.)

2:03: No new sample, but a new combination of samples – Finally, we get to hear the chanting and the bassline together. Like all of the carelessly combined elements of this song, they somehow sound great together! I am also hearing very faint record scratching layered underneath everything else – Something I had never noticed, in all the times I’ve obsessed over this song, until the very moment of writing this review. I think this song is a secret masterpiece.

2:13: A full ten seconds before the actual start of his verse, Lord Jamar emits a rather obnoxious-sounding “Yeahhh” in the background. I somehow find this hilarious.

2:23: Lord Jamar starting his verse with a blasphemy (“Goddamn right!”) probably isn’t helping to make this song any less problematic. On the bright side, he does so with considerable conviction. After that, he spells his name (“the L-O-R-D J-A-M-A-R”) with above-average aplomb – Something not all rappers can do convincingly, in spite of how many of them do it. He closes out the first five seconds of his verse by atrociously mispronouncing “Allahu Akbar” as “Allahyu Akbar”.

For the rest of his verse, Jamar mostly raps about what a tough and aggressive fellow he is. He even has a rifle with a laser scope! To be fair, his forceful delivery seems to back up his claims. In the midst of all of this, his line “I don’t wanna be the man/I just wanna make jams” comes across as weirdly coy.

2:52: As Jamar delivers the line “How could I kill a man?/Well I just don’t give a fuck”, the hacky James Brown one-two-three-four sample fires off unexpectedly. I like to imagine that this is used metaphorically, to show that Jamar gives so few fucks that he’ll even play a hilariously overused sample imploring one to “Hit it!” – which, again, is usually something that one is asked to do before one hits it – at an awkwardly placed moment right in the middle of his verse. It is amazing.

3:18: Jamar’s verse ends with a rather overdone and typically inexplicable echo on the word “brain”, bringing to an end the rapped portion of the song. But naturally, the weird mishmash of samples continues to loop for another 1 1/2 minutes – because why not? – with feverish record scratching and James Brown imploring us, over and over again, to one-two-three-four hit it, followed by some weirdly insistent rapid-fire grunting. Finally, the soundscape returns to its murky origins of drumless chant and more subdued grunting, until it all finally fades away. The song may be nonsensical and offensive on multiple levels; and yet I have to admit that, in spite of its overall tossed-off vibe, I can’t listen to it without feeling that I’ve been taken on a strange and wonderful musical journey.

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