In 2008, DC USA, a shopping center complete with Target and a Best Buy, opened up in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C., cementing what residents had known for years: that gentrification was coming for its poorest neighborhoods and it was not going away. The next year, Diamond District released In the Ruff. The group, which consisted of Oddisee, yU and Uptown XO, acknowledged the grip that go-go music had on the District with beats that channeled its energy. The lyrics, meanwhile, offered a sharp contrast to the spirit of the Obama Inauguration, observing urban blight with infectious cockiness. “I’m on D.C. shit like mambo sauce and every night you hear the gun go off/ in the hood we all lost in it/ but the face of the hood being replaced with corporate offices,” went Oddisee. They started to make a second album called March on Washington, and then they broke up.
Flash forward to 2014: DC USA is alive and the larger-than-life Chuck Brown is dead. Oddisee’s moved to New York. The hype for the Obama presidency and D.C.’s rap scene have inversed, and Diamond District are finally putting out March. But what’s changed, really? “No statehood, but we live in a police state,” yU raps in “March On,” the album’s jaw-dropping opener. D.C. might have become the city where the “haves and have-nots share hotspots and WiFi, but in hi-fi this home of the brave and land of the free spread across a 10-mile radius, my Diamond District family.” The decision to handle statehood, gentrification and the NSA in the first track is a smart, ambitious one, but where do Diamond District go from here?
Outside of the occasional yU stunner, this isn’t an album to pick up for its punchlines. Diamond District tracks like “These Bammas” and the back-in-the-day reminiscence “You Had to Be There” coast off a tight chemistry where the obvious reference points are groups like De La Soul and Tribe Called Quest. Politics aside, the group’s camaraderie keeps things light; even when they diss Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West on “Bonus Flow,” it feels like it’s coming out of a cipher rather than legitimate beef.
During Diamond District’s hiatus, Oddisee became best known for his instrumentals (particularly 2011′s mixtape Rock Creek Park), and in handling March‘s entire production, it’s clear that his skills have only improved. “Working Weekends” sounds like a tricked-out Bop-It, the Marvin Gaye sample on “Ain’t Over,” a song about the failures and victories in reclaiming relationships, both romantic and platonic, stands in beautiful contrast to the struggles discussed. After a summer dominated by the minimalism and “Hey!”s of DJ Mustard, Oddisee fills his beats with horns, drum rolls and cooing voices. The harsh, creeping digital paranoia of “Bonus Flow” is the only thing that sounds like anything on the radio.
Marcus J. Moore’s recent Washington City Paper piece on Diamond District documents how Oddisee encouraged the group to tone down their politics, which is a shame seeing how that’s the topic that draws out the most energy on March. “A Part of It All” features Uptown XO connecting the struggle for D.C. voting rights to international fights for civil liberties, and yU shares intense familial politics, after which a jazzy horn doesn’t offer them any solutions, but at least seems to understand the variety of these challenges. At their best, Diamond District make global struggles feel personal and personal struggles universal. Elsewhere, the group seems bored: The fact that this most likely isn’t a permanent reunion, that Oddisee is going to take that Bolt Bus right back up to New York, can’t be far from anyone’s minds. But they enjoy the time they have well enough.