It doesn‘t get more ghetto than this. Rap music’s lionization of the drug dealer is as old as rap itself, and throughout the years we‘ve seen such anthems as Ice-T’s metaphoric ”I‘m Your Pusher,“ Biggie’s comedic ”Ten Crack Commandments,“ and the greatest of ‘em all, N.W.A’s ”Dopeman,“ not to mention countless other odes to the art of slangin‘. But where brags about having hustled street corners were once a way to shock society, the crack game’s gone mainstream. Throughout the summer, MTV and urban radio pumped Clipse‘s ”Grindin’,“ a curious phenomenon considering that most stations won‘t let Khia talk about her ”crack“ but are seemingly just fine with Pusha T boasting, ”I’m the neighborhood pushercall me subwoofer‘cause I pump base.“
What’s amusing about Clipse‘s best-selling Lord Willin’ is how single-minded they are in talking up their past profession. Not every song is about dealing — one of the album‘s best cuts, ”Ma, I Don’t Love Her,“ finds the philandering Pusha T and Malice trying to placate their suspicious spouses — but Lord Willin‘ undeniably feels drug-dominated. The upside is that Clipse push their crack credentials to the point of parody — however unintentionally — and that makes Lord Willin’ as entertaining as any of Ludacris‘ purposely bugged-out songs. Listen to how Malice kicks off the ”Intro,“ rhyming ”scout’s honorstarted with my grandmammawho distributed yayshe flew in from the Bahamas.“ Yet despite what would seem like wink-wink hyperbole, Malice and Pusha T are dead-set and irony-free. If anything they protest too loudly when they‘re constantly reminding us, ”I lived off cocaineway before I lived off rap“ (Pusha T in ”Comedy Central“), as if making money off hip-hop is an embarrassing admission.
If Clipse are trying to distance themselves from the rap game, the Neptunes reel them back in. As the pop world’s current kingmakers in the biggest way, the ‘Tunes lace Clipse with studio-cooked funkiness, tracks bursting with a lustrous sound that’s an ideal fusion of pop and hip-hop sensibilities. Shrill electronic whistles accent the high drama of ”When the Last Time,“ while slurping, burping bass blips keep ”FamLay Freestyle“ charging forward. The superb ”Comedy Central“ stalks listeners with a sinister guitar loop as Pusha, Malice and guest Fabulous slip their verses within the beat‘s folds.
While Clipse may pen endless anthems on pushing weight, Scarface’s latest, The Fix, provides weight, his persona exuding a gravitas Clipse couldn‘t touch with a 10-foot crack pipe. With his gruff voice and dark, stark lyrics, Scarface manifests menace effortlessly, filling his narratives with a gritty realism conspicuously absent from Clipse’s pulpless fiction. On ”In Cold Blood,“ ‘Face paints his own evocative portrait of the corner scene: ”Full of formaldehydemy clothes reeking marijuanacops rollin’ up on usmy neighborhood‘s like a sauna.“
The Fix is Scarface’s seventh album in 11 years, and it boasts a level of maturity befitting the rapper‘s long career. While ’Face can still brag with the best of ‘em — see how he holds his own next to Jay Z and Beanie Siegel on ”Guess Who’s Back?“ — he‘s no longer a brash upstart but the elder ghetto statesman, reflective in his observations. He’s unrepentant of his trife life choices, but on songs like ”Heaven“ and ”In Between Us“ he also weighs the costs of it all, physical and spiritual. For ”In Between Us,“ Scarface‘s chorus (sung by Tanya Herron) amplifies the sophistication of his sentiments as Herron moans, ”Am I paranoid?And if that’s the caseIs it curable?Can you help me find my place?I can‘t handle thisI’m losing itwith a loose gripI‘m hanging onto emptiness.“
The album’s music is no less impressive, led by Chicago phenom Kayne West and supported by everyone from ‘Face himself to partner Mike Dean to — surprise, surprise — the Neptunes. Like Jay Z’s The Blueprint, The Fix turns to ‘70s soul for its sonic cache, filling the album with bright, lush melodies and dense, dramatic rhythms. Nashiem Myrick borrows a gorgeous piano loop from Donny Hathaway for the striking ”On My Block,“ but West steals the show with his riddim-blessed track on ”Guess Who’s Back?,“ a leading candidate for beat of the year.
Both Lord Willin‘ and The Fix draw their inspiration from the shared source of corner dope hustlin’, but each offers an entirely different gratification. Clipse, with a big assist from the Neptunes, roll with the kind of hyperreal bravado you‘d find on a video-game soundtrack — flashy and fun, but short on depth beyond its pixilated pleasures. Scarface, a solemn figure armed with the strongest album in his decadelong career, stands triumphant as hip-hop’s spiritual-minded gangster, preaching his own brand of street sermon and dispensing grace with a gunshot blast.
CLIPSE | Lord Willin‘ | (AristaStar Trak)
SCARFACE | The Fix | (Def Jam South)