Tag Archives: Gangster Rap

Wu-Tang Clan – Wu-Tang Forever

Wu-Tang Clan
Wu-Tang Forever
June 3, 1997
Loud RecordsRCA Records/ BMG Music Group/ SME
080/100
WuTangForever
DISC I
1. Wu-Revolution (performed by Popa Wu & Uncle Pete) // 2. Reunited (feat. Ms. Roxy) // 3. For Heaven’s Sake (feat. Cappadonna) // 4. Cash Still Rules/Scary Hours (Still Don’t Nothing Move But The Money) // 5. Visionz // 6. As High As Wu-Tang Get // 7. Severe Punishment // 8. Older Gods // 9. Maria (feat. Cappadonna) // 10. A Better Tomorrow // 11. It’s Yourz
DISC II
1. Intro // 2. Triumph (feat. Cappadonna) // 3. Impossible (feat . Tekitha) // 4. Little Ghetto Boys (feat. Cappadonna) // 5. Deadly Melody (feat. Streetlife & Dreddy Kruger) // 6. The City // 7. The Projects (feat. Shyheim) // 8. Bells of War // 9. The M.G.M. // 10. Dog Shit //11. Duck Seazon // 12. Hellz Wind Staff (feat. Streetlife) // 13. Heaterz (feat. Cappadonna) // 14. Black Shampoo // 15. Second Coming (performed by Tekitha) // 16. The Closing // 17. Sunshower // 18. Projects [International Remix] (feat. Shyheim)

Double-disc albums were a hype in the late ’90s urban music world and if an act didn’t have one it wasn’t considered whole. Tupac Shakur started the trend with his diamond-selling All Eyez On Me in ’96 and plenty of R&B/hip-hop artists would soon follow in his tracks, including arch rival the Notorious B.I.G., R. Kelly and several others. These albums, though some were well-received and have reached what one would call ‘classic status’, generally represent a bloated mess of imperial overstretch in these artists’ respective career. Shakur’s album All Eyez on Me, the project that kickstarted the trend, was the worst offender. It sounded like he recorded it all in one go and completely ran out of ideas after the first few songs or so and only regaining his momentum very sporadically over the course of the rest of the album and nevertheless released it to the masses without ever looking back. What we are digging into today however is its polar opposite when it’s the overall quality that is concerned, probably because Shakur was filling two discs of original material by his self (with lots of help of his untalented weed carriers Tha Outlawz and to a lesser degree his labelmates Snoop, Dre, Daz, Kurupt and whoever accidentally walked into the wrong studio, but still. All Eyez on Me was essentially 2pac headlining two full CD’s of material.) and the Wu-Tang Clan has nine official members who all get equal billing and are all to varying degrees main attractions.

Wu-Tang Forever marks the end of RZA’s famed and mysterious five year plan. Not even Method Man claims to know just what that plan might have been, but it had something to do with dropping a trail of classic solo albums by individual members between the group’s debut album and their sophomoric one. It goes TicalReturn to the 36 ChambersOnly Built 4 Cuban Linx…Liquid Swords and Ironman.
(Also there was supposed to be a Inspectah Deck album released somewhere between Liquid Swords and Ironman but RZA’s basement which contained all of his equipment and prerecorded beats that were intended for that one, and apparently Ironman was higher on RZA’s list of priorities.)

Wu-Tang Forever extensively features Cappadonna, a Wu-affiliate who would’ve been one of the original nine members but went to prison before having been able to make any contribution to Enter the Wu-Tang and was replaced by Method Man in stead. The man had resurfaced on Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… and contributed to Ghostface Killah’s Ironman. Even though he is credited as a featured guest on Wu-Tang Forever whenever he pops up, and he pops up quite often, he was more or less considered the Clan’s tenth member when it was released. RZA would later disown Cappadonna as an official Clan affiliate because Cappa completely lost his rapping mojo of an alleged financial conflict between the two where Cappachino claimed RZA owed him money and RZA claimed he was full of it.

Wu-svengali RZA had for the most part abandoned the gruff, dusty and minimalistic sound that made Enter the Wu-Tang such a notable success. Having produced a stack of classic albums since his instrumentals became increasingly rich and cinematic over the course of discs that went from Tical to Ironman. On Wu-Tang Forever he added a new element to his bag of tricks. He took vocal samples from old soul records and changed the pitch to make them sound high and quirky, possibly to save money on background singers which he could then spend on honey-dipped blunts and pointy rings. He then proceeded to incorporate them into his beats. This is a hip-hop production technique many people think Kanye West invented. RZA, who previously did pretty much all the work behind the boards on anything released by any of the Clansmen stepped aside for eight of the album’s twenty nine tracks which he left to his cronies True Master, 4th Disciple and for some reason Inspectah Deck whose instrumental contrubutions aren’t very good but also not that numerous. Whether this was done for variation’s sake or simply because RZA couldn’t come up with twenty nine instrumentals of consistently good quality on his own (It happens to the best of us) is unknown to me, but it is what it is.

The album’s first disc is off to a meh start with its bullshit intro on which two non-Clan members get to rant for nearly seven minutes about five percent islam, a religion that apparently every member of the Clan was practicing at the time. Nothing against taking pride in one’s religion but this track couldn’t have been more tedious and pretentious if they followed it with a full recital of each and every scripture of every religion known to mankind ever while keeping the same beat on for the entire duration.
Following that is a somewhat uneven collection of music which is to be expected from an album that consist of the combined efforts of ten rappers and four producers divided by twenty eleven tracks. The disc sounds good for the most part. The majority of the songs are highlights. The tense the Wu-noir opening cut Reunited which has the three cousins GZA, ODB and RZA + Method Man ripping shit up and setting the mood for what is to come.
For Heaven’s Sake has Deck outrap Masta Killa and Cappadonna over a quintessential chipmunk-soul beat.
It’s Yourz blends RZA’s typical dusty sound with something akin to old school disco rap. Rae, U-God, RZA, Deck all get to rock it but GFK walks away with the track.
OB4L reprise Older Gods (that doesn’t appear to be complimentary to Shyheim’s Young Gods) and the ode to positive thinking that is A Better Tomorrow and the grimy but catchy are all prime Wu posse cuts as well.
Low points are the unsexy sex rap Maria, the Deck-produced Visionz and the shitty Cash Rules sequel Cash Still Rules Everything Around Me.

