The astonishingly assured debut from Oakland's Mystic, Cuts For Luck And Scars For Freedom functions as a sort of emotional X-ray of a community in crisis, where residents try to drink, smoke, and fuck away their misery and hovering helicopters serve as persistent reminders of authoritarian oppression. Eschewing all but the faintest pretense of escapism, Mystic's debut strips away the baggage and conventions of hip-hop archetypes to reveal the humanity underneath. Thugs and gangstas pop up throughout Freedom, both as characters and as objects of desire, but not in their usual role. Like nearly everyone else on the album, street hustlers are defined not by their real or imagined power, but by their vulnerability. Far from the glib sociopaths of gangsta rap, the lost souls of "D Boy" and "The Gottas" are deluded bundles of insecurity and pain, terrified of letting their guard down for fear of getting hurt. In Mystic's simultaneously tough and fragile take on inner-city living, love is far more dangerous than the most elaborate criminal enterprise, and emotional pain lingers the longest. Rapping and singing with gravity and an almost messianic sense of purpose, Mystic aims high on Freedom, and she possesses both the talent and breadth to match her ambition. Whether dealing with a hood-rat trying vainly to find love through sex ("Girlfriend Sistagirl") or coming to terms with her negligent, heroin-addicted father ("Fatherless Child"), Mystic strikes just the right balance between sociological rigor and humanistic compassion. Her bleak but strangely beautiful world is full of cuts and scars, both physical and otherwise, but the compulsion to find meaning through suffering is what makes Freedom such a moving, important debut.

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