David Banner’s Before the Box is a new mixtape featuring both unreleased and older tracks, and acts as a precursor to his long awaited album The God Box, scheduled to drop May 13th. This ambitious mixtape offers a comprehensive overview of black life in America, exploring everything from healing black male/female relationships in “Marry Me,” to encouraging us to heed Banner’s call to arms in the war on racism in “My Uzi” and “Black Liberation Theology Part 1”.
Before the Box illustrates Banner’s continuing evolution as a socio-political force to be reckoned with. To simply call David Banner a rapper and this project a mixtape would be a gross understatement of both the person and his urgent message. David Banner is a teacher and Before the Box is his curriculum. He is a preacher and this album is both a “come to Jesus meeting” and a reminder to foster your own relationship with Him. He is a revolutionary and this album is a scathing indictment of the systemic racism that continues to plague his people.
Gone are the days where Banner sprinkled hints of conscious lyrics and images throughout club bangers (e.g., tearing down the Confederate flag in “Like a Pimp,” or “I know these kids are listening/ I know I’m here for a mission/But it’s so hard to get ’em wit 22 rims all glisten” in “Cadillac on 22’s”). Today’s David Banner marinates his albums in consciousness and douses them heavily with Pan-Africanist, Black Nationalist ideologies, all while continuing to produce hard-hitting, dope beats that could still bump in the club.
Before the Box opens with the single “My Uzi,” featuring frequent collaborator and fellow Mississippian Big K.R.I.T. and the legendary Bun B. The hook also features the other half of UGK, the late Pimp C, on the hook “My Uzi weigh a ton, I bought it,” which is most likely a nod to Public Enemy’s “Miuzi Weighs a Ton.” Produced by Banner, “My Uzi” is a powerful opener that gets you hype all the way to the dramatic, swelling score at the end, composed by Oscar-nominated film composer John Debney.
Most of the songs on Before the Box feature an opening and/or closing sound bite from Banner, which introduce or conclude the track. These quotes set the tone for what’s to come, and the idea of speech interwoven throughout the album brings to mind Kendrick Lamar’s narration in To Pimp a Butterfly and Lauryn Hill’s Miseducation, where Ras Baraka and students converse about what love means to them. Banner closes “My Uzi,” amid Debney’s rapid scalar passages, with the mixtape’s thesis: “I got a chance to travel internationally, and I got a chance to see the way that America was depicting black men. And for the most part, it was rap videos and […] we looked really bad, and I was a real big part of that, and I just couldn’t do it no more. I just couldn’t continue to send black people’s images to hell.”
From there, Banner launches into the ominous “Black Fist,” a nationalistic ode to black solidarity and a pointed criticism of how pervasive white supremacy is. With its slightly eerie music-box background, “Black Fist” features the repetition of the phrase “Pump your Black Fist” while the verses by Banner and Tito Lopez condemn the murdering of black people at the hands of white people, from racist white police officers to KKK members (who are sometimes one in the same). Notable are Banner’s lyrics on “Black Fist”: “No Martin. No Luther. No King. No marching. No choirs. Don’t sing.” Coupled with a later track titled “Malcolm X” where Banner discusses teaching his people about their history (Patrice, Malcolm, and Huey P) instead of how to sell dope or dance on the pole, it’s clear whose side Banner is on in the age-old Martin vs. Malcolm debate. Although the Banner on Before the Box leans heavily toward early Malcolm/Black Panther philosophy, the Banner in interviews–with his focus on transcendental meditation and having a personal relationship with the God within–definitely exhibits signs of the teachings of Malik Shabazz, whose ideology nearly mirrored King’s. Whomever he prefers, Banner makes it crystal clear in songs like “Black Fist,” “Black Liberation Theology Part 1,” and “Evil Knievil” that unity is step one in the fight against oppressive forces.
Another standout track is a smooth R&B-laced ode to black women entitled “Marry Me.” The hook–so lovingly crooned by singer/songwriter Rudy Currence–is thought provoking to say the least: “They say I am an Urban Myth/They say black men don’t exist/Prove them wrong/Won’t you marry me, marry me!” Suggesting a reclaiming of black manhood through matrimony is both an old and novel idea, bringing to mind the tradition of slaves’ “jumping the broom” to make their union official, though in the law’s eyes slave marriages were illegal. Banner recognizes the need for mending black female and male relationships because much has happened since the days of jumping the broom, from an overall decline in marriage and rise in single motherhood to the sore subject of black men looking outside of their race to find a partner. In the current hip hop climate where side chicks and THOTs reign supreme, this difficult topic has largely been untouched, but Banner proves he’s not afraid to go there with this loving, heartfelt track.
As many songs as there are about fighting against the outside forces responsible for oppression, there are just as many tracks discussing the black community’s responsibility to itself, such as the aforementioned “Malcolm X,” which places the responsibility of teaching the youth on our heads. And “Swag” opens with an “O Fortuna”-like choral chant, signaling serious subject matter that the title belies. Over a trap beat, Banner spews lyrics like, “My calculations showing as a people we regressing/Most of the rappers I know are intelligent/But they would never bless you with a lesson/They would rather feed you to bitches, drugs, and guns/Like fucking clowns/They ain’t concerned with your block cause they in the ‘burbs now.” There is no question that Banner is criticizing the culture responsible for encouraging frivolous aspirations such as having “swag” while debasing themselves in the process.
Before the Box, though marketed as only a preview of what’s to come on The God Box, is an impressive piece of work in itself. My only criticism would be that at times the message feels heavy-handed, as most tracks are chock-full of history lessons (from lynching to Tuskegee). And in his eagerness to impart as much knowledge as he can, Banner can err on the preachy side to those already aware and conscious of the trials and tribulations of black people in America. But as Banner states in an interview for VladTV, “I’m not marketing to conscious people. You’re already conscious—you don’t need me.” If Before the Box is made for the “unconscious,” then Banner has issued his clarion call for all those who need to be awakened. He is Dap and Before the Box is the millenials’ School Daze. Wake up!