Tag Archives: Tone

R. Kelly – R.

R. Kelly
R.
November 10, 1998
Jive Records/ SME
075/100
cover
DISC I: the Show
1. Home Alone (feat. Keith Murray & Kelly Price) // 2. Spendin’ Money // 3. If I’m With You // 4. Half on a Baby // 5. When a Woman’s Fed Up // 6. Get Up On a Room // 7. One Man // 8. We Ride (feat. Cam’ron, Noreaga, Vegas Cats, Jay-Z & Tone) // 9. The Opera // 10. The Interview (feat. Suzanne Lemignot) // 11. Only the Loot Can Make Me Happy // 12. Don’t Put Me Out // 13. Suicide // 14. Etcetera // 15. If I Could Turn Back the Hands of Time // 16. What I Feel/ Issues // 17. I Believe I Can Fly
DISC II: the After Party/The Hotel
1. The Chase // 2. V.I.P. // 3. Did You Ever Think (feat. Tone) // 4. Dollar Bill (feat. Foxy Brown & Tone) // 5. Reality // 6. Second Kelly // 7. Ghetto Queen (feat. Crucial Conflict) // 8. Down Low Double Life // 9. Looking For Love // 10. Dancing With a Rich Man // 11. I’m Your Angel (feat. Céline Dion) // 12. Money Makes the World Go ‘Round (feat. NaS) // 13. Gotham City

There was a period in the late ’90s when every urban recording artist recorded a magnum opus in the form of a double album. 2pac had set off the trend with his All Eyez on Me in 1996, B.I.G. and the Wu-Tang Clan had followed suit with Life After Death and Wu-Tang Forever respectively in 1997, and R. Kelly served up his contribution under the name of his single consonant front initial in ’98. Brief as that title is, the album is thirty tracks long, a running time that makes it a celebration of excess by definition.  Too much time for a single artist to fill up arguably.

He certainly has his methods of somewhat succesfully attempting to make the album’s two hours and ten minutes bearable. One of them is being purposefully all over the map musically. Not only are there the usual hip-hop/disco/funk infused party jams (Home AloneSpendin’ MoneyIf I’m With YouWe RideOnly the Loot Can Make Me HappyV.I.P.Did You Ever Think, Dollar BillGhetto QueenDancing With a Rich ManMoney Makes the World Go Round) and soul infused slow songs that are either for baby making (Half on a BabyGet Up on a RoomEtcetera2nd Kelly) or relationship contemplation (When a Woman’s Fed UpOne ManDon’t Put Me OutSuicideIf I Could Turn Back the Hands of TimeWhat I Feel/ IssuesReality and Down Low Double Life), which is what one would expect from the man, but there are also huge, sugary, gospel-infused M.O.R. easy listening ballads such as I Believe I Can FlyGotham City and I’m Your Angel (the first two culled from soundtracks) and actual gospel Looking For Love, as well as weird nods to opera and *gulp* yodeling.

Off course all of this genre-hopping is done is mostly traditional. After all most contemporary soul album from the ascend of the genre onward have contained dance numbers and ballads, and taking into account that the literal opera bit of R. is a silly skit, not an earnest attempt at going for Pavaroti’s spot, it makes Robert’s most original idea this time around that he figured that you could in fact if you are so inclined, put Céline Dion and Jay-Z on the same album, and make multi-platinum sales, not in spite of it but because of it. As simple as this innovation seems, its implications are still felt in today’s pop music landscape.
R. is a musical blockboster by design. Robert effortlessly juggles several styles of contemporary R&B, doing most of the dirty work himself, both in the booth and behind the boards, but brings hotshot rappers (Keith Murray, Cam’ron, Noreaga, Foxy Brown, Jay-Z and Nas), singers (Kelly Price and Céline Dion) and producers (Puff Diddy, Trackmasters and G-One)  into the studio to augment and complement the listening experience. It really should be noted that Robert takes this cross-demographic appeal thing to an entirely new level here. With R. he milks Jigga’s homeboys, Luther’s ladies and Céline’s schlock-lovers in one go, without so much as breaking a sweat. And by almost literally succesfully working with everybody he cemented his at-the-time status as pop’s most succesful allrounder.R. bears its influences on its sleeve. On Home Alone he blends Off the Wall era Michael Jackson with West-Coast hip-hop.When a Woman’s Fed Up has Donny Hathaway breathing vicariously through it.If I Could Turn Back the Hands of Time is a expertly dragging doo-wop ballad in the vein of the Platters. And over the project as a whole looms the mighty shadow of Marvin Gaye. Robert’s pop sensibilities are what separate him from the pack (well except Jacko off course.) Much like Michael’s his soul is watered down and sweetened enough (as well as possibly sold to the devil) to fit onto monst nonspecific radio formats.

As far as the smooth radio soul goes this album has it’s fair share of contemporary classics. Not discussing I Believe I Can Fly and I’m Your Angel, which are too slick to even pretend to be soul songs (gospel-pop would be rather accurate), When a Woman’s Fed Up and If I Could Turn Back the Hands of Time are good as requiems of relationships get.
Suicide is a tense and dramatic song that could’ve come out the Isaac Hayes playbook.
Did You Ever Think expresses Robert’s bewilderment at his own success while Trackmaster Tone continually asks him whether he ever thought he’d a successful as an artist before he suddenly was, and a Spanish guitar blurrs the line between poppy and sinister in the background.
Half on a Baby and Get Up On a Room probably have been responsible for several conceptions since it’s release, they’re some of those frankly sexy songs that can do that (Rumor has it that the former was originally written for Bobby Brown’s Forever album, but didn’t make the cut since Bob decided to spend his album advance on coke, rather than outside songwriting and production negociate full creative controll and produce the album himself, to commercially and critically abysmal results. I have a hard time imagining Bob perform it, since I have a hard time seeing it work as anything other a silky smooth honey-tongued R. Kelly song.)

