Sometimes the circumstances surrounding an artist’s career can overshadow the importance or the quality of their art. It is, however, exceedingly rare to see an artist forced into a situation in which they would actively encourage the significance of their circumstances to take precedence over the quality of their art. Such is the case with Shyne’s sophomore release Godfather Buried Alive.
Jamal “Shyne” Barrow was convicted in 2001 on charges relating to a 1999 Club New York nightclub shooting. His then-mentor, Sean “P Diddy” Combs was also implicated in the shooting, but whereas Shyne was convicted and sentenced to ten years in the state penitentiary, P Diddy is a free man today.
The details of the case itself are not without interest in that Shyne has never denied possession of the firearm, or even denied shooting the weapon inside Club New York. Shyen maintains, however, that his weapon was fired in self-defense, despite the fact that he refuses to name his assailant (citing, in a recent MTV News interview conducted at the prison, the infamous “code of the street”). Furthermore, Shyne now maintains that his legal counsel was in Combs’ proverbial pocket, and had been instructed to provide Shyne with substandard counsel in order to bolster Combs’ case. Now that Shyne is a millionaire, having signed a lucrative distribution deal with Def Jam from behind prison walls, he has assembled a team of high profile appellate attorneys, including Harvard’s Alan Dershowitz, to attempt and overturn his initial conviction and win the right to a new trial.
But unfortunately, the grisly details of Shyne’s life and career to date are far more interesting than his music. Without being flip, the argument could definitely be made that his 2001 trial and subsequent incarceration were the absolute best things that could have happened to Shyne. After the release of his self-titled debut in 2000, Shyne seemed destined to follow in the footsteps of any number of over-hyped and under-performing hip-hop “next big things” (Beanie Sigel, we hardly knew ye). It didn’t help that Shyne’s voice is very similar to that of the late Notorious B.I.G.‘s in its timbre and hoarse quality. When the reviews were mediocre and the sales flaccid, it looked as if Shyne’s career might have been over.
But now Shyne is bigger than he ever could have been, and his incarceration has created the kind of cult of personality that just didn’t exist before. You can’t create buzz: you either got it or you don’t. 50 Cent had buzz, which is why his debut album shipped multi-platinum. Kanye West had buzz, which is why his debut is on its way to being the rap album of the year. And now, after three years’ incarceration and a truckload of drama, Shyne has some buzz too. Too bad he doesn’t quite have the chops to back up his bravado.
I’m not going to say that he’s a wholly untalented rapper, because the album is peppered with insightful, memorable lines throughout. But usually, in the context of whole songs, the lines are just that, isolated lines, adrift in a sea of hoary gangsta cliches and violent braggadocio.
Like so many rap albums, Godfather Buried Alive starts off strong with its best track, “Quasi O.G.”. The beat, by Buckwild, is perhaps the album’s finest, featuring a soulful vocal sample from Bob Marley and a tense, minimally taut snare and bass drum pattern underneath. This track also features a righteously moralistic perspective lacking from much of the rest of thew album:
“Offa knowledge I choke, spitting up truths hopin’ / The young youth, a soldier hear me dearly, / G.W. Bush fear me. / They know I know, they want to sweep us under rugs / Hopin we just keep killin’, shootin’ each other with slugs / Look up above, and pray to god he protect me / From these cold jurors and this heartless judge / Imagine, growin’ up and never havin’, / Faggot ass pops actin’ like you never happened.”
The problem with a great deal of modern mainstream rap is the fact that many rappers are poor storytellers. Because so much hip-hop revolves around anecdotal first-person narrative, most rappers are not encouraged to branch out into realms of political, social or—gasp—emotional expression. Its not that they are all inarticulate, but that their stories are ultimately uninteresting. The ghetto-centric gangsta tales that compose most hardcore rappers’ repertoires have been done and done to death by hundreds of rappers before them. Sure, you may be “keepin’ it real”, but you are also keeping it very boring.
So there is still hope that Shyne, with a lengthy incarceration and copious time for rumination under his belt, will eventually emerge as an MC to watch. When he is eventually released from prison he will have the kind of life experience that many rappers would kill for, and perhaps the philosophical insight to make it interesting. But this album, composed primarily of studio material recorded before his imprisonment, does not offer a keen reflection of anything more than inchoate rage.
The album’s first single, “More Or Less”, featuring production by the aforementioned wunderkind Kanye West, is strangely flat. Shyne takes credit for utilizing West’s production acumen in 2001, years before his current popularity, but this track is hardly a lost masterpiece. It’s basically everything you’ve come to expect from West, only more primitive, less developed. The vocals are even oddly detached from the bed, as if the mastering was left incomplete.
West Coast stalwarts Kurupt and Nate Dogg appear on the oddly titled “Behind The Walls (East Coast Gangsta Mix)”, which achieves nothing so much as reminding the listener of how good the music that Kurupt and Nate Dogg used to make was. Despite the appearance of celebrity producers such as Swizz Beats, Irv Gotti and Just Blaze, the majority of the album is just not very interesting. The low point, however, is “For The Record”, featuring Shyne’s infamous jailhouse rap. Recorded on a prison pay phone, this track is part of the reason that Shyne recently lost his telephone privileges. You’re not supposed to conduct business over the phone in prison, and yet Shyne apparently negotiated over 100 phone calls worth of business over the course of the first three years of his imprisonment. He also recorded this rap, a five-minute long tirade against 50 Cent. Beef records are a part of hip-hop history and tradition, I know, but that doesn’t make this gristly ode to street vengeance any less insipid.
I still can’t wholly condemn the record, because “For The Record” is followed by “Martyr”, featuring some of the album’s most insightful rhymes. Name-checking Rudy Giuliani and Amadou Diallo, it’s an uncharacteristically focused diatribe. Walking through a gallery of fallen martyrs from Jesus to Malcom X to Biggie, Shyne comes as close to grace as a gangsta should be allowed.
The album ends strong, with the anthemic “Diamonds and Mac 10’s”. There’s no better example of the dichotomy at the heart of Shyne’s music than this track, which balances uneasily between the useless thuggery of his rote-gangsta tales and the honest moralizing induced by a keen proximity to the inner workings of mortality and justice. One moment, he rhymes, with a surfeit of sincerity:
“God listen, it was him or me / Sorry for the choices I chose, the bricks that I sold / The voices I rolled, the concrete roads / Accept me as I come into your presence.”
. . . and the next he reverts back to the kind of simplistic Scarface morality that was overdone almost a decade ago. “Say goodnight to the bad guy,” he concludes, “Last time you’re gonna see a bad guy like me / I’m the last of the dying breed”. The fact that his best rhymes are consistently hidden under layers of this type of derivative crap is extremely frustrating.
Ultimately, Godfather Buried Alive is just that: an extremely frustrating album. There are flashes of talent hidden throughout, but the majority of the material is very poor. This definitely scans like an album that was assembled piecemeal, without the active participation of the artist. I doubt a mediocre record will do much to dent the considerable buzz that Shyne has amassed in his absence, but I also sincerely hope that by the time he gets out of jail and finally returns to the recording studio, he will have something more interesting to say than most of what is said here.