Maybe its because I’m from the Midwest, but my friends and I would compete to discover the fastest rappers. Obviously, they were all from the Midwest: Twista, early Mystical, Tech N9ne, Crucial Conflict, Do or Die. But none of them touched Bone, especially Bizzy Bone. None of them had that mysterious aura that Bone had, either. I remember gathering around the mirror with all my neighborhood friends, reading the cryptic backwards liner notes from East 1999 Eternal. My friend heard a rumor that the members of Bone had sold their souls to the devil (a la Robert Johnson) so that they could rap as fast as they did. The devil was going to kill them all simultaneously on January 1st, 1999. It sounds silly now, but at the time, steeped in Bone Thugs lore, it seemed possible. We found signs everywhere of their supposed satanic connections: the frequent ouija board allusions, the constant refrain of “Mo Murder”, like a chant, and the skull-n-bones imagery. But it was the sheer ability of the group which made it seem like their skills could come from nowhere else but a higher (or lower) power.
In The Truth Behind Hip-Hop, preacher on a mission, G. Craige Lewis, attempts to point out the satanic intentions of popular rap stars. In one segment, Lewis held up the same booklet for East 1999 Eternal I held up in the mirror when I was 13-year-old and explained that the backwards liner notes had their roots in a satanic curse and that anyone who read them put a hex on themselves and were left open to the devil’s whims. He told a story about his first experience with the group through a video he saw on MTV. He said that the group’s sound was “mesmerizing and hypnotizing”, that it put him in a strange trance that could only be connected with dark forces. A slight exaggeration, obviously, but Bone did have a powerful aura. They were, and still are, one of the weirdest groups to attain commercial success (and a Grammy). But for all their flirtation with the dark side, Bone were always spiritually minded. Their biggest success, “Tha Crossroads”, was a song about death, but with a hopeful refrain: that the band would someday meet all their loved ones at the crossroads. Where they would go from there was left open. The guilt of street life was always heavy on the members of Bone. One of their best songs, “Days of Our Livez”, opens with the wholly depressing line, “only time will tell who dies.” Now it’s 2007 and Bone are still alive, trying to make money on novelty nostalgia.
What I’m trying to convey with all this is history is that the mystery of Bone is gone. Somewhere between The Art of War and BTNHResurrection the group lost touch with that thing that made them special. They proceeded to spread themselves too thin with side projects and solo albums, to forget what originally made them so unique in the first place—it wasn’t just that they could rap fast, it was that they tapped into a very real spiritual sadness brought on by a very real impoverished upbringing. The Bone Thugs on Strength and Loyalty has heart, but is devoid of any mystique.
Their last great album, BTNHResurrection, while made at maybe the height of the group’s feuding, led to some amazing songs. The opening half is bolstered by a collection of dark, apocalyptic tracks that belied the “comeback” single, “Resurrection (Paper Paper)”. Flesh-N-Bone and Bizzy really held the album afloat, with Krayzie and Wish on only a handful of tracks (reportedly because Krayzie and Bizzy could hardly be in the same room together). On the companion making-of DVD, Bizzy is an absolute mess, either spitting Biblical vitriol while brandishing a knife or trying to fight Wish Bone for smoking his weed. In the studio he was a man possessed, eyes closed, body quivering like a seizure victim. On the other side, Krayzie was always the mellow one, the business man. Layzie and Wish just seemed happy to be in on the ride, hungry to get it done and get paid. Flesh was quiet, peppering his speech with nervous “you know what I’m sayin’”’s and folding and unfolding his arms. This was what Bone had become: less a group than a collection of disparate friends who got together to make money.
Strength and Loyalty is the same but with even less group effort. Swizz Beats, treating them like Golden Age rap-loyalty, offered them a deal on his Full Surface Record imprint. Bizzy, homeless and nomadic, was contacted by the rest of the group to get in on the deal. He turned it down. It was maybe the smartest and stupidest move he ever made.
Major label (and major beats) aside, the biggest change on Strength and Loyalty is this absence of Bizzy Bone, the only member to never lose that special connection the group had to the spiritual world. Easily the best, and easily the most interesting member of the group, Bizzy’s absence from Strength and Loyalty is stunning. But looking at Bizzy’s current musical direction (bouncing from label to label with his underground, wordy musings), I really wouldn’t want to hear him rhyme over a Swizz beat or struggle for time with bloated Akon choruses. Bizzy’s output from the last few years (which amounts to like, three albums each year) will be applauded as the work of a misunderstood genius. Yeah, he’s slightly eccentric, but most great artists are. Bizzy was always a couple steps ahead of the other members, besides maybe Flesh, who is sorely missed (and rumored to be getting out of jail soon to join the rest of the group, Bizzy included) and whose two solo albums almost matched the darkness of the group’s masterwork, East 1999. With Bizzy working out his own personal demons, the other members are forging ahead without him and the album greatly sufferes because of it.
Strength and Loyalty‘s biggest fault is its complete unBoneness. It’s completely devoid of that darkness that permeated their earlier work. Treated like royalty, Bone now get the superstar beats and the superstar guests. Of those guests, Mariah Carey I can understand (even if it is just another attempt at rekindling past collaboration-glory) But Bow Wow? Akon? Bone, particularly Bizzy, could have sung the hook to “I Tried” themselves, instead they enlist the ubiquitous hitman to sing it. And sing it he does: over two minutes of the 4:50 long song are given up to Akon’s chorus (which is sung four times). Elsewhere, The Game’s appearance for a guest verse on “Streets” is strange because, if his previous lyrical name-dropping is any indicator of his hip-hop love, he doesn’t even know the Midwest exists. Which is what makes this sudden Bone love so off-putting—it’s like the group is a nostalgic novelty act, and everybody wants to name-drop ‘em. It’s like Layzie Bone has said (repeatedly), everybody loves Bone, but Bone doesn’t sell anymore. The whole concept behind Strength and Loyalty is to change that.
Gimme DJ Uneek, the producer behind all of East 1999 Eternal and The Art of War, over will.i.am and Jermaine Dupri any day. Uneek was the only producer who ever really understood Bone’s sound and his moody, twinkling backbeats are missed, replaced by Jermaine Dupri’s shining radio-ready exuberance and Akon’s string-pulling piano ballads. “Gun Blast”, produced by Ty Fyffe, cops the same Basic Instinct sampling beat that Cam’ron used for “You Gotta Love It” (which is just lazy considering Fyffe has worked with Cam). “Flowmotion” is little more than an updated version of an extremely early Bone track (back when they were known as B.O.N.E. Enterprise) of the same name—not surprisingly it’s the albums fastest, most melodic and best track. The one leftover from Layzie Bone’s failed Mo Thug project, Felecia, makes an appearance on the glimmering, much too positive “So Good, So Right.” And then, at the very end, is yet another Akon produced, Akon featuring track. I’m just imagining the three remaining Bone members, beleaguered and desperate, ready to get back on the charts, being pushed around by producers and record execs to make something for the radio, and in the end, bowing to them all.
The Bone I knew, or the Bone I like to think I knew, would have used this nothing-left-to-lose opportunity to create something unlike anything else. Instead, they’ve intentionally created something that sounds like everything else, something totally unBone. I don’t wanna be just another “their-earlier-shit-was-better” kinda guy, but, well—their earlier shit was better.