It would be an unjust oversimplification to refer to Diverse as just another underground MC. Mainstream media have recently delegated a small sector of artists to represent the underground; the likes of the chronically introspective, angst-ridden Aesop Rock, El-P, Atmosphere et al. have been heralded as the faces and future of underground hip-hop, making it easy to overlook artists like Diverse who don't fit that mold. But for all their self-professed issues and densely packed beats, Aesop and friends don't always give you what many a (non-emo) hip-hop head needs a slammin' beat laced with challenging, change-inducing rhymes.
Enter Diverse. A Chicago native, Diverse brings the grit of his city along with a spiritual leader's articulate and charismatic sense of vision. The rapper known to his mom as Kenny Jenkins has been poking about the underground scene for several years now, dropping verses here and there, and an EP, Move, in 2001. Following that release, he collaborated with Mos Def on the much sought-after gem of a track "Wylin' Out," which ended up on the Urban Renewal Program compilation.
Late 2003 finally saw the release of Diverse's full-length debut One A.M., and never has a record been more needed by hip-hop fans. One A.M. offers up that rare elixir of headphone-shaking beats AND rhymes you can rewind and not just cocksure battle raps or egotistic witticisms, but fully formed thoughts, theories and observations articulated with an assertive stream-of-consciousness flow.
One of the key factors in the album's success is the tangible chemistry between MC and beatsmith on each track. Diverse smartly enlists the talent of underground hip-hop's most lauded and unexpectedly commercially viable beatmakers. RJD2, Madlib and Prefuse 73 are all represented.
RJD2's variegated style suits Diverse, providing him with a choice selection of soundscapes, from "Certified"'s rock influences to the organ-grinding "Uprock." He also adapts beats to the style of the few guest MCs that appear. On "Big Game," RJD2 provides a deliberate, haunting beat for Vast Aire to drop his lackadaisical flow, sugar-coating his lyrical barbs: "Yo I got you thinking I'm an animal, sorta like Tarzan but raised by cannibals... How you gonna talk shit after they take your mouth, airplanes drop food after they blow my house." Diverse takes a similarly authoritative tone: "We make an example of these pseudo b-boys, give us our culture back."
"Under the Hammer" sports Jean Grae's caustic, deadpan delivery, which perfectly matches RJD2's moody, downtrodden beat. "I don't give a fuck I'm tired of living on luck and change...got bills and a million reasons to kill ... one life one art both imitating the heart both pained both bloody bruised and scarred from the game."
As an MC, Diverse shows a hunger and earnestness that tattoo One A.M's rich musical canvas. Years of dues-paying have honed his flow into a tightly-wound weapon. Lyrics, verses and concepts are spring-loaded and fired off in well-executed and well-constructed flows that splice your thoughts and parse bullshit with ease.
On "Blindman" he analyzes society's misconceptions and ills with a yearning for change, rather than simple resentment. "There's a chill in the air, sinister glares as if I stole something ... without hoodie nor black mask I'm sticking up reality ... we simmer pots of malcontent with no way to let the steam off ... if you could see me through the eyes of a blind man for vision like that I would quest an entire lifespan ...change who you are how you feel what you think." K-Kruz turns in one of the most memorable beats on the album here, starting out with a sparse, but vaguely industrialized track. As Diverse's wistful chorus hits, he drops in a deliciously melodic guitar lick to lift the tone and mirror Diverse's delicate hope.
Diverse also offers complete narratives. "Ain't Right" runs down various unjust everyday-life situations, while on "Jus Biz" he traces his passion for his craft through daily struggles and hopes for the future. "Diggin' my music is more than jus biz and what you askin' for is something I can't give... the bottom line is not always dollar signs... figure where the future starts is here within the present and succeeding all their estimates I love the crib but I'm thinking well beyond this residence... focusing on the emphasis of what it is to MC, consequently evolving as this planet 360s."
Simply put, One A.M. is one of the best hip-hop albums of recent months, filled with standout tracks and no filler a feat in itself. Diverse announces himself as a rare talent on the scene who transcends the underground/mainstream divide with a gritty philosophical approach and music that makes itself accessible, wanting to draw you in and leave you changed, rather than push you away only for the underground cred of it.