The Empire Struck First . . . and Better
Temptation #1: The promo version of this record features the Promo-Bot, period break-ins by a robot voice laid randomly in over the real tracks in an attempt to thwart bootleggers, who are apparently killing music just like “home taping” was supposed to be back in the 1980s. I was sorely tempted to randomly interrupt this review with HA HA DON’T BOOTLEG THIS REVIEW to stop this paranoid Promo-Bot nonsense, but decided against it because it would be too annoying and would also call attention to the fact that I get lots of free CDs all the time and make me seem like I’m just bitching about nothing.
Seriously, though, Big Dada and Def Jux and BBE and all the other labels that do this: it makes it really impossible to understand and/or love your records when you do this nonsense.
Temptation #2: To dutifully recount the reason this record exists, just like every other reviewer in the world. Sadly, I think I’ll have to succumb right off the bat, but let me just say, first, that records should fly on their own without having to rely on history lessons, and, secondly, that I don’t think this one does. Without its context, Beauty Party doesn’t make any sense. That, ultimately, is the crux of the rest of the review. But here goes anyway with the history/background part:
Mike Ladd gifted smart indie rapper poet Cambridge Massachusetts never really broke through on his own too “experimental” for own good perhaps definitely best known for 2000 record Gun Hill Road credited to Decepticons recounted “battle” between good rappers (conscious stouthearted Decepticons) and evil rappers (status-obsessed Majesticons) big indie props for this yet Ladd still underground to core now 2003 Beauty Party done in voices of Decepticons supposed to be The Empire Strikes Back part of trilogy.
Temptation #3: To fall in line like all the other critics and say how genius and brilliant a satire of “bling-bling”-style rappers Ladd has constructed here. Easiest thing in the world, man, just to parrot the line: “Chart rap gets its long-deserved smackdown here” “Proves that satire can bring down empires” “Bad Boy / No Limit / Death Row, you’ve met your match”.
And I’m predisposed to this stuff, too. I’ve flown the flag for “undie” rap, I’ve decried materialism in hip-hop, I’ve been there. I think the popularity of Puffy/P.Diddy can be equated with the “popularity” of George W. Bush—sometimes the American people just don’t want to think very much, and give in to anyone who proclaims themselves the new savior. I have much more patience for introspective rappers than for ones who spend lots of time talking about how much stuff they have. I’m not doctrinaire about it or anything; hey, man, a groove’s a groove, and it is kinda funny to hear Nelly talking about going shoe shopping with his posse. But I still prefer Blackalicious—not just because they’re talking about real life and their “feelings” and stuff, but also because I think Gift of Gab is 1,000,000,000% better as a rapper than Nelly even wants to be.
So I’m supposed to go all gooey when Ladd and his cohorts (El-P, Vast Aire from Cannibal Ox, Murs, etc.) do a whole 13-track, 48-minute satire of all that blinging and bragging and materialism. And there are definitely songs here that are really funny and insightful and stinging. It’s pretty funny to hear, during “Intro Party” (all the songs here have “Party” in their title, it’s a conceptual thing), our narrator shout, “Billy Gates, get your hands up! Malcolm Forbes, get your hands up! Gettys, Rockefellers, all you motherfuckers get your hands up!” like these billionaires are all in the crowd at the Majesticons show. And when they segue into “Piranha Party”, which approximates a Bad Boy bounce and features a complex chorus conflating rap materialism with the collapse of the inner city neighborhood, you think you might be in Satire Heaven: “We buy you out, gon’ kick you out / Tear down your house, it’s condos now / Tear down your block, those mom and pops”. And although the first verse isn’t all that fresh and repeats the same rhymes 12 times, you give ‘em a break because the second one is better.
Half the stuff here is actually pretty much on point. “Fader Party” is relentless minimalist Dirty South funk that sounds like Mystikal would if he had a high undie voice instead of his big tough one, and the irresistible lines “Count my guns / Count my sons / Count my clout / Count you out”. Hell, this rapper (I don’t know who this is for real or which Majesticons character it’s “supposed” to be) even refers to himself as “Imperious Rex”. That’s pretty good. “Brains Party” takes on all the smooth luvva-rap cranked out to hit the soft spot of romantic young people, but he’s pretty much singing to money instead of any real human being, and that’s pretty good too, especially with a chorus line lifted from the Pet Shop Boys.
And “Majestwest Party” completely ruins everyone who tried to be all Cali-gangsta in the wake of Dré and Snoop, by hitting us with those smooth synth lines and a lazy drawl about stealing gang experiences from those who’ve actually had them and adapting them into Big Big Hits! But that Compton vibe is more than a decade old at this point, so the satirical intent seems a bit (you should forgive the pun) blunted. And although “Suburb Party” has a great stuttering beat, and might be seen as a bust on rappers having middle-class aspirations (Sean Combs in that video where Ben Stiller is the uptight neighbor, what what?), what the hell is wrong with people having middle-class aspirations? I’m sure to Ladd things like the Body Shop and Ikea are evil symbols of chainstore hegemony, but they’re not all that evil, really, after all, not like Wal-Mart or anything.
This is, for me, where it all breaks down. There’s really only one joke here: rappers who like money are bad. This is, simply, not true. I’d be willing to stipulate that rappers who make crappy music on purpose just so they can make money are bad but how many times can one make that point? Well, apparently at least 13 times. But one can’t make them all well. “Game Party” sounds just like “Helicopter Party”, and neither one really sounds specific enough to score any points. “Prom Night Party” seems to center around some vague lesbian-chic storyline, but if it doesn’t mean anything and it doesn’t actually rock, then it’s useless.
And they just tip their hand way too much on “Parlor Party”. This song both satires the insane quest for female “perfection” (“Playin’ Flashdance for a cash advance”) and provides the flipside “true” idea (“Love yourself, ‘cause the truth is attractive”). Come on, Majesticons: are you getting soft? Or did Ladd’s righteousness just need to be aired out? It’s like they hit the wall before the end.
But mostly, this is just a failed opportunity. Where are the bullshit skits? (Okay, so they’ve already been taken on many times, but still.) Where is the bustage on Busta, the ripping on Clipse, the outing of OutKast (or at least the whole “player” thing Big Boi brings to the duo), the jamup of Jay-Z? (“Helicopter Party” might be directed at him, but I can’t tell.) Too many targets left untouched, which means there are too many sacred cows still in hip-hop. Or, perhaps, that the bling-hoppers actually make stuff that people like, and that they serve as their own self-parody, and that most record-buyers don’t really care. It’s like the Empire has already struck first . . . and better.
And which, overall, proves that this supposed satire is only half-successful. Ultimately, this critic has to conclude that HA HA DON’T BOOTLEG THIS REVIEW
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.
// Notes from the Road
"Drive-By Truckers gave a sold out capacity crowd a powerful two hour set filled with scuzzy guitars and deeply political rock.READ the article