The second disc opens with a dismissal of Rap ‘n’ Bullshit R&B-rap artists by RZA & GZA, presumably P. Daddy & Ma$e. I wonder if RZA remembered that You’re All I Need to Get By song that got Method Man, Mary J. Blige and P. Daddy a grammy, or that Babyface Remix that had Ghostface Killah rhyme the exact same verse he performed on this album’s Visionz. (I’m also curious what RZA had to say when he first heard that Justin Bieber song that had Raekwon and Kanye West on it, if he ever hear it at all.)
Obviously there’s more posse cuts on this disc. Triumph is arguably the best thing on the entire project with its cinematic instrumental and all the official Wu-tang plus Cappadonna rocking over it. The only complaint about this one is that Ol Dirtly Bastard is severely underused by not being allowed to spit a verse of his own and being relegated to shit-talking on the intro and in between verses in stead. I suppose you can’t have it all. The song is still really, really good anyway.
Impossible has the most eerie, spaced out instrumental so far and has among others Ghostface Killah tear it to shreds.
Little Ghetto Boys is a fairly nice word of advice to its titular subjects about not choosing the wrong path although reusing that Donny Hathaway sample for the hook was then and still is a surefire way of getting your song unfavourably compared to a classic songs by Dr. Dre featuring Snoop Dogg and P. Daddy with Notorious B.I.G. and Jay-Z.
Fans of the debut album’s production sound get thrown another bone by way of Deadly Melody, a showcase for mostly Method Man and his apprentice Street Life.
Bells of War is a good listen too and the Rae-Ghost duet The M.G.M. Wu-Tang Forever is as good a showcase of their usual on-record Chemistry as anything off OB4C or Ironman.
The Projects finally puts Shyheim in the same room as most of the clan members so good for him that he’s finally proven to be a true Wu-B-teamer. It’s not good for anyone or anything else though because it’s beat sounds like RZA was only half finished creating it before his pizza was delivered or something.The ODB gets a solo offering with Dog Shit and it sucks balls, the man always was a hit or miss individual. The part at the end where he tell his fellow clansmen that they remind him of the backup dancers of En Vogue though almost makes it worth sitting through.
Speaking of horrible solo-efforts: U-God, a rapper who was incarcerated during most of the recording of 36 Chambers and is considered by many to be the worst rapper in the group gets a solo-showcase of his own in the form of Black Shampoo, a hilariously unsettling sex rap with an instrumental that sounds like it was made by Barry White on acid, over which the man invites the listener to let him clip his or her toenails, among a diverse range of other odd sexy business.
The City is Inspectah Deck’s chance to fly solo. It’s good enough to make one desperately want to hear his aborted flushed solo debut, so listen to it at your own risk.
RZA, Raekwon and oddly enough Tekhita, one of the Clan’s go-to studio songstresses, get fairly decent solo-offerings as well

Overall Wu-Tang Forever, like any non-greatest hits double disc album this reviewer is aware of, would’ve benefited if it had been edited down to a single disc. That however would have meant that the guys weren’t competing with Biggie and 2pac for best double disc album of the late ’90s which hardly would’ve been an option worth considering. And it’s still a really good album in the incarnation in which it was released. Bar Dog ShitMaria and Black Shampoo most of the lesser tracks are entertaining filler rather than bad songs. Wu-Tang Forever retains enough of the old to keep the fans happy but introduces enough new to justify having a sophomore album in the first place. The album is a great showcase for one of hip-hop’s greatest franchises at the peak of its powers.

Best tracks
Reunited
Severe Punishment
It’s Yourz
For Heaven’s Sake
Older Godz
A Better Tomorrow
Triumph
Impossible
Deadly Melody
Bells of War
The City
Black Shampoo

Recommendations
Pick this one up.

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Genius/ GZA – Liquid Swords

Genius/ GZA
Liquid Swords
November 7, 1995
MCA RecordsUMG
085/100
GZA - Liquid Swords
1. Liquid Swords (feat. RZA) // 2. Duel of the Iron Mic (feat. Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Masta Killa & Inspectah Deck) // 3. Living In the World Today (feat. RZA & Method Man) // 4. Gold (feat. Method Man) // 5. Cold World (feat. GZA, Inspectah Deck & Life) // 6. Labels (feat. RZA) // 7. 4th Chamber (feat. Ghostface Killah, Killah Priest & RZA) // 8. Shadowboxin’ (feat. Method Man) // 9a. Hell’s Wind Staff  /9b. Killah Hills 10304 (feat. RZA & Ol’ Dirty Bastard) // 10. Investigative Reports (feat. Raekwon, Ghostface Killah & U-God) // 11. Swordsman // 12. I Gotcha Back (feat. RZA) // 13. B.I.B.L.E. (Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth) (performed by Killah Priest)

GZA’s Liquid Swords is by a wide consensus amongst Clan-fanboys considered the absolute finest of the solo-albums that any of the Wu’s nine members produced ever.
While personally this reviewer would give Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… that particular assessment (I’m admittedly not a much of a connoisseur) he does recognise it as being an extremely good rap album.

