[21 May 2008]
The verdict on Foxy Brown’s Brooklyn’s Don Diva? To quote Foxy Brown’s hard-hitting street number “We Don’t Surrender”, you could say the album “is what it is.” True, she was talking about the rumors that she had fallen in love with a pimp, but it’s wholly applicable to the latest installation in her discography. Brooklyn’s Don Diva isn’t a stellar offering, but it’s not terrible either. Rumor has it that I might be enjoying the CD more than Foxy is, since there’s talk that she’s unhappy with the release and only intended it as a mixtape to hold us over until her true, official comeback. Maybe. You never know. But at least it serves notice that Inga “Foxy Brown” Marchand has returned from her extended hiatus following 2001’s Broken Silence. And you know what? It’s good to have her back, even if her comeback trail reveals a few bumps along the way.
First, let’s talk about what Brooklyn’s Don Diva is not. This is not the album that will change the course of hip-hop history, inspiring an entire generation of female emcees and deejays to hit the recording booths with mad skills and tight beats. It’s not the 21st century’s rap manifesto for rap divas intent upon balancing the hardened “scowl now, laugh laughter” face of male dominated hip-hop. It would be nice if an album could accomplish all that, but I’m afraid that’s too heavy a burden for a single microphone fiend to carry. I’d like to see a more sustained and meaningful female presence in the genre, but we gotta be realistic about it.
Further, Brooklyn’s Don Diva should not be the launching pad for comparing female rappers. In particular, Foxy Brown and Lil’ Kim are always measured against one another, largely because they’re contemporaries who turned into rivals, and both women have experienced controversy and legal problems while making profitable careers out of sexual wordplay. There was also that weird album (Chyna Doll) in which Foxy’s voice sounded suspiciously like Kim’s. Nevertheless, I won’t be doing that kind of comparison here, as it is my contention that Foxy Brown and Lil’ Kim are, beneath the sex kitten posturing, fundamentally different artists. Besides, we’re not constantly comparing male rappers who rhyme about pimping and collecting “hoes” (for instance, we don’t mention Too Short in every Snoop Dogg article), so there’s no need for this to happen with the ladies.
In the bigger picture, we don’t do our female emcees any favors when we challenge them to prove which one is the better “female rapper”. Many of us would like to see more quality female rap, but we’re tempted to ask, “Which one of you is the Queen,” the result of which will (1) wrongly suggest that female rappers aren’t supposed to be competing with males and (2) decrease the exposure for female rappers as they work to eliminate each other in the race to become Hip-Hop’s Next Top Female Emcee. What’s more, female rap artists frequently go after other females in their lyrics while sparing the men. None of this is cool.
What, then, is Brooklyn’s Don Diva all about? Well, it’s pretty much everything you’d expect from the self-proclaimed “Ill Na Na”. Fox Boogie’s microphone skills haven’t diminished during her exile. Her timing, her flow, and her swagger are as effortless as when she debuted as a teenager back in the ‘90s. A Foxy Brown party usually has a lot of guests, and here we’ve got Grafh, Mavado, Jay Rush, Kira, Dwele, Prinz, AZ, Lady Saw, Lil’ Mo, Morgan heritage, and Spragga Benz. As always, her style is framed by her characteristically deep, husky delivery, as well as her explicit sex talk and vocal tics (namely, that ubiquitous “whoa” and several well-timed “unh"s).
When I say “explicit sex talk”, I’m talking about the frank and uncensored variety. Certainly, there’s a case to be made that female rappers, and women in general, can reorient gender relations through sexual politics, or at least add a needed perspective to the discourse. Such a strategy might entail focusing on body parts, maybe in terms of reversing gender roles (as when Foxy says “hop off my d*ck”) or in terms of exalting the female anatomy.
However, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a sista sound more pleased with her body than Foxy Brown (“My t*ts damn near touchin’ my chin”). Sometimes it works, as in the fast-paced “When the Lights Go Out”, sporting a rhythm section that reminds me an awful lot of Klymaxx’s back-in-the-day hit “Meeting in the Ladies Room”. Her penchant for bragging about her sexual prowess also creates a little irony in a song like “Why”, where Foxy discovers her main squeeze has been cheating on her. There’s a hint of insecurity here: if she could sex him so good, and there are as many guys waiting to get with her as she claims, why did this guy end up playing her? Kind of clever, that one.
From a broader cultural perspective, Foxy’s pride in her dark skin tone is a positive twist on the feminine ideal (“It’s the Don Diva with the smooth cocoa-colored skin”). I don’t know if this is a big secret or not, but I’ll tell you anyway: some of us (and by “us” I mean those of us classified as “black”) aren’t so happy inside our skins. What this means on a practical level is that “light skinned” men and women might be considered “better looking” than those who are “dark skinned”. It’s not that the person has a great personality or a high intelligence quotient—it can be something as simple as skin complexion. We (and by “we” I mean human beings in general) can debate the reasons for this—so-called “mainstream” standards of beauty, a legacy of racial oppression, personal insecurities, what have you—but it exists nonetheless. And while it’s probably true that, in a perfect world, we (everybody included) shouldn’t have to be “proud” of skin coloration, the fact of the matter is that the world ain’t perfect, and Foxy Brown’s love for her “cocoa skin” is really good to see.
At other times, Foxy’s Ill Na Na Monologues or, um, “Na Na Logs”, start to wear thin, which is generally the problem with sex raps (songs about actually having sex) and rhymes bragging about one’s sexuality. One interesting example isn’t even part of a rhyme, but an adlib at the beginning of a song where she talks about how “they let the dumb [brotha] hold the cash” and “you gotta give a [brotha] some ass” to make headway. Here’s my question: if he’s so “dumb”, why not just outsmart the guy? Save the heavy artillery for a rainy day, maybe, or a smart guy. But make the “dumb” guy recite the quadratic equation or ask him to name all the countries in South America. Confuse him. Get cerebral, not physical. Anything. Why is sexuality an option at all?
The big disappointment here isn’t the sex talk, though. It’s the lack of depth and growth. Not that every rapper has to exhibit growth or craft an album that’s part of an evolving discography, but Brooklyn’s Don Diva operates like a companion piece to Foxy’s Broken Silence album, blending straightforward east coast rap with her Caribbean flavor. On each of her previous releases, Foxy Brown has explored new terrain: Chyna Doll was rowdier than Ill Na Na, and Broken Silence shared more intimate and personal moments than the first two.
Like Broken Silence, Brooklyn’s Don Diva rips a significant portion of its content from the headlines, Law & Order style. There’s a lot to work with, including but not limited to: Foxy’s hearing loss and corrective surgery, her probation violations, fights in nail salons, smacking somebody in the head with a BlackBerry, and a stint in prison during which she spent time in solitary confinement. Her rhymes tackle the rumors and altercations headlong, part boast (“I still make the front page news if I just sneeze”) and part reflection.
In the latter category, “Star Cry” rings truest, going beneath the glitz and glam for a more contemplative perspective. AZ’s guest turn on “Too Real” also hits home, as AZ drops a gem or two on his foxy lil’ sista and her drama, saying, “We never got a chance to build” and “With all the bullsh*t, somebody shoulda told you to chill”. AZ, as usual, more than earns his cameo spot, proving once again how consistently great and consistently underrated he is. As for Foxy Brown, her skills are clearly intact, but we’re still waiting on the big leap forward that matches her potential and intensity. Brooklyn’s Don Diva isn’t the album for it, but it’ll be interesting to see what happens next.