The hip-hop influenced tracks bang as well. Home Alone has Def Squad alumnus Keith Murray and hip-hop soulstress Kelly Price, as well as DJ Quik’s frequent co-producer G-One delivering a funky, heavy club banger, and We Ride is a cool New York Rap posse cut, with a breezy midnight-ride-through-the-desert beat (on which Noreaga delivers the golden line: Ayo, it’s so deep, I told my shorty just last week. A-huh, it’s like you remind me of my jeep.)

Another thing that ties him to the King of pop, this time in his Dangerous incarnation, is a rampant sense of paranoia. Robert preposterously rants about playa haters who want his cash, the media that only wants to sell news whether truthful or not, racist cops who want him in jail while knowing he’s innocent, as well as people who simply don’t like his music, all together conspiring his downfall as though they’re having a go at his crucifiction, with him being a messiah of sorts. On the opening skit of disc two: The Chase there’s even a secret player hater police/ army that is in hot pursuit of him, attempting to stop his music from being heard and attempting to assasinate his talent (I wish I could make this up). Unlike Michael’s however most of these assertions are, whether intentional or not, humourous and absurd enough to not be quite as fucking annoying.

Kells again blends the sacred in the profane in his music as he did on R. Kelly, seemingly making him some sort of preacher-pimp head of a church-club of sexy business, generously sprinkling around bodily fluids and doing unholy shit with his followers Kind of like some Roman catholic clerics. To him there is no experience more spiritual than a good lay, it really cleans the soul. Simultaneously his songs are charged with guilt, whether it is about christian sin or wronging a lady. It is this dual tension that sets him apart from similarly mindedly laviscious R&B artists like Next, and it is this is what his detractors often fail to see him do. It adds richness, colour and depth (or at the very least the illusion of depth) to songs that would be rendered completely juvenile without it. After all; what is more fascinating? A righteous brother struggling with his negative tendencies and trying to do right, while at the same time aknowledging how much pleasure and fulfillment giving in to these tendencies bring him or a mindless mysogynic poon hound? It also puts the man in a line of soul singers that goes from Ray Charles, through the previously mentioned Marvin Gaye to Prince.

The wacky songwriting is still present too. And I’m not talking about I Believe I Can Fly‘s lyrics that are so pompous that they beg, beg, beg parody. I’m talking songs like 2nd Kelly, which helps carbon date this to the time when the internet was just starting to become a thing where he tries to seduce the ladies from the point of view of a computerised R. Kelly, a computer virus, a webcamming service or all three and are so intrinsically weird that they are one hundred percent spoof-proof.

A direct result from the album being as long as it is is that there’s going to be songs it would be better without. Down Low Double Life is a song he had done twice over already before R. hit shelves. There’s no real need to have both Only the Loot Can Make Me Happy and Money Makes the World Go Round. In fact, if I were Barry Hankerson I’d had cut them off both because Did You Ever Think is also about the moulah and is a far better song than either of those two with the least wack Trackmasters instrumental.
Ghetto Queen only features rap group Crucial Conflict because they happened to live in Chicago which is Robert’s hometown, not because of any sort of perceptible talent.
Spendin’ Money and Dollar Bill are only here because in 1998 respectively Puff Diddy and Foxy Brown were a thing, and it was a legal requirement to include one of his disco-recycling beats and one of here clunky-ass oversexualised verses (I realise that something beong oversexualised is a weird and hypocritical complaint on an R. Kelly album, but I can’t really rephrase it while still having it make sense, so there you have it) on an urban music album if it were to be released. Not because they’re good songs.

This album’s issues aren’t too much for the good stuff to overcome. And the good stuff is definitely in the majority.
But one must keep in mind that this album is two hours and ten minutes long, which means that it would probably still be too long to listen to in one go even if the lesser material were taken out of the equation. This is the main argument against double albums of original material, a dinosaur-form of releasing music, killed by the Pirate Bay, iTunes and Spotify which allowed us to buy single songs and put them in playlists in whichever order we liked. When this came out for consumers more music really was better because you couldn’t buy any other form of music other than compact discs. That R. is actually as good as it is despite its flaws may mean that besides Wu-Tang Forever (which had the constant creative input of over nine people) this may very well be the best urban double disc out there. And despite being flawed it really is too good not to recommend to lovers of good pop, even if Robert arguably would’ve done better slimming it down to one single CD. If he had done that, and done that properly he would’ve made his best album ever. As it stands it may not be his best album, but is probably is his definitive one.

Best tracks
Home Alone
Half on a Baby
When a Woman’s Fed Up
We Ride
Suicide
If I Could Turn Back the Hands of Time
I Believe I Can Fly
Did You Ever Think
Second Kelly
I’m Your Angel

Recommendations
Pick this up.