Here’s what it has going for it:
GZA for the time being (the time being 1995) was the best MC in the clan in at least the aspect of rapping for rapping’s sake. Rae and Ghost had better story telling raps, ODB and Meth had more distinct sounding voices and charisma (and hence more pop appeal and better-selling album) and RZA may have been the mastermind and the artiste out of the group, but nobody had individual lines like GZA did. Off course good punchlines don’t necessarily make good songs (word to Canibus) but GZA had a large enough attention span, as well as a smooth, calm delivery to ensure that his recording were cohesive enough.
Also Liquid Swords is the first Wu-solo album that features all of the other Clan-members alongside  its main attraction in guest capacity. Besides R&B singer Life and religious ranter Killah Priest no B-teamers were allowed near the project. This ensured several good things:
1. GZA couldn’t afford to self-indulge too much because he always was in company in the booth, which helped prevent stupid-ass songs like Stay Out of Bars off his forgotten Cold Chillin’-debut Words From the Genius, Vol. 1.
2. The people he was surrounded with were as talented as he was so he had to put in an effort on each song not to lose the spotligh.
3. He worked with people he was comfortable with and was proven to have chemistry with.
Finally Liquid Swords had the monolithic production courtesy of his cousin and Clan ringleader RZA at a time when that guaranteed banging beats. Prince Rakeem had in the two years prior created almost four complete albums of fantastic and unmistakable production for the entire Clan, Method Man, Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Raekwon (guest starring Ghostface Killah) respectively and showed no sings of slowing down with Liquid Swords (although in truth by this time probably was working towards a burn-out because Liquid Swords was the penultimate Wu-solo album not handles almost exclusively by Bobby Digital, bar his own albums. And along with RZA leaving the studio every once in a while, the guarantee of Wu-solo albums being hot by default disappeared, which means that either this album or Ghostface Killah’s Iron Man, depending on who you ask, marks the end of the group’s golden era.).

The Genius had released an album prior to this one four years earlier when there was no such thing as the Wu, on Big Daddy Kane and Biz Markie’s legendary old school hip-hop label Cold Chillin’ Records. That album had surprisingly mediocre beats (by the usually reliable Easy-Mo-Bee) and had the man performing mistifying pop-rap/ house-rap songs such as the Wu-jack swing number (which is exactly as shitty as that sounds) Come Do Me. Everyone has to start somewhere I suppose. Words From a Genius, Vol. 1 is however not the place to start your GZA experience. Liquid Swords is superior in every aspect.
It’s hard to imagine any one of the Wu’s fans being disappointed with Liquid Swords when it dropped. It has everything one could’ve come to expect from the Clan so far: battle raps, religious imagery, chess references, nerdy gangsta raps, eerie yet warm beats and kung-fu samples breaking it all up. One could argue that the Wu were playing it safe by not offering their fans but the fans know that sticking to the script in this case was actually a good thing.

Despite both Bad Boy Records and Death Row Records (The both of which are name-checked along with a myriad of other labels, most of which have gone bankrupt by now, on Labels.) habing already risen to the forefront of the hip-hop genre and to the top of the charts by ’95 with different, distinct R&B-infused sounds this album didn’t follow the trend and pretended the mainstream didn’t exist. There zero songs for the ladies, null jams for the clubs and no songs for the radio.
In stead we get typical prime, grimy Wu material that is perfect for small, marijuana-laced social gatherings.
The title track has a catchy hook though, and songs like Duel of the Iron MicGold and Shadowboxin’ to which Meth and ODB lend their voices have the most pop appeal, given that you’re into the Wu-æsthetic, but even these relatively accessible songs are grimier than most rap album’s songs for the streets. It was this uncompromising attitude to hip-hop that is the Clan’s bread and butter and is characteristic of their best work. (Their bids for radio play conversely are almost universely considered shitty by the fans.)
Duel of the Iron Mic4th Chamber, Shadowboxin‘, Duel of the Iron MicCold World and Investigative Reports are some of the best Wu-collabos put to wax while the title track, GoldLabelsSwordsmanHells Wind Staff/ Killah Hills 10304 and I Gotcha’ Back allow GZA to take the spotlight.

Liquid Swords is a prime example of the Wu-movement at the peak of its powers, everything just works. There are no real weak spots, bar maybe the closing track B.I.B.L.E. (Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth) which is a self-important religious rant. Still RZA and GZA can’t be blamed for that one since it’s a Killah Priest solo-shot with a 4th Disciple beat. And even that song doesn’t entirely suck.

Best tracks
Liquid Swords
Duel of the Iron Mic
Cold World
Labels
4th Chamber
Shadowboxin’

Recommendations
Pick it up.


Fabolous – Ghetto Fabolous

Fabolous
Ghetto Fabolous
September 11, 2001
Desert Storm Records/ Elektra Records/ WMG
050/100
Fabolous - Ghetto Fabolous
1. Click & Spark // 2. Keepin’ It Gangsta // 3. Young’n (Holla Back) // 4. Get Right // 5. Ride For This (feat. Ja Rule) // 6. One Day // 7. Trade It All (feat. Jagged Edge) // 8. Right Now & Later On // 9. Take You Home (feat. Lil’ Mo) // 10. Get Smart // 11. Can’t Deny It (feat. Nate Dogg) // 12. Ma’ Be Easy // 13. We Don’t Give a Fuck // 14. Bad Guy (feat. Pain in Da Ass) // 15. Gotta Be a Thug // 16. If They Want It

Another rap album that dropped on that uneventful date (september 11, 2001) was Roc-a-Fella Records’ house DJ, DJ Clue?’s protégé Fabolous’ Ghetto Fabolous, although the fact that this shit actually came out may have done more damage than the 9/11 attacks. Fabolous’ debut is anything but fab, although I’ll be the first to admit that the man himself is almost entirely blameless.

