Grand Puba stands as one of hip-hop’s most revered figures because of his uncanny, intricate lyrical skills as well as his strong production prowess. Part entertainer, part educator, part comic, the Brand Nubian leader knows that it’s as important to move the crowd, as it is to educate them.
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All of Puba’s versatile skills are on full display throughout the masterful Understand This, the third album from the legendary MC. The New Rochelle, New York, native delivers the most well-rounded hip-hop album of the new century with his latest opus. He hopes this self-produced album will improve the lives of his listeners as he recounts tales of struggle and triumph, bouts between good and bad.
“Understanding is the best part,” Puba relates. “Once understanding is understood, everything is good. What I’m trying to say is that I’ve been through a lot in this game and I understand it. If you listen and you learn something, then it can only better you.”
Puba sets the party off with the title track, which is also the lead single. Like many of Puba’s previous club hits, “Understand This” will send legions of fans onto the dance-floor. “It’s got a lot of energy, something that will grab people’s attention,” he says. “It’s loud. I’m spitting a lot of flows and talking a little bit about me. It’s a party thing that can get them amped up.”
As much as he enjoys a good time, Puba knows that there’s more to life than partying. With the powerful “How Many More,” Grand Puba laments the unfortunate reality that people who get sucked into an illegal life all too frequently die in pursuit of wealth. “How many more got to die,” he raps on the cut. “How many more mothers got to cry/How many more in jail for life/Till we get a piece of the pie.”
Puba recorded “How Many More” as he was finishing Understand This. “I listened to the album and I saw that I was missing that one song that really sums up everything,” he says. “That’s going to be the one that really opens everything up.”
Another thought-provoking selection is “Baby Mama Drama.” Here, Puba warns both men and women about the potential pitfalls of unplanned pregnancies. Not only do they harm the parents, but eventually the child as well. “You’ve got to be careful about what you do,” Puba says. “Be sure that’s the woman you want to be with if you want to have a kid by them because it could result in problems in the future. It might not work out and then you go through it and you might want to leave her, or vice versa. I’m giving both sides of what could happen. I didn’t just want to come down on the woman, because the man could be the one causing the drama and the stress.”
Puba returns to lighter fare on the pounding “All Day” and delivers a lighthearted gem about everyday concerns with “Issues.” On these songs, as with the rest of the album, Puba packs plenty of insight, sarcastic humor and commentary into his lyrics.
As skilled as Puba is as a lyricist, he also gets down behind the boards. He produced all of Understand This, showing that he is, indeed, a one-man band. Producing his own songs, something he’s done throughout his decade-plus career, helps Puba execute his sonic ideas precisely. “I had to go back to what got me to this point,” he says. “People were like, ‘You should get that one or this one.’ I don’t have any problems with any other producers. I like a lot of people’s work, but sometimes you’ve got to customize your beat to who you are.”
Grand Puba Maxwell, as he was known then, emerged as the leader of hip-hop crew Masters of Ceremony in the mid 1980s. Growing up playing his mother’s piano obviously helped train Puba’s musical ear. He produced Masters of Ceremony’s hit “Sexy” and went on to work as a beatsmith for MC Lyte and others. Despite these accomplishments, it was his work with Brand Nubian that cemented Grand Puba’s spot in the hip-hop hall of fame.
As Brand Nubian’s primary producer, Grand Puba helped shape the revolutionary sound that he and fellow members Sadat X and Lord Jamar would rhyme over. The group’s classic debut, 1990’s One For All contained the rare blend of powerful beats and insightful yet entertaining rhymes that demanded respect and helped provide many of their listeners with a sense of purpose in their lives because of Brand Nubian’s often empowering message.
“We brought awareness and had people open their eyes,” Puba recalls of his days with Brand Nubian. “We gave people something to believe in, which was themselves. It wasn’t so much based on a material thing, but based on a knowledge thing and an understanding of self. I guess that people really gravitated towards that. It was positive reinforcement that gave people identity. And it was attractive and appealing at the same time. It wasn’t too preachy.”
Although Puba departed Brand Nubian shortly after the release of One For All, he would release two critically acclaimed solo albums, 1992’s Reel To Reel and 1995’s 2000, before reuniting with Sadat X and Lord Jamar to release Foundation in 1998.
Understand This features both Sadat X (on “What’s Up Wit It”) and Lord Jamar (“Keep It Movin”), showing that the group’s bond and its ability to crank out quality hip-hop remains strong.
Puba’s business sense is equally strong. Understand This will be the first release from Grand Puba’s own Rising Son Records, through a deal with KOCH Entertainment.
As Grand Puba readies for a triumphant return to the hip-hop game, he remains focused on his mission of entertaining and educating his fans with his highly advanced music. It’s something he does throughout Understand This, the latest in his long line of classic releases.
“I wanted to speak about what I’ve been dealing with the past few years and all I’ve gone through in the game,” he says. “I wanted to shed light to how the game really works. I wanted to help somebody since I wish somebody would have let me know about these things.”
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