Though T.HU.G. Angelz: Welcome to the Red Hook Houses implies one location for the album setting, the album territory gradually expands beyond the Brooklyn housing development and becomes biblical in scope.
The album also brings up one of rap’s greatest dilemmas. Of course, rapping about the hood is not new territory for a rap album. But whenever the setting for a rap album is the hood, there’s always the risk of falling perilously into rap cliché, unless of course the rapper and producer can show you a side of the hood that you haven’t seen or heard explained before or make it personal in a way that steers clear of cliché. With Red Hook there’s a little bit of both. There’s hood cliché but those missteps are outweighed by the moments of righteous rhyming and solid emcee ghetto storytelling journalism—all of which put you right in the middle of the struggle of living in the Red Hook Houses.
From a lyrical standpoint New York-based emcees Hell Razah and El Shabazh are worthy tour guides as they take you through the infamous housing developments where some of hip hop’s early emcees and lyrical content was birthed. Hell Razah’s and El Shabazh’s association with the Wu Tang Clan is evident in their barbed street rhymes that are packed with pain, heartache, anger and frustration of being hood, growing up in the hood, taking back the hood, and loving the hood, but also wanting to get out of the hood. On the opening track “Welcome to the Red Hook” the rhymes are complex and flow fast from the heart with each word focused tightly on the trials and tribulations of living in the Red Hook Houses and trying to survive within its helixed history of crime and hip hop tradition. ““This is red hook you know the name Rings bells/GG last stop nigger welcome to hell/it’s like a maximum facility your block is a cell/and yo we see made niggas get popped but never tell/its mandatory life no parole under the RICO order.”
And it lyrical moments like that that make the rhymes the main takeaway once you leave the Red Hook because the bass beats, gunshot snare pops and eerily trickling piano melodies are pretty standard and are mostly a necessary backdrop for emcees to do their dark and gritty storytelling. Though the production is fragmented among several different producers—and the Wu-Tang RZA influences are certainly there—the production never really gives Red Hook the unified soundtracks it deserves and only scratches the surface of what this album could’ve sounded like. Nonetheless borrowed, the classic New York hip hop beats serve their basic purpose as a constant sonic current that slowly builds toward the album’s dramatic Revelation-inspired ending track “144,000”. This final track breaks the seal on the whole album and is so jarringly different and sincere in tone from the silly and dismissible opening “Cab Ride”—that sounds like an Indy race car—takes you to Red Hook. Where “144,000” points you to the heavens and gives the hood hope of better days in the afterlife, “Cab Ride”’s stalls on the highway of rap cliché recalling soundtrack effects lifted from Grand Theft Auto instead of taking me into the more creative territory that H.P. Lovecraft once did with his 1927 story Horror at Red Hook. I’m not asking for anything literary but they should’ve just started the tour with the second track, which would’ve made the introduction to Red Hook more compelling as I crossed over into the album’s formidable lyrical threshold.
Though my trip through Red Hook doesn’t provide any easy answers to my original question of whether this album was preaching to get out of the hood, celebrate it or using it as a street cred marketing tool; I will however, tell you this. Because of the deeper dive into the complex situations of death, doing time, drug dealing, faith, gangs and gentrification via the lock-tight lyrical performances, this album is not so easy to simply dismiss as cliché thug chest-thumping. It has heart and moments of well-intentioned sentiment that are worth listening to. You just have to sift through the tiresome claim-back-the-hood anthems and black Red Hook Sopranos metaphors to get to the openness and realness rhymes schemes of the T.H.U.G Anglez.