Fab had been making a name for himself ever since he first appeared on a major label realease (DJ Clue?’s own major label debut the Professional) with his lackadasical, monotone flow (which got him compared to blingy cuddly-gangsta turned preacher Ma$e) and his funny/corny punchlines (which got him compared, a lot more flatteringly, to the likes of Big L)
The album had two songs that were moderately succesful on the U.S. charts back in 2001 (Can’t Deny It and Young’n (Holla Back)) but there’s really only one single sort of, kind of related to this album that people occasionally still listen to, which is the glossy Puff Diddy-featuring remix of Trade It All released on the soundtrack to the Ice Cube movie Barbershop.

Still this album could be considered a commercial success since it had moved over a million units by 2003, which was the time Fabby started having some real charts success with singles off his sophomore album, on which he emulated Ja Rule (who makes an appearance on Ghetto Fabolous), romantically dueting female R&B singers Lil’ Mo and Tamia over bootylicious beats.
Except unlike Jeffrey Fab brought his punchlines with him to these radio songs and knew better than to sing the refrains on his own material and in stead let the hired help do that. This is probably what saved him from the sort of riducule Ja would endure as soon as the hit songs stopped coming.
But I digress, suffice to say that this album earned its platinum plaque probably not because of its own merits, but rather because his 2003 album Street Dreams hit the jackpot and people in record stores (yes people bought actual physical copies of music they liked in stores, as late as 2003) picked this one up since they were there and expected Ghetto Fabolous to be another album of Into Yous and Can’t Let You Gos. I’m sure the people who bought Ghetto Fabolous for this reason women were pissed when they actually listened to it. (Street Dreams itself was hardly all acoustic guitars and Commodores-interpolations either, but we’ll get to that soon enough.)

Clue? and his cohort DURO, his colleague mixtape jackass DJ Envy, as well as relative unknowns Rush da Spyda, Omen, Armando Colon produce most of Ghetto Fabolous, and they don’t do a particularly good job, serving up overly glossy store brand imitations of what East Coast hip-hop tended to sound like at the time, that are too clean to be hard and too incomplete to be poppy (somewhat sketchy beats are what marred the first two installments of Clue?’s the Professional series. And it’s no different here.)
Surprisingly the Neptunes contribution and second single Youngn (Holla Back) is boring as hell too. I’m quite confident Pharrell and Chad don’t remember having ever made it. Maybe Clue? stole it out of their reject-bin while the guys were having an argument.
Get RightMa’ Be Easy and Right Now and Later On‘s beats were made on sleep walking strolls too, except this time by Rockwilder, Just Blaze and Timbaland respectively.
Can’t Deny It has Rick Rock selling Fab the exact same boring-ass beat he reused several times on most of his Dynasty contributions (I bet he charged full price too) while the usually reliable Nate Dogg jacks an old 2pac hook over it to meh results.

The other guests don’t add much either, Ja Rule gives Ride For This a DMX-esque overly shouty hook.
Lil’ Mo does that early naughties thing where an R&B singer jacks an old hook of a soul song (In this case I Wonder If I Take You Home by Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam and Full Force) and goes out of his/her way to gangsta it’s lyrics up (In this case by unnaturally jamming the word “thug” into it). Yuck.
Speaking of uninspired, unneccesary gangstaness; Bad Guy has Roc-a-Fella skit-personality getting his bullshit Scarface on between Fab’s verses. It wasn’t funny on Reasonable Doubt and it still wasn’t on Ghetto Fabolous.

The only exception to this is Jagged Edge who give Fabby’s ode to a special lady a sunny hook over an uncharacteristically nice Clue?/DURO beat. It’s not quite as groovy as the Barbershop version, but it comes close and it compensates by not having that wack P. Daddy verse. Regardless it’s Ghetto Fabolous best song, hands down, it’s also the most pop (coincidence?)

As for Fab’s rapping, he is obviously a more than competent punchline rapper, one not devoid of pop appeal either, which is something Canibus or Big L can’t say about themselves. That’s not to say he doesn’t make any beginners mistakes. For instance he all but reuses the same outdated (it wasn’t even fresh in ’01 when Ghetto Fabolous dropped) New Jack City punchline on the album’s first two songs. Also the guy uses the same “swallow my babies” line on two of this album’s songs. This kind of fuckery makes Clue? come across as a sloppy executive producer and Fab as an uninspired rapper. Keeping in line with the corny movies-references; Leathal Weapon gets namedropped on Keeping It Gangsta as well. Not that referencing old movies is a major offence in and by itself (Although rappers, including Fab on this album, definitely overdid it with the Scarface-enacting. And the next rapper who goes and pulls that shit on his album needs to get his recording contract torn-up. One could quote the entire movie verbatim without having ever seen it if one has heard enough rap albums from the ’95-’05 timespan.), but as a running theme it makes it seem as though Fabby hadn’t entered a cinema in the decade prior to relesing his debut album, in which case movie-references may not be a good idea at all.
While he stays on beat and doesn’t fuckup majorly that often besides the minor offences dropping the occasional cheesy clunker of a punchline and tired gangsta’ism, but over these shitty beats he sounds like a complete tool, even if he simultaneously does show his ability to write actual songs as opposed to srings of bad jokes while keeping his style consistent, which isn’t exactly a given with rappers, especially punchline rappers.

Despite Fab having considerable talents there is absolutely no reason to revisit Ghetto Fabolous, an album that gives off a promise of a pretty decent sequel on the condition that the guy cops some proficient production, but has absoloutely nothing else going for it.

Best track
Trade It All

Recommendations
Don’t bother.