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Sparkle – Sparkle

Sparkle
Sparkle
May 20, 1998
Rockland RecordsInterscope RecordsUMG
070/100
Sparkle - Sparkle
1. Good Life (feat. Cam’ron & Nature) // 2. Time to Move On // 3. Lean on Me // 4. I’m Gone // 5. Turn Away // 6. What About // 7. Be Careful (feat. R. Kelly) // 8. Nothing Can Compare // 9. Quiet Place [Interlude] // 10. Lovin’ You // 11. Straight Up // 12. Vegas (feat. Strings) // 13. No Greater [Prelude] // 14. Play On // 15. Plenty Good Love

Rather than putting himself in the flesh in the background on his protégé’s album cover this time around R. Kelly has found a much subtler way to make his presence on Sparkle known to the record buying audiences. I’m sure that if you put in a little effort you will spot it eventually.
Now if this R. Kelly Inn. sounds like a brothel pleasant place to stay to you, you aren’t far off, because Sparkle is the very first album released by his short lived but very own interscope subsidiary boutique label Rockland Records, and R. Kelly is pimping it with all his might doing his very best to make visitors comfortable enough to “come again some time.”

Sparkle sounds like what Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number would have sounded like if it would’ve been recorded in the R. Kelly-era rather than in the 12 Play-era. Sparkle even sounds somewhat similar to Aaliyah, although she’s not quite as virtuous a singer. That’s to say: It sounds pleasant enough but ultimately not very distinctive.

Part of its somewhat bland nature is that nowhere does anybody remind anyone of a jeep. Robert’s wacky songwriting is mostly kept in check, which may be for the better since not everyone can deliver such lines without something becoming very wrong about the resulting music. In its place there are elaborate stories of inner city love, loss and betrayal that mostly steers clear of melodrama because of Sparkle’s unassuming singing style.

That there’s nothing very wrong with Sparkles, combined with Robert’s sultry, blaxploitation-influenced production, helps to establish a romantic mood when it’s on that makes it very suitable for a night on the sofa with the misses and a bottle of vin rouge.

There’s one undeniable classic on here, that would be the R. Kelly duet Be Careful which is one of those “both sides of the argument” songs that is Robert’s forte whenever he duets a lady singer. It has the same sort of bluesey backdrop that When a Woman’s Fed Up has, and both singers sound terrific over it. That no-one has had the common sense to include it on an R. Kelly compilation yet is beyond me. Though it may have something to do with the fact that Robert and Sparkle’s hate one another’s guts these days, allegedly due to Sparkle’s fourteen y.o. neice allegedly appearing on what allegedly was the R. Kelly Sex Tape.

Sparkle is for the most part one of those albums that is quite simply a pleasant enough second serving of a proven success, in this case what made Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number and R. Kelly successful. And that while that isn’t very spectacular this is still quite decent musically and serves its purpose well. It’s purpose being pleasant when on while not getting in the way of a good lay.

Best track
Be Careful
Time to Move On
Turn Away

Recommendations
Pick this up if you like light R&B that goes down smooth and can manage to find it for a reasonable price.


Amil – A.M.I.L. (All Money Is Legal)

Amil
A.M.I.L. (All Money Is Legal)
September 19, 2000
Roc-a-Fella RecordsColumbia RecordsSME
055/100
Amil - All Money Is Legal

1. Smile 4 Me // 2. I Got That (feat. Beyoncé) // 3. Get Down // 4. Y’all Dead Wrong // 5. Heard It All (feat. Jay-Z) // 6. Quarrels (feat. Carl Thomas) // 7. Girlfriend // 8. All Money Is Legal (A.M.I.L.) // 9. That’s Right (feat. Jay-Z) // 10. Anyday // 11. Raw // 12. No 1 Can Compare // 13. 4 da Fam (feat. Jay-Z, Memphis Bleek & Beanie Sigel)

I don’t know what it is with rappers and their love for really, really fucking stupid acronyms. There was the Notorious B.I.G.’s crew Junior M.A.F.I.A. (Junior Masters At Finding Intelligent Attitudes), Drake’s motto Y.O.L.O., 2pac’s claim that N.I.G.G.A. stood for Never Ignorant in Getting Goals Accomplished (when everybody knows that in reality it is a misspelling of the word nigger) and when Noreaga was forced to change his rap name because the record label he had just left owned his nom de plume, he became N.O.R.E. (Niggaz on the Run Eatin’) and in september 2000 Roc-a-Fella rapper Amil followed suit by transforming her actual given name into something that was a) retarded and b) not likely to be what her mother ment when she gave her a name.

No, not all money is legal. You could state that you’re out for the loot, regardless of whether you acquire it legally or illegally, which is an attitude one can have towards money, I suppose. But this album title is a straight untruthful claim, and to make your album title a straight up lie such as what was the case with the last Roc-a-Fella release doesn’t promise much in the form of good music, to this reviewer at least. Also: the cover sorta kinda paraphrases the album cover of Lil’ Kim’s Hard Core which indicates all sorts of bandwagon-jumping.

Lastly, having heard several Amil guest appearances on other Roc-a-Fella projects, most of which were less than awe-inspiring, expectations for this album are low, which may end up in Amil’s advantage because it’ll be hard for her to disappoint.

