[22 February 2006]
FunkMaster Flex’s car shows are like hip-hop circuses, great big tacky sprawling messes of cars, rap, and sex-sells marketing that leap from city to city yet always seem to attract the same vaguely detached crowd of blankly-staring wanderers: the Rocawearing aimless who pack the concert venues along with the screaming suburban preteens and then drift idly apart to stare at car after expensive, candy-painted car. FunkMaster Flex’s Carshow Tour CD and DVD package is a lot like the tour itself, really: massive, excessive, star-studded, and in the end, about as satisfying as you make it.
The CD, a compilation of tracks (none of which FunkMaster Flex actually seems to have had a hand in creating) from various (mostly-East-Coast) rap artists, is ultimately the stronger side of the package. Album-opener “Just a Touch” is a three-minute course on exactly why 50 Cent is where he is today: the dark mood piece of a beat from Alchemist plods slowly, ominously, while 50 lopes along and just barely keeps pace. He slurs his words, voice cracking and sliding, the delivery dripping the kind of rough, raw charisma that too many “conscious” rappers lack. It paints a mood of tangible, thick menace, the decay and dystopia of the city; Paul Wall can’t compare, but he doesn’t disappoint either, approaching from an entirely new angle to tick out a grid of Southern-accented, precise syllables like a slow-motion snare drum.
The problem with Carshow Tour, then, is that most of the tracks just aren’t of this caliber. Nas does well by “Talk of New York”: he wants to be illmatic again, we want him to be illmatic again, and he nearly succeeds, over a sharp stain of alarmist, growly-rumbly jazz from Salaam Remi that misses the mark of that album’s dusty classics but comes closer than most. Dipset and D-Block put in solid work as well, but apart from the main four or five highlights the album, while never really faltering, slips into a boring groove of macho chest-thumping and melodramatic production. Choruses like “My Mack go rrrddap! / My Tech go brrap! / My 40 go bap! bap! bap! bap! boom!” can only hold interest for so long without original touches, which many of the tracks lack. Gangsta rap is relatively unique as a musical sub-genre in that just about every song is on essentially the same few basic topics (sex! cash! death!), so it makes sense that the best voices in the game today are the most off-kilter, those that creatively express their trite obscenities and push the boundaries of their amoral haiku. Cam’Ron is as nonsensical a kick in the ass as ever, and Lil Wayne puts in a great, Ray-Charles-referencing appearance on “Bird Call” with JR Writer. Newcomer Maino likewise excels by riding a hard-hitting banger with harder rhymes that avoid becoming clichés by virtue of what most successful rap artists grow to lose: raw, pure hunger. And, to close it out (I’m ignoring the lackluster true album closer from O-Solo), David Banner shows everyone up by pushing the envelope in the exact opposite direction, with an impossibly addictive, absolutely stupidly-crunk gem that you can’t help but hum along to even as you feel your brain melting with every throaty wheeze of the synthesizers. It’s far too obscene to quote directly here (you heard right, he is threatening to defecate in your yard and then “wipe [his] ass with your kitty-cat”), but Banner has mastered the art of delivering his crassly dirty bullshit with the perfect pitch of feverishly ugly enthusiasm to make you just believe him. It’s either genius, or something entirely different, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.
The DVD portion, even after considering the more muddled, uninspiring messes on the CD, is considerably less interesting. Funk Flex hops from city to city, talking to rap stars and ogling both cars and barely-clad models. The best moments here are the unintentionally humorous ones: early on, T.I. and Funk Flex extol the virtues of the fabled 24s (T.I. is casually introduced by on-screen text as “King of the South”); later on, when Xzibit tells Flex that sometimes 24s are just “too much”, Flex seems genuinely lost, like a child torn between two parents. Eyes wide, mouth gaping: do I agree with T.I.? did Xzibit just dis 24s? In another, later conversation rife with awkward male bonding, 50 Cent giggles contentedly and knocks on the windows (“super-thick!”) before they commiserate about just how cold the music business can be (this is all before Busta Rhymes instigates a fight). Any music-related live footage is practically an afterthought; the bonus features reduce the DVD content to an even more openly commercial breakdown: press 1 for lingering clips of expensive cars, press 2 for shot after coldly exploitative shot of the self-debasing models. It’s a Spike-TV-esque onslaught of gasoline-fueled adrenaline and lowest-denominator titillation, which isn’t surprising considering that Funk Flex’s show airs on Spike TV.
Central to the package, then, is the basic crux of gangsta rap, the balance between contradicting ideals: “real” rappers spit stories from the streets, then flaunt their expensive new rides. The album’s cover is a perfect illustration of its appeal: the reality of the city looms somewhere in the background, obscured by a brightly-colored haze and a massive, glossy Ford. Funk Flex himself is draped over said automobile, wearing a nice watch and a mean stare. The swirls of smoke all add to the sense of false, heightened drama. It’s corporate, it’s staged, it’s shamelessly self-promoting: the FMF logo appears six times on the cover alone. Gaudy, flashy, but decadently stylish.
The Car Show Tour is attractive, superficial, and not very deep; it’s really only worth the purchase if you’re crazy about gangstas or cars. But for fans of the East Coast rap royalty, you might have to dig around a bit to find a disc this solidly compiled. And in the end, it all really boils down to one question: how do you feel about Spike TV?