Jay-Z – The Blueprint

Jay-Z
The Blueprint
September 11, 2001
Roc-a-Fella RecordsDef Jam RecordingsUMG
085/100
Jay-Z - The Blueprint
1. The Ruler’s Back // 2. Takeover // 3. Izzo (H.O.V.A.) // 4. Girls, Girls, Girls (feat. Q-Tip, Slick Rick & Biz Markie) // 5. Jigga That Nigga // 6. U Don’t Know // 7. Hola’ Hovito (feat. Timbaland) // 8. Heart Of The City (Ain’t No Love) // 9. Never Change (feat. Kanye West) // 10. Song Cry // 11. All I Need // 12. Renegade (feat. Eminem) // 13a. Blueprint (Momma Loves Me) / 13b. Breathe Easy (Lyrical Exercise) / 13c. Girls, Girls, Girls [Part 2] (feat. Michael Jackson)

Released on the same date as the WTC attacks, september 11, 2001, Jay-Z’s fifth solo album of original material (sixth if you count The Dynasty: Roc la Familia as a Jay-Z solo album, which you definitely shouldn’t) sold tonnes of copies and recieved the kind of critical acclaim the Jiggaman  hadn’t seen since he dropped Reasonable Doubt. In the immortal words of the Notorious B.I.G., Jay “[blew] up like the world trade” simultaneously with the World Trade actually blowing up.

Where on Vol. 1, 23 the man had gained mass success by employing the electronic club banger-creators Timbaland and Swizz Beatz and got jiggy with glossmasters the Trackmasters, Irv Gotti and Puff Diddy, and The Dynasty had seen him do something similar with West-coast stalwart Rick Rock and up-and-comers the Neptunes.
On the Blueprint however he elected to primairily work with Roc-a-Fella in-house producers Bink, Just Blaze and Kanye West, all three of whom were test-driven on albums by Jigga’s interns Beanie Sigel and Memphis Bleek (both of whom aren’t anywhere to be found on this album).
These men brought to the studio a somewhat RZA/Pete Rock/DJ Premier-inspired soul-sampling sound that was a lot sunnier and more radio friendly than any track any of those three seminal producers tend to lay down, but still was a far cry from P. Daddy or Irv Gotti’s squeaky clean disco beats, which helped the medicine go down with hip-hop heads and critics, while veteran Jay-Z producers Timbaland and the Trackmasters got one track each, and Eminem, the only guest vocalist who gets to touch on anything beyond a hook, gets to produce the song on which he appears.

Content-wise Jay talks about his own majesty (The Ruler’s Back), how much more succesful he is both commercially and artistically than NaS and Prodigy of Mobb Deep (Takeover), his prowess in courting the ladies (Girls, Girls, Girls), general boasting (Jigga That NiggaIzzo (H.O.V.A.)Hova’ Hovito) and how despite all this success he is still deep down a street hustler (Never Change) and running the hip-hop game (U Don’t Know).
To balance out these rather emotionally vapid, yet entertaining-as-fuck gangsta’isms he throws in a song about how he regrets negatively impacting the lives of those he loves (Song Cry).
Jay-Z had the golden ratio of a commercially succesful gangsta rap album down to a tee pretty much when he dropped Vol. 1. Club bangers (for the ladies) plus just violence and drugs to appease the streets (men) equals platinum sales. And Vol. 2 and 3. as well as the Blueprint all abide to the #oldrules. But these new musical surroundings, as well as challenges to a battle for the throne by NaS and Mobb Deep, appear to have brought Shawn Cory Carter renewed lyrical vigor, as well as the need to mostly have the recording booth to himself while creating the Blueprint (sorry Bleek!).

The resulting album truly is the very best thing this guy has released since his classic debut, and depending on your tastes this one might even be better.
On Reasonable Doubt Jigga was so focused on his lyrical and flowing techniques and the mafioso image he was trying to convey that he came off as a bit statuesque, especially when paired with an playful Notorious B.I.G. who at that point was the undisputed king of New York and thus had little to prove. It never seemed that there was much self-expression on that album and Jigga came off as a cold-hearted technocrat/mafioso/rapping machine.
Over the course of his next string of albums Jay learnt to let loose and have fun a bit recording songs (something NaS has yet to learn after 20+ years in the game, and probably never will), but since none of them but the Blueprint could remotely fuck with Reasonable Doubt production-wise it was only here and now it truly showed.
Basically by 2001 Jay had already snatched up the crown that B.I.G. used to rock via his success (he had once literally attempted to do so on the 1997 Teddy Riley-produced song The City Is Mine, and I say attempted, because it had fallen flat on its face because of it’s cotton candy beat. But a year later Hard Knock Life pretty much actually accomplished Shawn’s coup d’état). And the Blueprint was the consolidation of Hova’s reign over New York, if not the whole of hip-hop.

Izzo (H.O.V.A) had the final bit of the summer of 2001 on smash when it dropped in late august of that year. And for good reason. The celebratory Kanye beat samples the Jackson 5’s I Want You Back in a reasonably creative manner while the Jiggaman celebrates having made the American dream his reality.
Takeover takes apart NaS and Prodigy so ruthlessly efficiently over Kanye’s Fame interpolation (the David Bowie song, not the musical film) that I’m confident that despite this rap war being over ten years ago and having long since resolved, it pisses both artists today still when it comes up on hip-hop radio .
Girls, Girls, Girls marries a confident playa attitude with affection rather than misogyny and goes for broke lyrically over what is the most soulful, and some would say best, beat of the entire album, courtesy of Just Blaze, with light support of three old school legends on the hook (speaking of old school legends, Girls, Girls, Girls [Part 2] which appears as a hidden bonus track on the tail end of the album has an uncredited backing vocal by the late Michael Jackson, returning the favour after Jay appeared on the Trackmasters Remix of You Rock My World)
U Don’t Know has Hova refuting the claim (made by a sped-up vocal sample) that he doesn’t have a master plan in this rap game (as if anyone ever doubted it) and it’s a hustler anthem for the ages.
Song Cry manages to humanise this rap god by having him openly discuss his regrets and insecurities, which helps make it easier for people to root for the guy.