To start with the positive: A.M.I.L. isn’t quite the shitstorm it could’ve been, the production courtesy of the likes of EZ Elpee, the Trackmasters, Rockwilder, Just Blaze, Ty Fyffe and less well-known producers is serviceable enough throughout the album, if a bit formulaic. Contemplative soul-sampling beat here, rock-tinged ass-shaker there, club banger this, R&B-hook that. Amil herself rides the beats professionally enough with her girlishly sultry voice. Yes, this is not the obknoxiousness that was Memphis Bleek’s Coming of Age.

But then neither is this actually entertaining like Beanie Sigel’s album, let alone Sauce Money’s overlooked masterpiece. This is the most middle of the road-album in reviewers recent memory, and it’s ll the more boring because of it. The second single, the Beyoncé featuring financially independent ladies anthem I Got That is a good metaphore for the entire disc. Technically sufficient but, whoever has found themselves yearning for some technically sufficient music? It is as though B. herself ony appears because All Money Is Legal is a joint venture between Roc-a-Fella Records and her label Columbia Records. (I wonder if this studio Session is where Jay and Bey met, not that there’s a trace of him on this song, mind you.)

All of these songs have been done before and since, better and worse, fom the All Saints-biting Get Down to the Neptunes-aping Rockwilder jams Y’All Dead Wrong and Girlfriend. On That’s Right Jigga and Amil do a back and forth over an early Just Blaze beat that seems to take all the wrong cues from Swizz Beatz. It makes one wonder just for what audience an album this bland is supposed to be and also why the real Swizzy and Pharrell decided to skip this one. Well Jay-Z, any help answering these questions? (What’s that Shawn? You don’t remember ever having an Amil signed to your label?)

Nevertheless there are a couple of good songs on here, although their sounding good mostly doesn’t have anything to do with the qualities of our star attraction.

The lead single, the Ty Fyffe produced Roc-a-Fella posse cut 4 Da Fam has a instrumental so majestic that it manages to make Memphis Bleek sound pretty good on his opening verse, moreso than Beanie Sigel even. Off course Shawn Carter drops by and erases all memory of any previous rappers. Our hostess doesn’t necessarily suck on here but she does sound like she doesn’t have any business appearing on record with these gentlemen. Nevertheless Jay-Z fans would do good checking it out.

Quarrels has Bad Boy Records R&B singer Carl Thomas provide some hauntingly soulful vocals over an ominous beat produced by EZ Elpee, one of P. Daddy’s Hitmen, leaving miss All Money Is Legal a particularly easy job holding the fort. Literally all she does or needs to do to make this work is exist.

Heard It All  has Jay-Z more or less dissing the shit out of Amil over a mellow acoustic guitar-laced Just Blaze co-production, until she herself gets to perform the cliché’d “female view on pimpin'” on the third verse, poorly. Which is quite amusing, mostly because reality would imitate the proceedingings of this song shortly after the release of this album.

Best tracks
Quarrels
4 da Fam

Recommendations
A.M.I.L. (All Money Is Legal) left me entirely blasé, and likely so will it you. Nevertheless the two above songs are okay enough to warrant a purchase off iTunes, Spotift or Amazon. Just don’t listen to the rest of this album.

 


DJ Clue? Presents: Backstage Mixtape: A Hard Knock Life (OST)

Various Artists
DJ Clue? Presents Backstage Mixtape: A Hard Knock Life (OST)
August 29, 2000
Roc-a-Fella RecordsDef Jam RecordingsUMG
050/100
DJ Clue Presets Backstage Mixtape
1. Intro [Skit] // 2. Best of Me (Part 2) (Mýa feat. Jay-Z) // 3. In The Club (Beanie Sigel) // 4. Keep It Thorough (Prodigy) // 5. My Mind Right (Memphis Bleek) // 6. Who Did You Expect (the LOX) // 7. Wanna Take Me Back (T-Boz) // 8. Just Leave Your Love (Christión) // 9. Darlin’ (Rell) // 10. Millionaire (Hot Boys & Big Tymers) // 11. Road Dawgs (Amil, Eve, Da Brat & Jay-Z) // 12. Funkanella (Outkast, Killer Mike & Slimm Calhoun) // 13. Come and Get It (Redman & Lady Luck) // 14. Hate Music (Cam’ron & Juelz Santana) // 15. Gotta Be a Thug (Fabolous) // 16. Don’t Want Beef (Capene-N-Noreaga) // 17. Crime Life (Memphis Bleek, Lil’ Cease & Ja Rule) // 18. Say What You Want (Da Ranjahs & Ja Rule) // 19. People’s Court (Jay-Z)

The word “mixtape” is shown prominently on this album’s cover. Mixed bag would be accurate. DJ Clue? doesn’t perform a set, and unlike on his debut album The Professional he produces but one song here, for the rest of this disc he is relegated to “Shouting his own name” duties. “Music inspired by the movie” follows the word mixtape. That’s a lie too.

Not unlike what was the case with Streets Is Watching there’s not much of a movie to speak of that would “inspire” music. In fact Backstage is a documentary on the Hard Knock Life concert tour, which was headlined by Jay-Z, DMX, Method Man, Redman, Beanie Sigel, Memphis Bleek, Amil and DJ Clue? The documentary consisted mostly of interviews of rappers.

The most logical way of tying an album to a tour is by simply releasing a recording of one of the shows, unfortunately all live hip-hop albums suck balls. (I would say nearly all live hip-hop albums, but I have yet to hear an exception.)

