[14 October 2005]
“Yeah… and if you understand and you remember this, then you know what’s goin’ on. And if you don’t know ‘Make ‘Em Say Ugh’, then that was before your time and you really don’t know what’s happening. I mean, nothing come to a sleeper but a dream. Follow what you do, be unique, set a trend. That’s where the record business moved from, the past to the present, you feel me?”
Master P, “Update”
In the annals of modern popular music, few artists have shone so brightly and touched so deeply at the heart of their epoch as Percy Miller, known by the nom de guerre Master P, the self made “ghetto millionaire” who rose from the turmoil of the modern black Diaspora to redefine the fin de siecle ennui—
OK, I’m sorry, not even I can keep that up for long. There really is no arguing with the fact that the music of Master P is now and has always been resolutely horrible. That does not mean, however, that it is without merit—if you ever get the chance to look over my CD racks you’ll find a pile of classic No Limit discs. Yes, it’s horrible, but it’s horrible in such a deliciously bad way that any but the most hidebound aesthete has to acknowledge the visceral thrill of something so uniquely, all-encompassingly bad.
In an era when even the output of Cash Money Records gets (relatively) serious critical approbation, the virtues of No Limit remain unsung. In many ways, P was lucky in inverse proportion to his extremely circumscribed talents. He was really the first person in the music industry to realize how big southern hip-hop could be on a national scale, and because he was in the right place at the right time he was able to leverage his small independent label into a major distribution deal (with Priority) that made him an instant multimillionaire. His records even sold fairly well for a time, despite the fact that they were almost uniformly horrid. He couldn’t rap his way out of a paper bag, despite (or because?) of the fact that half of his lines were cribbed from Biggie or Tupac. His “flow” could probably best be compared to that of a three-year-old autistic child with a mouth full of cat’s-eye marbles.
But his records were not, as is the case with so much of today’s pop-gangster crap, unlistenably bad. I like to think of P in the same vein as Ed Wood—if Ed Wood had been able to trick a major studio into bankrolling and distributing Plan 9 From Outer Space. This isn’t kitsch, or at least not intentionally so. P is absolutely sincere in his attempts to create good music. Like Wood, however, he is just not very bright, and so his attempts at evoking the atmosphere and moral equivocacy of classic Tupac are about as clumsy and club-footed as Torgo rising from his mist-shrouded grave.
But the heyday of No Limit was a long time ago, and this disc readily attests to the fact that Master P long ago passed his sell-by date. Ghetto D and Da Last Don were classics of a kind because they were so unerringly, ostentatiously novel. Seriously, who can ever forget the first time they ever heard “Make ‘Em Say Ugh?” Or saw the video, with the basketball playing gorilla and Shaquille O’Neal losing his mind in the bleachers? At his very best, P was able to channel a kind of Zen stupidity, an absolute confidence in his own limited abilities that made any critical quibbling seem utterly superfluous. Much like the Ramones, Master P was a steadfast believer in the invincibility of his own comic pretensions—but unlike the Ramones, Master P never knew enough to let on that he was joking, or even seemed to understand that it was a joke to begin with.
Which is why this current Greatest Hits disc has all the charm of a lumpy turd. Instead of merely putting out a disc with the ostensible highlights from his prolific recording career—an endeavor that might have aspired to some modest historical significance—P has “remixed” all the hits. This means the raps are different, the beats are changed, and all the copious guest rappers—once the highlight of a No Limit production—have been scrubbed away. Gone are Mystikal, the Fiend, Mia X and any number of other, lesser lights who passed through the No Limit star chamber on their way to prison, obscurity or law school (respectively). Of course, P’s loyal brothers Silkk the Shocker and C-Murder (now serving a life sentence) remain, as do high-profile guests such as the Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and Snoop Dogg. The reason for this probably has a lot to do with the fact that it’s hard to have a falling out with someone who only rapped on your track because you paid them a lot of money.
Like the best dynasties, No Limit ultimately rose and fell on the quality of loyalty (not to mention the fact that no one buys their CDs anymore). Like any record mogul, Master P courts and develops blossoming talent, but the rate at which Master P alienates and disillusions said talent is phenomenal, even for the record industry. Everything that needs to be said about Master P’s talent as an A&R rep can be summed up in the fact that he dropped Mystikal from the label, claiming he had no further commercial potential, on the eve of Mystikal’s breakout multiplatinum solo success in 2000. (The fact that Mystikal later ended up in prison on charges of sexual battery, however, is his own damn fault.)
So, without the barrage of No Limit guests, the once-epic “Ugh” is a scant two minutes long. New protégés such as Black, Tank Dog and the Black Sopranos have been clumsily inserted in place of familiar faces. For those of us who have the original records handy, it makes about as much sense as Diddy cutting Ma$e out of “Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems” and inserting a verse by the guy who happened to deliver Chinese food to the studio that afternoon—it may make sense on the face of it, but who are we really trying to kid here?
Ultimately, Master P will be remembered for two things. First, for the fact that at the height of his commercial clout he was able to liberate Snoop Dogg from his ruinous contract with Suge Knight, thereby facilitating the first step in the Doggfather’s consequent ascent to cultural ubiquity. But more important than being a mere footnote in the long and bitter afterlife of Death Row Records, P will be remembered as a man who was able to make a lot of money by making records that no one in their right mind now admits to having liked, or even having bought, in the first place. He was the forerunner for every down-south superstar who built their success on the “bounce” template or some variant thereof. He may not get the credit, but he was there first.
I’ll keep my copy of Da Last Don handy, with its hysterical delusions of grandeur and never-ending parade of “Ughs”. It is sure to put a smile on my face whenever I put it in the stereo. However, I won’t be listening to this botched attempt at a revisionist Greatest Hits ever again.