Don't Judge the Block by Its Cover
Mountie Captain: “Mr. Ness! I do not approve of your methods.”
Eliot Ness: “Yeah, well… you’re not from Chicago.”
—The Untouchables (1987)
Block Music, Shawnna’s second solo album, is in danger—of getting slept on, that is. Shawnna’s the second hip-hop queen of Chicago, Illinois (I still consider Da Brat the first). But since every lady in hip-hop deserves a posse—Yo-Yo rolled with Da Lench Mob, Eve had the Ruff Ryders, Lil Kim had Junior Mafia, Foxy Brown was down with the Firm—Shawnna’s also the first lady of the Ludacris-fronted Disturbing Tha Peace. She got hip-hop fans geared up for a slammin’ debut after her guest appearance on Ludacris’s “What’s Your Fantasy”, but her first release, Worth Tha Weight, didn’t quite hit the mark. This time around, hyped by another red hot single, “Gettin’ Some”, anticipation is high again.
You might read the tracklist, notice the community of guest stars, and wonder if Shawnna’s going to be outmatched by her posse. There are a lot of guests: 1-20, Smoke of Field Mob, Ludacris, Pharrell, Lil Wayne, Too Short, 8 Ball & MJG, Johnny P., Syleena Johnson, Bobby Valentino, Buddy Guy (Shawnna’s father), Shareefa, Fred Hampton, Jr., Avant, Malik Yusef, and Yung Berg. That’s quite a block party. Yet Shawnna earns her shine and never gets outdone.
But take one look at the album cover. Shawnna poses on a white sofa, wearing shorts to emphasize her legs, plus a pair of yellow heels, and a look on her face that’s eerily reminiscent of Paula Jai Parker’s in Hustle & Flow. In the background, there’s the Chicago (some of us call it “Chi-town”) skyline. On the back cover, Shawnna sports flourescent pink athletic gear. Her backside faces the camera to display the words “Block Music” on her jacket and “DTP” on the rump of her shorts. Inside, there’s a fold-out picture of the artist in a black dress and heels, posing with a gigantic cigar. I suppose you could unfold that picture and put it up on your wall—not that I would do that, of course. Or you could stop the madness right there, say “I’ve seen it all before,” and dismiss Shawnna as another name in a short list of female gangsta emcee’s trying to talk tough and out-sex her male counterparts.
If you did that, you’d be partly right. The album cover emphasizes Shawnna’s body, although the photos are pretty mild in comparison to some other covers. You might recall Adina Howard’s Do You Wanna Ride (1995) cover, in which she bent over and placed both hands on the hood of a sports car as she positioned her gluteus for the camera shot. Howard wore a pair of shorts that would make Daisy Duke seem decked out in a ball gown. Still, it was effective, considering the popularity of Ms. Howard’s single “Freak Like Me”.
Shawnna’s photos are nowhere near as suggestive as Do You Wanna Ride, or as revealing as a Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. But attention to the raunchier side of life is the vibe, evidenced by “Damn”, Shawnna’s homage to her own ass (chorus: “Damn, and she got a donkey, and that shit so chunky, how she got them jeans on that monkey”). It’s the hardcore version of Destiny’s Child’s “Bootylicious”, though in Shawnna’s telling you’re left wondering why she’s saying what the men would say. Why not just let the men say it?
That vibe continues when Shawnna and friends (Ludacris, Pharrell, Lil Wayne, and Too Short) launch into “Gettin’ Some”, the aforementioned salute to oral stimulation. Add to that the moments when Shawnna’s flow mimics Da Brat’s (“Can’t Do It Like Me” sounds like an b-side of Da Brat’s “That’s What I’m Looking For”), and a recipe for getting slept on is almost guaranteed. I believe, however, there are reasons why this album should not be overlooked.
First of all, Shawnna’s got skills on the M-I-C. She can rhyme surprisingly fast without resorting to simplistic patterns (check the third verse of “Candy Coated”), and then she can flip the program to go slow and sing-songy over her crew’s southern crunk beats. While the beats on this release aren’t as flashy as Shawnna’s flow, they work well enough to get the job done.
Next, there’s the possibility that maybe, just maybe, she’s posturing as “Chi-town’s finest pimpstress” to reel in her listeners. Once they’re hooked, perhaps they will be interested in her other material. The most explicit clue appears in “Chicago”, when Shawnna references the perceptions of her image, rapping, “I know you’re probably thinking / ‘She’s another / Sleazy rapper / Leaning backwards on her CD cover’”.