Perhaps the most enjoyable way to go about this novelty release, which would’ve been inessential anyway would be to compile previously released hit-singles performed by the previously mentioned line-up of artists on the tour, such as Jay-Z’s Hard Knock Life, DMX’s Slippin’, Redman’s I’ll Bee Dat! and Ja Rule’s Holla Holla. At least that way one could somewhat rightfully claim that Backstage: a Hard Knock Life was the music that inspired the movie and the disc would’ve been a nice Def Jam, class of ’99 yearbook.

In stead we are served what appears to be scraps and studio leftovers by artists who indiscriminately do or do not have anything to do with the tour, and may or may not have had supporting roles in the documentary (supporting interviews? What the hell?)

It’s not all bad though. In the Club has Beanie Sigel finally recording the Timbaland-helmed club banger that was so prominently absent from the Truth, and regardless of whether it was what you thought you wanted to hear from the guy, he does pull it off well. Keep It Thorough is Mobb Deep’s Prodigy’s finest solo song ever (although it can also be found on his solo debut H.N.I.C., sans Clue? shouting) Funkanella is a decent Dungeon Family posse cut and Millionaire has most of the contemporary Cash Money records roster (Juvenile, B.G., Birdman and Lil Wayne and others) doing their thing, for those who enjoy that sort of stuff.

Memphis Bleek and the LOX, Redman, Cam’ron, Fabolous, Ja Rule and a recently reunited Capone-N-Noreaga as well as a female rap-posse cosisting of Eve, Da Brat and Amil all put in work, with or without the aid of their subordinates, to various degrees of success, which makes sense I suppose, since they were all popular at the time. The Mýa song even has a decent excuse for appearing since it has a Jay-Z guest appearance, even if it and most of the rest of this music doesn’t need to be ever heard, let alone revisited.

What the likes of Rell, Christión da Ranjahs, T-Boz and Lil’ Cease are doing here is mystifying though. Even though the first three acts were on the Roc-a-Fella payroll at some point, they hadn’t been allowed into the studio for the recordings of any of the label’s recent memory projects (The TruthVol. 3). And Lil’ Cease, a dude who was an Notorious B.I.G. affiliate who never got to contribute to a Biggie album until the man was dead and powerless to stop him, and TLC’s T-Boz weren’t even signed to Def Jam anywhere in history.

Perhaps the Jiggaman gave Clue? the command to clean-out the Roc-a-Fella/ Def Jam vaults, as well as those of other record labels, just throw something together, slap the movie’s cover-photo on it and just release it already. Nowhere does this become more apparent than on one of the highlights, the album closer and Jigga solo-shot People’s Court where the man namedrops In My Lifetime, Vol. 2, which is most likely the album on which it was slated to appear. It was released some two years before this disc came out.

To sum it up: DJ Clue? Presents: Backstage: A Hard Knock Life Mixtape (Music Inspired by the Movie) is not a mixtape, doesn’t feature music inspired by the movie, doesn’t have so-called “DJ” Clue? doing anything DJ-like or useful otherwise, doesn’t feature the Jay-Z song Hard Knock Life, and doesn’t feature any music by Method Man, even though his face is featured on the cover.

Besides the shitloads of false-advertising there’s also the matter of what the listener actually gets on his plate; Most of the featured material is simply generic and doesn’t warrant any time, money or attention.

Best tracks
In the Club
Keep It Thorough
Funkanella
Don’t Want Beef
People’s Court

Recommendations
Look up the Beanie Sigel and solo Jay-Z songs and the CNN and OutKast songs, and let the rest be the rest. If you want to hear the Prodigy joint, which you should do, pick up the H.N.I.C.

Also on a somewhat unrelated note; pick up Sauce Money’s Middle Finger U.


Foxy Brown – Ill Na Na

Foxy Brown
Ill Na Na
November 19, 1996
Violator EntertainmentDef Jam Recordings/ BMGSME
050/100
Foxy Brown Ill Na Na
1. Intro… Chicken Coop // 2. (Holy Matrimony) Letter to the Firm // 3. Foxy’s Bells // 4. Get Me Home (feat. Blackstreet) // 5. The Promise (feat. Havoc) // 6. Interlude… The Set Up // 7. The Chase // 9.  Ill Na Na (feat. Method Man) // 10. No None’s //11. Fox Boogie (feat. Kid Kapri) // 12. I’ll Be (feat. Jay-Z) //13. Outro

Ill Na Na if not Foxy Brown’s entire career exists solely because of horny teenagers and because, allegedly, unfoundedly and unprovenly, she used to do the nasty with both NaS and Jigga, not unlike how Lil’ Kim fucked her way up the rap game via the Notorious B.I.G. Difference is that Kimberley is a gifted if limited rapper whereas Foxy couldn’t rap her way out of a paper bag. Her flow is abominable and her ghostwritten rhymes replace substance with references to her pussy and boobs. Nothing against pussy and boobs per se, but rather than hearing a full album of this shit I’d rather watch porn or something, has more substance and leaves one with a less hollow feeling.

Foxy’s Bells jacks an LL Cool J song (guess which one!) pretty straightforwardly and poorly, Get Me Home has either the whole of Teddy Riley’s R&B ensemble Blackstreet fucking our hostess, or just one of ’em while the rest cheers sings backing vocals. Fox Boogie has DJ Kid Kapri trying to make people say ughhh again, jacking an already sucky hook wholesale. Jay-Z ghostwrites most of this project and appears on Ill Be, cashing amost as many cheques as the Trackmasters while NaS off all people, who was about to get in a supergroup with Foxy, couldn’t be bothered to fart in the booth, let alone record a guest appearance. None of the other Firm-members; AZ, Nature or Cormega seemed to  have time to contribute either, inspiring the theory that the Firm only included Foxy because of commercial considerations inspired by her being conventionally attractive.

