The most striking moment on No Time for Enemies, the fifth studio album from bluegrass/hip-hop trailblazers Gangstagrass, comes toward the end, during a reimagining of the Stephen Foster standard “Hard Times Come Again No More.” After a faithful first verse and chorus sung masterfully by Grenadian-Canadian soul-folk singer Kaia Kater, Gangstagrass vocalist R-SON delivers a devastating rap that begins as a wishful dream that the struggle is over and that hope and progress have finally joined hands, yet he awakens to the cold slap of reality. “Woke from my dream,” he sings, “eyes full of tears / the struggle continues, the hard times are still here.”
That realization frames most of No Time for Enemies, but instead of acting as a weight, it’s a motivator, pushing for action and for understanding. Gangstagrass’ blending of bluegrass and hip-hop textures may sound revolutionary in times as polarized as these, but it’s also downright necessary.
Wisely kicking off the album with the statement-of-purpose anthem, “Freedom,” Gangstagrass shows all of its cards early. Buoyed by the power of its chorus, “Ain’t gonna wait no more to get this freedom,” “Freedom” draws its melody from “The Crawdad Song,” a traditional folk song that tellingly displays its roots in both African and Anglo-American traditions. Here, it’s used to demand not only a conversation but also action toward change and equality as each verse travels through the history of the Black experience in America, from slavery through Jim Crow and the present day where, sadly, its message still needs to be not only shared but shouted from every corner.
Meanwhile, “Nickel and Dime Blues” focuses on the commonality of Blacks and whites on the lower rung of the economic ladder. The scene is set by Dan Whitener’s banjo as his vocals recount a day in the life of someone who can’t afford anything to help ease his troubles, delivered in a darkly comic folksong tradition, while R-SON and vocalist Dolio the Sleuth turn the stereotypical hip-hop bravado of making it rain into wishing it would.
On a lighter note, the celebratory block-party imagery of “Ain’t No Crime” flows with the ease of OutKast’s Big Boi and a hook that would make Pharrell Williams envious. (All three of the aforementioned tunes were recorded in a studio before the pandemic hit, but the rest of No Time for Enemies had to be constructed by producer/vocalist/guitarist/beat-master Rench from parts sent to him from each band member while in isolation.)
“Working on That Chain” uses a traditional folk chord progression and melody while masterfully interweaving the chain as a symbol of both what weighs us down and what links us together. Gangstagrass was also able to acquire the derivative license to reinterpret Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” (renamed here as “Your Land”) and it closes the album on a perfectly hopeful note, peppered with added lyrics by R-SON and Dolio the Sleuth and featuring the original verses (earnestly sung by R&B/funk singer-songwriter Branjae) that schoolkids were not allowed to sing.
No Time for Enemies can sometimes veer off into the generic side of both bluegrass and hip-hop (“Ride With You” is pleasantly breezy, but it’s guilty of conjuring memories of Kid Rock protégé Uncle Kracker), but even then it proves that Gangstagrass, just like America itself, is far from perfect, but continuing to do the good work that’s needed.