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Returning rap to its roots

On second album, Cornel West gets a little help from his friends

What does it take to get Prince, Talib Kweli, Andre 3000, KRS-One, Jill Scott, Rhymefest, and the late Gerald Levert on one album? It takes one man: Cornel West.

"Never Forget: A Journey of Revelations" is the prominent black academic's second collection of social and political commentary set to music, but this time out he has enlisted the help of like-minded rap and R&B stars. Their contributions will ensure that "Never Forget," to be released Aug. 21, is more than a scholarly novelty.

"It's a danceable education," says West. "I'm an educator in the deepest sense."

Former Harvard president Lawrence Summers didn't concur. West's first album, 2001's "Sketches of My Culture," wasn't warmly received by Summers, and his disapproval of West's foray into pop music led to a public quarrel about the professor's teaching methods. In 2002 West left Harvard and returned to the Center for African American Studies at Princeton, where he is a professor of religion. Princeton president Shirley Tilghman wasn't available for comment, but West feels confident of her support.

"I think she'll be much more open than Brother Summers," he says. "The hip-hop scared him. It's a stereotypical reaction."

West himself is an outspoken critic of what he sees as the misogyny, homophobia, and hedonism driving mainstream hip-hop; he's none too happy with the current administration's policy toward the war, the environment, civil rights, and the economy, either. So for West the purpose of "Never Forget" is twofold: to return rap to its socially conscious roots and to stick it to the man.

Prince helps out on "Dear Mr. Man," singing questions over a horn-fueled funk track: "Who said that to kill was a sin and start every single war that your people be in/ Who said that water was a precious commodity then dropped a big black oil slick in the deep blue sea?" West interjects with spoken words: "Mercy mercy me/ We got a crisis in our ecology/ A system of legalized bribery/ Normalized corruption/ Leadership of bona fide mediocrity/ Certified mendacity/ What we gonna do?"

West names Gil Scott-Heron, Public Enemy founder Chuck D, and James Taylor as inspirational examples of artists who've used music as an effective awareness-raising tool. But above all, his album is an effort, West says, to keep alive the legacy of Curtis Mayfield, an artist who brought together the spiritual, social, personal, and political under a musical umbrella.

"I hope that this contributes to an awakening among young people having to do with the political situation, connecting them to history, and most important, giving them a sense of just how precious the black musical tradition is," West says. "It ought not to be dumbed down or debased or disrespected. I'm not trashing 50 Cent and Snoop. I'm challenging them in a loving way. We can be more engaging and responsible in our work and our art."

To that end, West sought out "free" artists who express their ideas candidly, without concern for commercial or corporate blowback. West describes Kweli as one of the world's most progressive hip-hop artists; Kweli calls West "a great man." They collaborated on the album's lead track and first single, a dark, sinuous song called "Bushonomics." West sent Kweli a tape of his spoken-word passage, and Kweli was free to create the rest. As a prominent, socially conscious rapper, Kweli is an ideal contributor. He's also clear-eyed about the impact West's project, or any album, can have in the real world.

"I know that music is powerful; it affects me in a powerful way," says Kweli, a longtime acquaintance of West's through his mother, an English professor, and his brother, a Harvard alum. "But it starts in the home. Music can only reinforce the values that you learn in the home. A kid won't listen to this record and follow the instructions. But at the same time it's important for balance. Most of the music in the mainstream can't be played outside a party."

As to what the future of hip-hop will look like -- whether or not conscious hip-hop, as he calls it, will emerge from the underground and raise its voice in the mainstream -- West is cautiously optimistic.

"You just don't know," he says. "I think with Tavis Smiley [the radio host who appears on the song "N Word"] and the visibility of [Barack] Obama we'll come together in a way that we can talk about the dignity of young people, especially black folk. It's a step-by-step process. It's not a revolution or bust. If I can touch one young person, the CD is justified. But in the end, you have to have some serious political leadership."

Joan Anderman can be reached at For more on music, visit music/blog.