Unlucky victims whose record labels forced the chores of appearing on Fox’ songs upon them include Havoc of Mobb Deep and Method Man. Production is handled by the Trackmasters and wannabe Trackmasters. This shit sucks balls, avoid this album if you have any affinity with good music. It is disappointing, it is embarassing, it is a waste of plastic/ harddrive space.

Best tracks
The Promise
I’ll Be

Recommendations
Go to hell.


NaS – It Was Written

NaS
It Was Written
July 2, 1996
Columbia RecordsSME
080/100
NaS It Was Written

1. Album Intro // 2. The Message // 3. Street Dreams // 4. I Gave You Power // 5. Watch Dem Niggaz (feat. Foxy Brown) // 6. Take It In Blood // 7. NaS Is Coming (feat. Dr. Dre) // 8. Affirmitive Action (feat. AZ, Foxy Brown & Cormega) // 9. The Set Up (feat. Havoc) // 10.  Black Girl Lost (feat. JoJo) // 11. Suspect // 12. Shootouts // 13. Live Nigga Rap  (feat. Mobb Deep) // 14. If I Ruled the World (Imagine That) (feat. Lauryn Hill)

No hip-hop album has inspired the concept of the sophomore slump the way It Was Written has. There’s quite literally no hip-hop head who will claim that his debut album is merely alright while It Was Written is the shit. Basically hip-hop heads used to have a disregard for today’s album because it wasn’t another Illmatic, one of the most critically acclaimed hip-hop albums ever. But, as usual, snobby opinions by over-analysing critics don’t seem to be much in line with what the man in the street thinks, because even today, seventeen years post its release, it’s still Nasir’s best-selling album out of his eleven solo releases.

Now that the smoke has cleared and people have finally gotten the fuck over the fact that NaS will not release another Illmatic ever  contemporary reviews have been becoming increasingly positive. Just compare the original ’96 review of this album with the december ’12 revisit, both on RapReviews.com and marvel at the attitude change, which is pretty representative for the view of the community as a whole on It Was Written, both then and now.

Back to ’96. It Was Written was bound to disappoint. Illmatic was a masterpiece and nobody bought it upon release, leading to both unreasonable expectations from those who did buy it, impossible to fulfill even if Nasir would’ve reused the Illmatic producers and lyrical themes, and also leading to NaS shifting his musical directions into something more (sigh) pop/commercial sending him on a collision course with his fanbase. Whether this change in sound was forced upon him by his money hungry label, instigated by a money hungry NaS or was NaS legitimately interested in trying some new sounds is unknown to me, here are the facts though: NaS switched his management from MC Serch, a well-known rap legend his his own right, as well as one of Illmatic‘s architects, to Steve Stoute, who managed Mary J. Blige at that time. Stoute and/or NaS chose not to invite over Illmatic producers Q-Tip, Large Professor and Pete Rock, but kept DJ Premier and L.E.S. around, presumably as to not completely let the existing fanbase go. To produce the rest of It Was Written they brought in the Trackmasters who had produced prior hits for Kool G Rap, LL Cool J, Mary J. Blige and Method Man and do half of the tracks, as well as fellow Queensbridge hip-hop artists Mobb Deep, both to spit guest verses and to produce. Also recent Death Row Records refugee and West-Coast legend Dr. Dre produces one track. NaS’ debut album had exactly one guest verse; AZ’s on Life’s a Bitch. His sophomore featured the priously mentioned Mobb Deep and AZ as well as Foxy Brown, Cormega and R&B singers JoJo and Lauryn Hill. Final difference noticeable without actually listening to the album: Illmatic had but nine songs whereas It Was Written has thirteen (not counting intros). Basically one can correctly guess how this album differs from its predecessor and how this negatively impacts its sound before pressing play, different beats and not all of ’em as good as the last time around, more guests and not all of ’em being able to keep up and more songs than the last time around, not all of ’em warrant inclusion.

Luckily most of these things don’t turn out as problematic as they could have.

Under the influence of Wu-Tang Clan member Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… album, as well as those following, including Jay-Z and AZ NaS started to parttake in a subgenre of gangster rap called mafioso rap. No longer was he Nasty NaS, the street thug running from police, selling drugs, drinking 40 oz.’s, robbing foreigners and ripping their green cards. This time he was NaS Escobar (named after the Columbian cocain kingpin Pablo Escobar) a moniker that was meant to indicate he had moven up in the world of crime, no longer having to do dirt but having people to do this for him. In a sense this new, more sophisticated thuggery warranted the more expensive, glossy sounds the Trackmasters brought to the table.

