Thursday, August 12, 2004

I got bad news, bad news

In 1993 my roommate at the time asked which was better “Buhloone Mind State” or “Midnight Marauders. And of course the answer was “Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).”
The second quarter of the ‘90s were the years when New York rap transitioned from optimistic intonations by the Native Tongues to the darker outlook of the new hardcore. Biggie, Jay-Z and Nas all debuted but for me it was the Wu-Tang Clan and Mobb Deep* that really cast a shadow on their respective New Yorks.

The citizens of “The Infamous” and “Enter the 36 Chambers,” a decade later, soldier on in Mobb Deep’s “Americaz Nightmare” and Theodore Unit’s “718,” put together by Wu-Tang Clansman, Ghostface. The more things change...?

from a place where "Fish" was made

The Group – The overwhelming number of Wu-Tang MCs is alluded to by the Theodore Unit. The multimember debut is a throwback to the Cold Crush, Furious and Fantastic groups of yore. Is it coincidence that a man named Theodore backed one of those crews?

Image – We entered “The 36 Chambers” in shadow overhearing coded language and glimpsing masks. On the other hand, the TU comes out swinging right into the car headlights, showing off letterman jackets and evoking retro-regular dudes. The swirling rumors around the freshman Ghostface were abandoned long ago as he has clearly become the BMOC.

Production – Breaking the “36” mold, 12 of 16 “718” cuts are by different producers. but they all keep it nice and simple… loops, familiar drums and musical samples mixed with obscure vocal snippets. But nothing comes close to the RZA-risks produced on a purposely jumbled, ‘unearthed’ "36" sound... RZA's inclusion of false starts and noise STILL provides exotic flavor. Relatively speaking TU serves up hip-hop comfort food!

Styles – "Proteck Ya Neck" still stands as one of the most diverse sounding lineups ever captured so organically and unexpectedly on wax. TU’s “Pass the Mic” doesn’t present standout styles but it’s solid with a nice cipher vocal interaction. As brilliant as Ghost was on the Wu debut and Raekwon’s “Linx,” I don’t think anyone predicted he would be the Clansman waving the Iron Flag 10 years hence. It was hard to imagine his ready-to-boil-over thugness sustaining a solo release. But his bold wordplay AND raw emotions AND ‘realness’ allowed him to take huge leaps past his Wu brethren. He embodied confidence, desire, pain, and contradiction. The Theodore Unit obviously developed in Starks shadow. The phrasing and content of Shawn Wigs on “Daily Routine” are clearly indebted to Ghost’s detailed, staccato storytelling style. Solomon Childs on “Mama Can You Hear Me” dips into the Ironman tear-duct well and similarly takes advantage of simultaneous gruff and vulnerable vocals. Cappadonna maintains the surrealism and odd metaphors that his longtime partners, Rae and Ghost, have employed at his side. But it is no surprise that Ghost takes the cake when he brings the most hilarious juxing ever put on wax: “Shakin’ niggas upside down on some cartoon shit/ Change fallin’ out they pockets and shit!

Cameos – On their debut the Wu was the Wu. On “718” Meth and Bone Crusher appear in a cameo combo that would seem like a cynical market choice but makes sense in the context of Starks Industries. Method IS his man and Crusher’s voice works TOO well with the big band crescendos on “Who Are We?” Ghost's Shaolin training: Selective sword selection.

Changing the game – The Wu came out of nowhere as unknown MCs on a chorus-less 5-minute blast punctured with sound-effect shrapnel. On "36" MCs took various roles per song… a chorus here, a solo there... and, of course, they restructured how an MC could go solo AND maintain a group affiliation. I can’t imagine a group ever having the same impact on the art and business of hip-hop SIMULTANEOUSLY. 50 Cent’s redefinition of himself and the mixtape comes the closest and the Theodores live in his wake. TU is debuting on an 'Official Mixtape' (a vague idea that nonetheless capitalizes on the phenomenon) with a genuine hip-hop star (although HE debuted with anonymous cohorts).

