Racionais MC's

Sobrevivendo No Inferno

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Racionais MC's is a controversial hardcore hip-hop crew from São Paolo akin to Public Enemy in combining a community activist stance with condemnations of police brutality and an abiding mistrust of the media and music industry powers-that-be. Sobrevivendo No Inferno (roughly "Surviving Hell") was the group's breakthrough disc in Brazil, and it could be the hip-hop soundtrack to the favela world of the film Cidade de Deus. The inside jacket has half a dozen photos of victims of daily violence, and there are plenty more shots of guns, ammo, and the hard, scowling faces of the Racionais posse. But the problem of listening to rap/hip-hop that's not in your language really rears its head here. The stories of favela life are the focal point, but with no printed lyrics, you can't even try to decipher the messages in Portuguese. The music is so minimal -- a basic drum track, a bit of keyboard melody, some bass, and maybe one shift per arrangement -- that you can't take refuge in the groove. And Racionais MC's' fondness for long tracks -- eight pieces clock in at over six minutes -- works against the group, too. "Capítulo 4, Versículo 3" opens with a snippet of War's "Slipping into Darkness" before settling into a minimal track with piano notes and drum track joined by bass, setting up the conversational raps as the focus. Racionais MC's can set up those minimal, often menacing grooves effectively, and the vocal flow is solid. There are nice little touches -- organ at the end of "Mágico de Oz," a James Brown scratch rhythm guitar in "Diário de Um Detento," and the horns on "Fórmula Mágica da Paz" -- but the grooves are too long, limited, and ultimately lethargic. "Periferia é Periferia" is much livelier, and locks down a groove recalling an early-'70s funk soundtrack with strings and turntable scratches for added atmosphere. With a bass synth riff anchoring the very Gap Band groove, "Qual Mentira Vou Acreditar" is excellent, just the ticket for the group to make that universal connection through music with non-Portuguese speakers. But those moments are too few and far between for Sobrevivendo No Inferno to overcome the limitations of the language.

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