The opening track the Message could certainly go toe-to-toe with anything off Illmatic what with its Sting-sampling Trackmasters instrumental, NaS’ rant about his supremacy over the rap game taking subliminal shots at Biggie and 2pac and DJ Kid Kapri’s scratched-in hook consisting of lines from N.Y. State of Mind and Halftime. It’s not only as good as his previous work but it also shows NaS to be quite malleable, being able to adapt to fresh new sounds. If I Ruled the World (Imagine That) has the Fugee’s Lauryn Hill re-singing the hook of Kurtis Blow’s song of the same title over a Trackmasters re-creation of an old Whodini beat while NaS describes his utopia of racial equity, equal distribution of wealth and freedom in general. It may be more radio friendly than anything off his debut, but it’s every bit as anthemic as It Ain’t Hard to Tell. With these songs NaS succesfully combined street crediblity with pop acessablity, something at which the pop mutations from Jay-Z’s In My Lifetime, Vol. 1; such as (Always Be My) Sunshine and The City Is Mine failed at miserably. (From this point Jay would only get better at them while NaS, well… Nas wouldn’t.) The only single that is slightly embarassing is Street Dreams, and only because Nas decides to interpolate (horribly re-sing) the hook of the Eurythmics Sweet Dreams, otherwise it’s fine, if a bit unspectacular.

There’s also some really good street cuts to be found here. The DJ Premier production I Gave You Power is a narrative told from the point of view of a gun and it is one of NaS’ signature songs for a reason. The two Mobb Deep collabos The Set Up and Live Nigga Rap, the former featuring only Havoc, the latter Prodigy as well, are also well on point. The same goes for the posse cut Affirmitive Action, featuring the original the Firm line-up: NaS, Foxy, Mega and AZ, So far so good.

Unlike Illmatic though this disc has some pretty mediocre stuff too: Black Girl Lost featuring Jodeci’s JoJo throws some social commentary into an album that’s mostly all about our host’s crimes and money, but unlike If I Ruled the World this track is preachy as fuck and falls flat because of it. Leave that shit to Pac, yo. Watch Them Niggas samples Bob James’ the Sponge and has a beat a little too dreamy for a song all about vigilance and back spabbers. Suspects and Shootouts are also unmemorable. Most disappointing of all is the Dr. Dre produced NaS Is Coming, with its boring-ass beat and NaS sleepwalking over it. It’s a blatant attempt at fan crossover, but that shit only works if some chemistry is on display, which here it is most certainly not.

While nothing (except for maybe NaS Is Coming because of how underwhelmingly disappointing it is) will make you want to break It Was Written in half and slit your wrists with it the bad songs do show exactly why this isn’t considered to be on par with Illmatic. It’s not as focused as that album was, and on most of these tracks the man seems distanced from his lyrics and performance. On his debut he at least sounded like he had lived everything he rapped about for the entire duration of the album whereas here, only on the lesser tracks, it would seem he tells tales he himself has heard second hand and doesn’t care that much about. Still the good songs are really good and there are a couple of classics to be found on here. And although this can’t fuck with its predecessor, that’s alright, most album’s can’t hold a candle to that one. And although I mentioned it all the fucking time throughout this review (it’s part of reviewing this particular album) one is best to see them completely seperately, even if Nas or Columbia Records may have somewhat called this comparison upon him by lazily reprising Illmatic‘s album cover.

Best Tracks
The Message
I Gave You Power
Affirmitive Action
The Set Up
Live Nigga Rap

Recommendations
Pick this one up.


50 Cent – Power of the Dollar

50 Cent
Power of the Dollar (LP)
Januari 25, 2000
*
Trackmasters Entertainment/ Columbia Records/ SME

070/100

1. Intro // 2. The Hit // 3. The Good Die Young // 4. Corner Bodega (Coke Spot) // 5. Your Life’s on the Line // 6. That Ain’t Gangsta // 7. As the World Turns (feat. Bun B) // 8. Ghetto Qu’ran (Forgive Me) // 9. Da Repercussions // 10. Money by Any Means (feat. Noreaga) // 11. Material Girl (feat. Dave Hollister) // 12. Thug Love (feat. Beyoncé) // 13. Slo Doe // 14. Gun Runner (feat. Black Child) // 15. You Ain’t No Gangsta // 16. Power of the Dollar // 17. I’m a Hustler // 18. How to Rob (feat. The Madd Rapper)
*This was the planned release date. The full version of Power of the Dollar was never officially released.

50 Cent
Power of the Dollar (EP)
September 12, 2000
Trackmasters Entertainment/ Columbia Records/ SME
055/100

1. Thug Love (feat. Beyoncé) // 2. I’m A Hustler // 3. Da Heatwave (feat. Noreaga)// 4. Your Life’s on the Line // 5. How to Rob (feat. The Madd Rapper)

Whether you love him or hate him you have to have some admiration for Curtis Jackson III. If not for his raps then at least for his persistence and his business sense. The latter is something he developed over the years, the former has always been present. He is one of those people who just won’t give up. Time and again he had a promising career thrown to the sharks, sometimes because of shit he couldn’t stop from happening too. He was born to a fifteen year old cocaine dealing mother in South Jamaica in Queens New York. His mother accidentally gassed herself after consuming a spiked drink while having the gas running when Fifty was 8, or so Wikipedia would have you believe, after which he moved in with his grandparents. In his early teens he became a drugdealer and after getting caught with weapons of some kind and narcotics of some kind he was sent to correctional boot camp. When he came back he, by his own admission immediately started selling dope again, but was careful not to get caught because correctional bootcamp really sucked. At some point he deemed the rap game more profitable than the crack game.