Unsurprisingly the album’s low points are those produced by Timbaland, Trackmasters and Eminem, unsurprising because, as expected, they don’t fit the sped-up ’60s/’70s soul theme and because they rely on gimmicks (though arguably Kanye’s chipmunk soul was a bit of a gimmick too) Jigga That Nigga incorporates bolywood sounds and Hola’ Hovito as Timbaland Having the balls to jump on the latin bandwagon that was a thing around the turn of the millenium. And the freedom-of-speech plea Renegade was better off as the Em-Royce collabo it originally was since Bad Meets Evil unlike Jigga actually racked up controversy with their lyrical content.
But even these songs are pretty entertaining by their own right. It’s not as though they are sucky or anything, it is just that they have the musfortune of sharing an album with a bunch of undisputed classics.

the Blueprint is spotless, and with a lot of derivative albums coming out following its release (not least its very own sequels created by Jay himself) it does its name justice. It is also the argument that convinced this reviewer that Jay-Z, not NaS was the best rapper on the East-Coast in 2001.

Best tracks
Takeover
Izzo (H.O.V.A.)
Girls, Girls, Girls
U Don’t Know
Song Cry
Breathe Easy (Lyrical Exercise)
Girls, Girls, Girls [Part 2]

Recommendations
Pick this one up, a.s.a.p.


Ja Rule – 7 Series Sampler: Pain Is Love

Ja Rule
7 Series Sampler: Pain Is Love
May 20, 2003
Murder Inc. RecordsDef Jam RecordingsUMG
065/100
Ja Rule - 7 Series Sampler
1. Always On Time (feat. Ashanti) // 2.  Down Ass Bitch (feat. Charlie Baltimore) // 3. Never Again // 4. Lost Little Girl // 5. Pain Is Love // 6.  I’m Real [Murder Remix] (feat. Jennifer Lopez) // 7.  Livin’ It Up (feat. Case)

Back in 2003 internet music bootlegging was just starting to become a thing (anyone remember Napster or Limewire?) and so, in an effort to seduce people who would otherwise steal music from the web, Def Jam Recordings came with a radical solution: the EP.

A little more thought was put into it than that, by re-releasing an album without all the filler they could sell it for cheaper and because  it contained mostly the hits no skipping was required by the listener (The first generation of iPods had just come out, so not everyone knew how to make a playlist yet.)

Ja Rule was still a popular artist by then, so he was an obvious candidate, and because Def Jam didn’t want the EP to eat away the sales of Jeffrey’s latest album The Last Temptation they decided to go for the album he had released before that one; Pain Is Love, which had sold millions of copies and had completely fulfilled its chart-potential by then anyway, it was a no pain, no gain thing.

So they trimmed Ja Rule’s Pain Is Love from most of it’s non-singles until only seven tracks were left in such a way they didn’t have to cut Caddilac Tah, Black Child, Boo & Gotti, Jodie Mack, Missy Elliott and 2pac any aditional cheques, added nothing, rearranged them and put the resulting disc in record stores worldwide.

This would seem like some typical record company bullshit, which off course it was. But it just so happens that Pain Is Love had about six tracks on it that could either be considered a good song or a hit single (with about two of them being both). So with that in mind one has to give Def Jam kudo’s for including not only the the radio hits (although the person in charge of compiling this disc would have had to have been pretty fucking stupid to fail to do that right.) but also the best non-single, the existentialist mental breakdown that is Never Again.

It has to be said though that may have been a fortunate accident in selection, because this EP also contains the two very worst songs of the original album.

Nobody ever wanted to hear Jeffrey do social commentary, even those that did buy his self-absorbed sensitive thug persona (and all of his albums) back in the early naughties, so what the hell is Lost Little Girl doing here?
Pain Is Love‘s faux-philosophical pity me, martyr-lyrics and a typically unfortunately brassy hook and glossy beat go a long way in showing why these days Ja Rule is mostly a punchline.

As for the hits; Always on Time is still classic pop-thug/ R&B genius, Livin’ It Up is still jiggy, wide-eyed dancefloor fun, I’m Real [Remix] still has Jenny from da Block coming off as real a Barbie doll and it still has Jeffrey coming across as a jackass hollering at sluts with a bottle of K-Y, but I’m pretty sure that said sluts still like this song, so that’s a thing. And Down Ass Bitch still has some singing on it so bad it makes you wish they used autotune as freely back then, as they do now.

Also it would’ve been very sympathetic if Def Jam would’ve included the hit version of Ja’s Put It On Me featuring Lil’ Mo off the soundtrack to the Fast and the Furious, considering there is no Ja album, studio or compilation, that has the version that anyone gives a shit about on it.

Still this is probably the most Jeffrey any casual listener will ever need, so if you absolutely must have a legal hard copy of Always On Time this is the way to go.

Best tracks
Always on Time
Livin’ It Up
Never Again

Recommendations
Since you can probably pick this up for the price of a second hand single, because this probably has the least shitty songs of any of his abums, bar his debut Venni Vetti Vecci, and because this has arguably the two best songs of his career you can pick this up. Just don’t expect miracles from a Ja Rule album.


Above the Law – Livin’ Like Hustlers

Above the Law
Livin’ Like Hustlers
December 1989 (Promo cassette version)
February 22, 1990 (Full version)
Ruthless RecordsEpic RecordsSME
085/100
Above the Law - Livin' Like Hustlers
1. Murder Rap // 2. Untouchable // 3. Livin’ Like Hustlers // 4. Another Execution // 5. Menace to Society // 6. Just Kickin’ Lyrics // 7. Ballin’  // 8. Freedom of Speech // 9. Flow On (Move No Mountain) // 10. The Last Song (feat. Dr. Dre, Eazy-E & MC Ren)

Above the Law is an Pomona CA hip-hop group that originally consisted of rapper/ producers Cold 178um and KMG the Illustrator as well as DJ Total K-Oss and Go Mack, who presumably was a hype man. And when their debut album Livin’ Like Hustlers dropped the Ruthless Records franchise was on a roll. Albums by N.W.A, Eazy-E and the D.O.C. had all gone gold to platinum cementing the label’s status as the preeminent hip-hop label of the day. Not only that but they were also able to release an album that quite succesfully catered to the R&B market (back in 1990 hip-hop and R&B were two distinct genres that were just starting to cuddle up) by songstress Michel’le.