Focus - Ghost fans will be familiar with a handful of songs from ‘unofficial’ mixtapes but TU has pulled off a feat that most artists can’t. The energy and hunger documented on most mixtapes survives on “718.” The Shaolin tales, pop culture references and street philosophy employed by Wu-Tang is missing. It makes me think that a few more details about the Theodore environment and outlook would have rounded out the Unit definition. And since it’s a ‘mixtape’ TU jacks a Kane track for “’88 Freestyle.”

those who sling, play the shadows by the building
Infamous to Nightmare

Dun language – Everyone grabs Mobb Deep’s slang but unfortunately “Nightmare” offers little language for the taking. As poetic as ‘cloud killers’ is it can’t compare to ‘lifting’ people and leaving them ‘leaking’, ‘kicko!’

It’s a cold world – The Deep depend on dark, depressing depictions of dunny details... and this album has the chiller of the year. P interrupts the club friendly “Got It Twisted” with the line “A little blood get on my daughter, that’s nothing, she'll live.”

Monotone – H and P maintain their trademark steady phrasing but stretch a bit more on “Nightmare” particularly with the repetition of last words (“Buck-Buck”, “Shorty Wop-Wop”, “Flood the Block-Block”) and leaving gaps in the chorus (“We about to ____”, “When you hear the ___”); simple tricks that work within the Mobbster rhythms. But the real breakout? Havoc simply KILLS it on “On the Run.”

Skits – Most critics say “Enough already with skits!” but if I had to make one exception it would be for Mobb Deep. Their interludes are always as cold and blunt as their songs and, unlike most post-“3 Feet High…” skits, they actually contribute to the mood of the album. Can I actually be disappointed that they came in with a solid 15?

Production - One producer per group used to be the way to my heart. In the cases of Gangstarr, De La, Tribe and Wu-Tang it was absolutely true and with “The Infamous” it was mostly true. Although Havoc got some help it was clearly his sound that defined the new incarnation of Mobb Deep**. Although I’m impressed with Kanye’s manipulation of the electric guitar crunch that dances around on “Throw Your Hands,” and I appreciate Lil’ Jon’s signature whistles, neither producer gives me the Mobb Deep feel. The sing-song outro (“Never leave without your gat”) of “Real Ni***az” (not to be confused with “Real Gangstaz”) along with the catchiest beat of the album gives Red Spyda the Donnie-Brasco-prize for successful Mobb-infiltration.

Beef – You can’t really say P expresses anger or rage in his verses but you can always tell he’s a little peeved. The precise and icy ammo he unloads on a nemesis (“just for livin’”) are missing from the last few Mobb releases. Fans hoping for a “Man Down” retaliation to “Takeover” were left with a void that, unfortunately, continues into “Nightmare.”

Both Ghost and the Mobb are known for providing for the street but their product comes in contrasting packaging. Ghost’s stomped-on blend of tough-talk and emotion contrasts sharply with the uncut ice-grill of H and P. It’s no surprise hearing Starks ‘push’ with Missy but we definitely mistrust 112 hanging out on the 41st side of things. The conservative QB mantra “It ain’t where you at, kid/ It’s where you're from” might allow the Mobb to venture into club land with “Shook Ones” but you know they’re on the other side of the tracks when Lil’ Jon and Kanye are showing up. The thing is, I actually like the club-friendly joints. Maybe P explains it on “When You Hear The” when he claims that the Mobb “sounds brand new, like we just started.” Let’s hope this isn’t a total rebuilding of the Bridge though. Ghost sums up the decade for himself and Mobb Deep more successfully when he croons the headline on "Paychecks":“Everybody thinkin’ it’s not gonna last/ I got bad news/ Bad news!”

* Although “Juvenile Hell” came first, “The Infamous” was the birth of the Mobb Deep sound
**Of the classic albums of this time “Illmatic” is the strongest case for using any and all of the hottest producers of the moment… a trend still alive that I hope will die off soon.