When he was 21 he started rapping in a friend’s basement, but the magic really started happening when he learned the craft of actual songwriting when the legendary DJ/producer Jam Master Jay picked him up and taught him to count bars and write choruses (Which would make Jay indirectly one of the Just a Lil’ Bit culprits…) Curtis was also signed to Jay’s record label and recorded his debut album with Jay, but it got shelved. (Poor Fiddy.) Curtis then left Jay’s label to hook up with pop-rap/R&B-producers the Trackmasters. They saw a potential hiphop star in the young whippersnapper and recorded his second debut album Power of the Dollar.

Things were looking bright for him since his debut single How to Rob stirred up quite a bit of controversy as it consisted of hilariously graphic detailed descriptions of how 50 was going to rob a lot of rappers and R&B singers who were at the time more famous and succesful than he was (or industry niggas, as he calls them.) The song which was obviously about as tongue-in-cheek as hip-hop gets, actually garnered quite a few responses from the likes of Jay-Z and Ghostface killah. Mariah Carey allegedly threatened to leave Columbia records, the label that housed both her and Curtis at the time, if 50 wouldn’t change the lyrics about her in the song. The man proved then for the first time that he’s good at getting the sort of publicity money can’t buy, which to a much lesser extent still rings true today. Another song on Power of the Dollar titled Your Life’s on the Line dissed the shit out of, at the time, superstar throaty disco singer rapper Ja Rule, which would become a recurring theme in Fiddy’s art. The song however that would spawn the rest of his career however was titled Ghetto Qu’ran which described the dealings of drug kingpin and Ja Rule-assiciate Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff, who got so pissed off about it that he sent someone to plug 50 Cent his famous 9 holes.

Miraculously it didn’t kill him (which later inspired Curtis to name a video game he was in Bulletproof), but it did scare the shit out of the kind folks at Columbia Records. So much that they fired Fiddy and shelved the original version of Power of the Dollar (the latter of which they probably would’ve done anyway because it was one of the first albums to fall victim to pre-release internet bootlegging) , but they did release an EP with four of its songs and one that otherwise would’ve been left on the cutting room floor, at the end of the fiscal year as a tax write-off.

The story of how Fiddy rebounded and ended up with Em and Dre to record his third debut album will be told another day. This review is about Power of the Dollar. An album that manages to simultaneously be the best album Fif had in him (not counting the Jam Master Jay record, I never heard it because it never leaked to the general public.) and much less interesting than it’s back story.

Since our man hadn’t yet got shot in the jaw his diction is miles ahead from the Ma$e-like drawl hearn on In da Club. Since he hadn’t made any real rap dollars yet he sounds hungry and a lot more believable dropping gangsta’isms  than he would on almost any future recordings. Also his assholish sense of humour doesn’t get a more positive showcase than How to Rob, nor does his introspective side ever come out better than on Ghetto Qu’ran.

The production sounds like what Puff Daddy would give one of his signees around 2000 if he wanted to incarnate his idea of a “street” album (see also Black Rob’s Life Story, G. Dep’s Child of the Ghetto  and Shyne’s Shyne): Cinematic, dramatic at times soulful, with some stale, forced R&B collabo’s and disco-lite thrown in for good measure. This should come as no surprise to those who know a bit about the Trackmasters who were at a certain point in competition with Puff for the title of jiggiest shiny suit bearer alive. Both Puffy and Tone & Poke got a critical beating in the late ‘90s for their disco-rap beats and therefor reverted back to a more fundamentalist, hardcore hip-hop sound, except super-polished and with the charts in mind.

More often than not it works. Da Repercussions, Your Life’s on the Line, That Ain’t Gangsta, Ghetto Qu’ran, Da Repercussion and I’m a Hustler all walk the line between pop accessibility and street credibilty well enough. One could criticise the album for the songs sounding alike and running together somewhat. One could flip this and praise this album for consistency. This reviewer chooses the latter.

A couple of tracks don’t click. Such as The Hit and the Good Die Young,mostly due to bland and misplaced instrumentals. It’s not that things get really unpleasant however, until our host gets paired with an R&B artist for a misguided love song. Anyone who has heard Ciara’s Can’t Leave ‘Em Alone on which Curtis appears will know what I’m talking about. Not that hearing a young Fiddy dueting a young Beyoncé isn’t interesting from a historical point of view (although no-one nut them can be sure they ever shared a recording booth) but the song suck dick and swallows. The rappers that showed up generally fare better. UGK’s Bun B actually has 50 sound faux-southern on their collabo As the World Turns and Noreaga delivers the album’s best punchline “I like my hoes like summer, no class” on Money By any Means.

Taken as a whole Power of the Dollar is a pretty okay album. Not one that drops jaws and warrants many repeated listens and nothing awful either. Although it doesn’t have any potential smash hit singles on it like his later albums it also doesn’t have the abundance of filler. Those who can’t stand Fiddy Cent because of Candy Shop and the like would do good to check this out.

Best tracks
Your Life’s On the Line, That Ain’t Gangsta, Ghetto Qu’ran, Da Repercussions, How To Rob, *Rowdy Rowdy

*Not on any version of Power of the Dollar but a song recorded during the same sessions this album was. Appeared on the soundtrack of the 1999 film In Too Deep (yeah me neither) and was released as a single. And it’s a pretty good song.

Recommendations
You can’t buy Power of the Dollar legally, unless you go for the EP version, which is a pretty poor selection of what’s available on the internet bootleg version. We at the digging in the crates blog do not condone illegal music downloading, but sometimes you just have to do what you have to do.