A less subtle clue is the song arrangment. Tracks one through six concentrate on Shawnna’s grittier side. “Can’t Do It Like Me” opens the album on Ludacris’ declaration that Shawnna is the “hardest female in the motherfuckin’ game”. Title song “Block Music”, she says, is for her “murder mommies”, as she keeps things “in order like it’s tic tac toe” and she’s “X-ing out any nigga with a bitch ass flow”.
You already know about “Gettin’ Some”—it’s a popular track, although I think it’s a bit overrated. In hip-hop’s raunch genre, there have been better hardcore sex tracks, like Lil Kim and Junior Mafia’s “We Don’t Need It”, or even Kurupt’s “I Wanna…” from the second disc of his Kuruption LP. Posse tracks in which rappers pass the mic around to share sex tales strike me as a little odd anyway. Who sits in a group explaining which sexual positions they like or which techniques they prefer for oral sex? Maybe it’s just me, but I find that strange. Even stranger is the addition of another version of “Gettin’ Some” at the end of the album as a hidden track. Streamlined to verses by Shawnna, I actually prefer this version to the remix where, after Pharrell’s verse, I got tired of hearing about everybody else’s sexual escapades. I can’t shake the feeling that if I have time to listen to these tracks, there’s something terribly wrong going on in my own private life.
I already mentioned “Damn” (tell me, how does she get them jeans on that monkey?). On “Candy Coated”, Shawnna brags on her ride (as the chorus goes, “My candy coated paint makes the bitches at the bus stop sick”) and later unloads a tale of mayhem on “Roll Wit Me”.
But here’s the shocker. Tracks seven through twelve explore other sides to Shawnna’s persona. With “In the Chi” (not the “chi” in “ta’i chi”, but the “chi” in “Chi-town”) Shawnna puts it down for the city life of Chicago, opening with a welcome, as if to signal the album’s new phase. “Take It Slow”, featuring Ludacris and Bobby Valentino, is another sexual romp, but this time around there’s more sensuality in the experience. There’s also a twist—Shawnna’s character and her lover are both in relationships with other people. Her man’s checking her phone bills, and his girl’s investigating his pager. Although similar in structure to “In the Chi”—incorporating R&B-style hooks between rap verses—“Take It Slow” is a catchier number, largely because its hook works better.
“Can’t Break Me” finds Shawnna offering words of inspiration. Her father, blues maestro and Rock-and-Roll Hall of Famer Buddy Guy, makes an appearance here, as does soul singer Shareefa. In the first verse, Shawnna shares a few gems from her father about making it in the music industry. She rhymes, “My daddy told me this industry ain’t what you think it is / And everyday that you’ll be gone, you will think of your kids”. In the second verse, it’s about mother and child, with lines like “My baby asked me why his daddy don’t love him yet / I swear to God it’s like a bullet goin’ through my chest”. Shareefa’s singing is a highlight, as well as Shawnna’s ability to carry her message across without sounding uninspired and obligatory. Her sincerity makes the song one of the best on the album.
Similarly, “Ghetto Fairytales” is a somber reminder that street life isn’t all about cars and hustling, with Shawnna “reminiscing on all my niggas dead and gone”, plus a surprise visit from Fred Hampton, Jr. “Lil Daddy What’s Good” is a fun ditty about Shawnna mackin’ brothas all over town. “Hit the Back/Slide In” keeps your head bobbing with its heavy, danceable beat and layered vocals. On “Chicago”, Buddy Guy returns with his blues touch, and brings Avant and Malik Yusef along for the ride. “Chicago” is a mellow blend of introspection and regret.
Given the song arrangement, then, the album works as two parts of a whole, offering a well-rounded look at Shawnna’s “block”. Dichotomy of song material, where a group of songs with a similar theme or sound are situated together, was often employed back when cassettes were popular. R&B band Jodeci, on albums Forever My Lady (1991) and Diary of a Mad Band(1993), arranged their ballads for side A and arranged the dance tracks for side B. On Karyn White’s Ritual of Love (1991), the faster tracks were placed on the “Dance Me” side while the more sensual songs could be heard on the “Romance Me” side. Before all that, Eazy-E’s Eazy-Duz-It (1988) was split into a “Street Side” and a “Radio Side”. These days, we don’t talk about “sides” of an album (aside from record contract lingo); if anything, songs are grouped together on separate discs, like Ben Harper did with Both Sides of the Gun.
Shawnna’s song arrangement effectively binds the various topics of her tunes because she’s convincing. Sure, there’s some posturing and, yeah, she’s exaggerating reality a bit. But, just like the movies, where you know an actor or actress isn’t performing all the stunts, the trick is to make you suspend your disbelief. And in this regard, Shawnna plays her part with gusto while demonstrating that, sometimes, you get more than what you see.