To be "woke" means to be socially conscious, awake to the injustices and indignities committed against oppressed people. The term originates in African-American Vernacular English, but has been co-opted over the past decade or so by many other communities as conversations about social justice have become a bigger part of mainstream discourse. For The Beast, whose existence has been built on message songs, the term made a perfect title for its second full-length record.
Long before frontman Pierce Freelon launched his Durham mayoral campaign this year, The Beast's music was political. For a decade now, Freelon and his bandmates—drummer Stephen Coffman, bassist Pete Kimosh, and keys player Eric Hirsh—have written songs that marry slick, jazzy instrumental foundations with Freelon's fearless bars.
The Beast's stylistic blend has always set it apart from other local hip-hop acts, its charming instrumentation adding melodic muscle alongside Freelon. On "Doin' What I Love," a celebration of ditching a dead-end job and following your dreams instead, the band builds a funky, easygoing groove that drives the song's warm glee (a guest verse from Raleigh up-and-comer ZenSoFly doesn't hurt, either).
Woke is The Beast at its sharpest politically, and halfway through the record, the band hits hardest with "Captain America." Playing on the celebrated superhero as well as the phrase "capped in America," Freelon unpacks parallels between the story of the Marvel hero and the experiences of men of color in the United States. Freelon delivers an indictment of the hero's history, noting that the serum that transformed Steve Rogers into Captain America was first tested on black men, who suffered through test runs in the name of developing a "perfect" formula.
- Photo Illustration by Alex Boerner
- The Beast, from left, is Pierce Freelon, Stephen Coffman, Pete Kimosh, and Eric Hirsh.
The abuse of people of color in the name of progress is a particularly dark and bloody thread that runs through American history—see the Tuskegee syphilis experiments or the contraceptive trials conducted in Puerto Rico—and "Captain America" is a frank, unique perspective on that history. At the end of the song, Freelon winds through a list of murdered black Americans, interspersed with the line, "Feels like any minute I'll be capped in America." The song fades out, an allusion to the country's unresolved violence against black and brown bodies.
The record takes a somewhat surprising turn after its halfway point, with "Had a Good Run" and "I Need You." The songs make for a one-two gut punch in which Freelon wrestles with a marriage in tumult. On the former, Freelon squarely delivers the line, "I'm coming out as polyamorous" and works through the complications of trying to force oneself into monogamy. The two songs' raw emotion isn't out of line with the rest of Woke, but they feel far more personal.
There are fleeting moments, though, when Woke gets a little too personal. Three of the album's eleven songs have bars where Freelon raps about his dick, and from a woman's perspective, it feels alienating.
But even with those brief hiccups, Woke is mostly a strong snapshot of the state of the union in 2017: beautiful, terrible, complicated, and saddled with a lot of unfinished business.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Nature of the Beast"