What all these albums had in common was wall-to-wall Dr. Dre production with the occasional help from DJ Yella and/or Laylaw. Now their latest signees Above the Law were producers as well as rappers, but Dre is credited as a co-producer on every track on here, as he was credited with producing every track on every track on every Ruthless Records album so far.

It should be noted that Livin’ Like Hustlers doesn’t sound like any Dre production so far, except maybe the song the Formula off the D.O.C.’s No One Can Do It Better. Everything else he had done so far had been a lot more fast-paced and funk/dance-influenced, whereas this album is more mellow, jazzy and classic soul oriented. This could be explained by the fact that on Straight Outta Compton and Eazy-Duz-It the Doctor was aided by DJ Yella, on No One Can Do It Better he was left to do the beats himself and here he co-produced it with the entirety of the group. Another possible explanation is that Dre had just worked on an actual R&B album with slow jams on it, and therefore was in another state of mind than he would have been coming out of an N.W.A recording session.

Anyway, the mellow paced jazz/ soul vibe, with the elaborate use of more melody than was usual in hip-hop at the time, combined with rappers Cold 178um and KMG the Illustrator’s archetypical gangster raps (the album’s title should provide ample warning to those who aren’t into that sort of thing) definitely make this a prototype for the G-funk sound that Dre would rule the airwaves with less than three years later. And whether Dre or ATL produced the lion’s share of the music  they were all at the cradle of some revolutionary stuff here.

Given that there’s some controversy over who did what here I tend to go with ATL as the main musical architects, not only because of how the music sounds and how contemporary Dre beats sound, but also because Dre prescriptions tended to come with bits of Dre backing vocals at this time, which he does do here, but only on the title track, Just Kickin’ ItFlow On and the Last Song so I assume the man didn’t have much input with the remaining six songs. In all likelihood Dre put in a beat or two while ATL made most of these tracks themselves and had Dre adding some finishing touches to what they came up with. (But like everyone else who isn’t Dre or an ATL member I’m only guessing here. It’s not like I was even born yet when they recorded the fucking album or anything.)

As for the vocals, KGM and Cold 187 (whom I shall henceforth call by his other rap nickname Big Hutch, because that sounds more like something one would actually call a person) are technically proficient behind the mic. They basically come across as less lyrical, less nimble, more gangster-oriented versions of their then recently muted labelmate the D.O.C., what with their mid range voices and their ease behind the mic, which is to say they sound just fine. Although they lack Ren’s understated menace, Cube’s grit and Eazy’s natural, over-the-top charisma, their average-guy-from-the-street personas help these raps about the gangster lifes sound a lot less like they’re glorifying violence, misogyny and what not, as opposed to the various members of the world’s most dangerous group, who usually come across as a bunch of happy-go-lucky, murderous, alcoholic, wife-beating, crack-selling, “walked into the store, said this is a robbery, don’t need the money, it’s just a hobby” cartoon characters of Afro-American stereotypes on their albums, whereas ATL keeps things, if not real than at the very least plausible. The ATL rappers sound as though they could blast your brains out in a back alley, though they wouldn’t do it unless they had no other choice, and even then they still wouldn’t get their kicks out of it.

Highlight include the the ominous Murder Rap and Another Execution, the horned-up Untouchable and Livin’ Like Hustlers, the anti-censorship Freedom of Speech as well as the mandatory Ruthless posse cut on the tail end of the album on which Ren and Eazy take the shine (and on which Ice Cube and the D.O.C. shine in absence, the former because he was the only one out of N.W.A who chose to not get bent over by Jerry Heller and took his business to Priority Records in stead, and the latter because he had his vocal chords slashed in two in a car crash and was unable to rap.)

There’s only one wack moment on here, that would be Ballin’, which is all about how down Above the Law are with N.W.A and the D.O.C., throws an unnecessary stab in the direction of every rapper on the East-Coast (so this East-West rap beef was already a thing, huh?) and has an instrumental too fruity for its own good.

But besides that one misstep Livin’ Like Hustlers features nine tracks of pure gangster rap gold, that unlike N.W.A may have been forgotten by a lot of today’s rap audiences  and may not sound a lot like Straight Outta Compton but is almost equally entertaining and has had a lot more influence than it is given credit for on the genre as a whole, being a stepping-stone in the direction of the Chronic. (and with everybody from DJ Quik to Lil’ Kim to 2pac borrowing beats from this album).

This album deserves to be revisited.

Best tracks
Murder Rap
Untouchable
Another Execution
Menace to Society
Freedom of Speech
The Last Song

Recommendations
Buy this album.


The D.O.C. – No One Can Do It Better

The D.O.C.
No One Can Do It Better
June 16, 1989
Ruthless Records/Atlantic RecordsWMG
090/100
The DOC - No One Can Do It Better
1. It’s Funky Enough // 2. Mind Blowin’ // 3. Lend Me an Ear // 4. Comm. Blues (feat. by Michel’le) // 5. Let The Bass Go // 6. Beautiful But Deadly // 7. The D.O.C. and the Doctor // 8. No One Can Do It Better // 9. Whirlwind Pyramid // 10. Comm. 2 (feat. MC Ren) // 11. The Formula // 12. Portrait of a Masterpiece // 13. The Grand Finalé (feat. Ice Cube, MC Ren & Eazy-E)

The story of the D.O.C.’s rapping-career is a tragic one. After his rap group the Fila Fresh crew got to take part in what some consider to be N.W.A’s first album N.W.A and the Posse the world’s most dangerous recording group probably learnt of the man’s existence when they finally got to listen to it themselves after they found out Macola Records released the damn record, which was a collection of some of their singles, with some unrelated songs by random artists thrown in for good measure, without their permission while they were touring.

