After backsliding from G-Unit superstardom into a casualty of bankruptcy for the past five years, Young Buck appears out of nowhere with 2012's first great gangsta rap record.
"Made a lot of money, I blew my whole advance
People stole from me, but now I understand."
-- Young Buck, "2nd Chance"
To most, the public memory of Young Buck probably begins and ends with 50 Cent's explosive decision to record and release a private phone argument between the two artists, during which Young Buck was audibly holding back tears, wondering what it was he needed to do to get back in G-Unit's good graces and regain the fans who'd turned on him for picking a fight with fellow G-Unit rep the Game. While Young Buck is far from a footnote in the historic G-Unit saga that engrossed much of hip-hop media in the mid-2000s, the memory of his contributions was greatly diminished through his feud with Game and he was quickly ushered out of the group's good standing. Post Buck the World Young Buck has, by all accounts, been an unfortunately salient example of the ways in which a hip-hop career can sparkle and flame out in spectacular fashion. Effectively ostracized to the mixtape-and-features racket, Buck couldn't even find time for his own projects in 2011 as the IRS came knocking and he was forced to enter Chapter 7 bankruptcy. For a guy who once stood as Nashville, Tennessee's one and only beacon of hope that their hip-hop scene could enjoy some sort of freedom from the city's country shackles, it seemed far too unfortunate an end for a hero.
Live Loyal, Die Rich arrives mostly as a surprise; more importantly, a greatly satisfying one. One of Buck's great faults as an employee at Interscope was that he tried too hard to be something he wasn't. Much like Lloyd Banks, he tried to craft albums in the image of 50 Cent, perverting his hood mentality into pop constructs and dull attempts at hits that landed with a thud as album filler. He was typecast as little more than supporting actor when he'd originally been brought into the G-Unit fold for exactly opposite reasons. For the longest, his post-Interscope dealings have done little to dispel that notion. But Live Loyal, Die Rich feels like the rarest of hip-hop moments. This is an artist who has fallen as hard as he possibly could, swapped his twice-worn Timbalands for a pair of worn black and red Jordan XIIs and finally returned to what he does best. Taking several notes from fellow-Tennessean Starlito's post-Cash Money playbook, Young Buck eschews all precepts of stardom in favor of blunt honesty, something that serves to make Live Loyal, Die Rich not only one of 2012's great surprises, but with any luck Young Buck might find himself reviving a career with this street album.
He kicks the album off with that lead-in quote above, the hook to "2nd Chance" and as powerful a self-evaluation as I've heard from a rapper. He essentially uses those five minutes to catch us up to his situation the way Starlito's similar underground classic "Rap Music Ruined My Life" did in 2008, as Buck details his girl's disinterest in a down and out rapper, his many flawed business dealings and, most importantly, his desire to return to rap as the rapper he'd promised us all he was capable of being. Over the next 20 tracks - which clock in at a hefty enough length Live Loyal, Die Rich wouldn't actually fit on a CD - Buck proceeds to live up to the fire presented on that intro. His pathos and ethos throughout this album are admirable as hell, really. There are a few songs about dealing crack, as is the perpetual southern vogue, and "21 & Up" registers as a particularly odd song concept (though he does mention a current girlfriend who's an undergrad at school, so perhaps he feels guilt over her youth) but these are surrounded by all sorts of songs that reveal an empathetic side of rappers generally kept under wraps. "No Place for Me" sees Buck not only regretting his drug sales but feeling entirely uncomfortable with the situation, bemoaning his fate. This latent paranoia is brought to the forefront on the following cut, "Money in the Walls", which reveals the hyper-real existence a person born into the trap experiences and how a man can ultimately arrive at one common conclusion of all trap rappers: "All I wanna do is stunt like 'fuck 'em'". But there's also "Closer", a stunningly beautiful track built on Goapele's 2001 single of the same name in which Buck celebrates his children and basks in the glow of a second chance at rapping for a living.
Initially, the great disappointment of Live Loyal, Die Rich seemed to be that Drumma Boy earned top billing on the album's cover art, only to turn in one production of his own. But it turns out that Buck and Drumma have compiled a veritable greatest hits of unknown producers' beats. Hyped up and comers such as Lil' Lody, A-1, Celsizzle, Drumma Drama and DJ Pain 1 appear alongside a myriad roster of local stars and complete unknowns. Hitmaka provides the aforementioned "Closer", while guys like Boss Devito, Freeway Tjay, 3Fifty7, Bassline and Jussi Jaakola deliver the sort of surprising, professional-level slickness one would never expect from guys with names made for mixtape obscurity working for a rapper who'd burned most of his relevant bridges. That Buck only arrives at two duds on an album this substantial is as much these guys' faults as his, and they really deserve a round of acknowledgement from the rest of the industry for their work here. I'm unsure how many of these guys count themselves as acolytes of Drumma Boy's Drum Squad label (his website, unhelpfully, lists none of them) but if he can claim even a small percentage of them one would have to applaud the grooming talents of the Memphis-born, Atlanta-famous super producer.
Honestly, I could just keep talking about this tape for a while. I never disliked Young Buck as a presence during his first go around but I definitely fell in line with the opinion that he wasn't astute enough an artist to become nationally relevant on his own feet. Live Loyal, Die Rich laughs hysterically at that idea, its litany of not only enjoyable but stunningly honest tracks nearly overwhelming coming from a rapper who once struggled so mightily to pen compelling subject matter. Whether he's detailing his breakup on "Death of Me", celebrating college parties with Starlito on "Touch the Ceilings", lamenting those who've died drug-related deaths after seemingly escaping the trap on "Drug Related", or explaining the odd sense of motivation that comes from losing everything on "Something's Got Me on It", Buck is a rapper in 2012 who comes to us not only as a highly efficient street narrator but a fully formed individual rather than the G-Unit caricature we'd come to ridicule what feels like so long ago.