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ABC Pick

Mars ILL

Honesty, sincerity, veracity: boring words indeed, when you could just be shouting about “keeping it real” all the time. But there’s an art to establishing hip hop credibility without coming across as corny and overly maudlin. Atlanta’s hip hop duo Mars ILL has been able to maintain dignity, primarily by letting the music – which brings to mind progressive acts like Jurassic 5 and Atmosphere – speak for them. “Our songs honestly reflect what our lives are like, and people respond to our vulnerability,” says manCHILD, the group’s emcee. “People forget the power that art has, and by being forthright in our lives, we’ve seen our music touch a broader audience than we ever expected.”

The whole notion of cred in hip hop borders on the ridiculous; shouldn’t art stand on its own, separate from the artist and the context in which it was created? Perhaps. But part of the appeal of rapping is its ability to concisely and effectively convey personal information; Mars ILL is able to do just that. On the late-2003 release Backbreakanomics (Gotee Records), manCHILD and DJ Dust delivered a prime slice of accessible and catchy hip hop. “Alpha Male” is a direct but sarcastic response to the big-dick misogyny rampant in mainstream rap lyrics, and “Breathe Slow,” with its brass blasts and cymbal crashes, is an uplifting song urging the listener to re-evaluate things.

Speaking of uplift, manCHILD’s lyrics are laced with spirituality and the duo has been tagged with the “Christian rap” label. But any message that’s there is never heavy-handed and is instead reminiscent of subtler approaches like those of, for instance, Sev Statik. And if anything, the recent successes of Kanye West, Sufjan Stevens and the Danielson Famile have established an open-minded audience; Mars ILL deserves one.