Who waits until they’ve reached legendary status in hip-hop to release a debut? Apparently Cypress Hill’s Sen Dog (Senen Reyes) does, that’s who, and his doing so presents a noteworthy dilemma. Cypress Hill’s legacy was celebrated during the 2008 Vh1 Hip Hop Honors, alongside choice acts Slick Rick, Naughty By Nature, De La Soul, Too Short, and Isaac Hayes. Sen Dog’s dilemma is how to position himself as a veteran gone solo while also acknowledging his contributions to one of hip-hop’s most significant groups. It’s difficult to navigate, because too much distance from the Cypress Hill brand forfeits the goodwill to which Sen Dog is rightfully entitled. On the other hand, following the Cypress Hill script too closely undermines the individuality that presumably accompanies a solo release.
The result, Diary of a Mad Dog, tries to strike a balance. The “diary” aspect in the title connotes privacy, suggesting a personal endeavor, while the fact that this is a solo album suggests Sen Dog has something to prove. For Cypress Hill fans, Sen Dog’s worldview remains intact: the world still has a dog-eat-dog mentality that separates “the men from the niños” (“Stand Up”), gang life is still prevalent in the streets (“Backin’ Up My Gang”), and the legal system is still rife with inequities (“Biggy Bang”).
An appearance from Cypress Hill crony B-Real (as producer of “Juggernaut”) keeps Sen Dog’s longstanding affiliations intact. Production from DJ Ace, Underrated, Kumagai, Rogelio Lozano, and others gives the album that familiar West Coast feel, bouncy and party-oriented even when used as a backdrop for hardcore subject matter. Mafia-style odes to the streets (“Capo”) keep company with funky posse tracks (“International”, “Curtain Call”) and a superbly catchy opener (“Fumble”) that flirts with electronica. The intriguing part of Sen Dog’s approach to his status as, oxymoronically, a veteran newcomer, is the way he embraces his longevity. As an elder statesman in hip-hop, he offers his experiences with a wink of camaraderie rather than an air of condescension. He’s one of the “homies” instead of an arrogant overlord.
As for weaknesses, it might be too easy to say that Sen Dog probably isn’t the most lyrical rapper around. It doesn’t stop him from making solid joints. Really, the biggest problem is that the old familiar Cypress Hill vibe is never too far away. It’s the absence of the magical chemistry between B-Real (Louis Freese) and Sen Dog, and the contrast of their voices in B. Real’s nasally delivery and Sen Dog’s full moon howl. It’s the same reaction you might have to a solo efforts by Erick Sermon of EPMD without his rhyming partner Parrish Smith, or a Q-Tip record that’s separate from A Tribe Called Quest, although that reaction arguably lessens as more time elapses following the group’s split. The problem can be overcome, like when Ice Cube blew up on both coasts after he left N.W.A. While nothing on Diary of a Mad Dog indicates an Ice Cube level of emancipation, Sen Dog will nevertheless give you something decent to ride to.