Fortunately for N.W.A though their “posse album” sold a ton of copies, birthed their career and fortunately for D.O.C. they liked his contributions enough that he could parttake in the recording of the seminal gangsta rap classic Straight Outta Compton, writing rhymes for Dre and Eazy and lending vocals to several tracks, such as on Fuck the Police (it’s Doc on the intro).

Then as a reward for helping Eazy and Dre sound competent behind the mic he got to record his own album No One Can Do It Better, released in the summer of ’89,

In 1989 rhyming about how good you are at rhyming (rhymeception, if you’re into terrible cornball-ass gag-humour) was the thing to do. Everyone from RUN-DMC to the Sugarhill Gang had proclaimed their dominance over the rap game as well as their own superiority over “sucker MC’s” at one time or another, and perhaps rightfully so since RUN and DMC’s nursery rhymes had been cutting edge when the world first heard them. When the D.O.C. proclaimed dominance over the rap game however it was simply a matter of fact beyond a shadow of a doubt. No one could do it better indeed, bar maybe Kool G Rap, Rakim or KRS One.

D.O.C.’s rhymes and delivery were lightyears ahead of even his boys in N.W.A in terms of multi-syllable complexity. Peep this.

Ship it, ship it to the stations
in your jurisdiction
Others say I’m dope
and the others think I’m bitching
No crowd can avoid the D O to the C
When I’m P E R F O R M I N G
D.O.C. – It’s Funky Enough

And besides his lyrics and flow being on point the D.O.C. had enough skill to make it all feel natural and unforced. For all it’s expertly constructed complexity the guy is here for you entertainment first and formost, and even if his vocabulary is larger than average he doesn’t repeatedly and offensively smack the listener in the face with it, like for instance Canibus does whenever he drops one of his fucking albums. Also helping matters is the wall-to-wall pre-chroniced Dr. Dre-production, which brings a distinct funky, dusty scratchy atmosphere for our host to rhyme in. The combination of these beats and these rhymes make the D.O.C. one of the few old school rappers whose music could challenge the works of rappers from the second golden age, such as Nas, Biggie, Jay-Z or the Wu-Tang Clan when it’s enjoyability that’s concerned.

No One Can Do It Better has aged perfectly, with everything sounding vintage rather than outdated.

The best-known song It’s Funky Enough‘s opening line “One, and here comes the two to the three and four” is one of the most re-used in the hip-hop genre. The song’s instrumental is funky aplenty, and the song is hands-down the catchiest thing on here. With no profanity to speak of and and a beat that makes people want to shake their money makers and yet doesn’t compromise the Ruthless Records gangsta rap sound it’s a lesson in making a lead single for a rap album.

D.O.C. and the Doctor is the mandatory ode to the DJ that appears on all early hip-hop album, back when hip-hop albums had one producer per album, rather than five new producers (and twelve guest rappers as well as eight autotuned R&B singers) per individual song. Rather than the corny dickriding that constitutes most such cuts this is a display of actual chemistry between the rapper and the producer.

Mind Blowin’ is another display of the Doc and the Doctor’s combined potential being reached with Dre providing some percussive piano keys for his boy to play around with his words and his flow over to great effect.

Lend Me an Ear is sonically a much faster paced Straight Outta Compton with D.O.C. ripping the beat to shreds and quite succesfully  making a case for him being one of the best rappers ever.

The Formula may be the point where Dr. Dre discovered the G-funk sound that would revolutionise the rap world when he put out his solo debut in ’92.

Beautiful But Deadly, the mandatory ode to gold digging evil women, has a Licensed to Ill-era Rick Rubin-esque instrumental, what with it’s hard rock quitars and its distinctly funkless sound. It’s an interesting enough diversion since it sounds like nothing else on here, but it still fits in with the rest since it shares Doc’s golden voice, rhymes and delivery with the rest of the tracks.

The album ends with the Grand Finale, a Ruthless Records posse cut with Doc plus everyone in N.W.A minus Dre going for broke over the most Straight Outta Compton-esque instrumental of the album, and Doc being on par with the world’s most dangerous group.

Every song on here bangs, even the two commercial-themed interludes have their place. No One Can Do It Better leaves one salivating for more. Unfortunately for the world of hip-hop and for Doc himself he would lose his ability to rap soon after this album’s release when his vocal chords were severed after he flew through a windshield in a car crash, leaving him a thin rasp of a voice that was lightyears removed from his pleasant smooth voice displayed on here, relegating Doc to perform on skits on N.W.A’s and later Dr. Dre’s albums, as well as the ghostwriting that had made him the unofficial fifth member of the Comptonite posse in the first place.

Make no mistake, the D.O.C.’s loss of voice was every bit as much of a loss to hip-hop as the murder of the Notorious B.I.G., and No One Can Do It Better is all the proof one needs for it. Unlike Biggie and 2pac however Doc, who didn’t die a martyr’s death (he’s still alive today), wasn’t namedropped as frequently by other rappers, which means that very little of today’s rap music fans actually know who he is. (On the plus side Ruthless Records has withstood the temptation of pairing every shred of D.O.C. vocals with the likes of T.I. and Lil Wayne on frankensongs with krunk beats, released on “Tribute albums”.)

This is all the more reason to revisit No One Can Do It Better, a criminally underrated rap album that has stood the test of time a lot better than most rap albums from the 1980s. An album that gives off an unfulfilled promise of a long and prosperous career in music.

Best tracks
It’s Funky Enough
Beautiful But Deadly
The Formula
Lend Me an Ear
Portrait of a Masterpiece
The Grand Finalé

Recommendations
Pick this one up, now.