The new Greatest Hits album from the legendary Memphis duo draws completely from their peak period and sounds like the classic album that has eluded them their whole career rather than a "best of" collection.
In the pantheon of Southern hip-hop legends, 8Ball and MJG have remained somewhat of an anomaly. While hardly anyone familiar with their music would dispute their status as legends, the acclaim for this Memphis duo has failed to grow out of anything larger than a cult-following. This might be due to the fact that the two have spent most of their career recording for the independent Suave House Records -- an influential yet financially troubled label -- but one could also argue that the real reason is the absence of a definitive classic album in their catalog. While contemporaries like UGK (Riding Dirty), Goodie Mob (Soul Food), and OutKast (pick one) have crafted albums that were great enough for them to transcend region and earn recognition amongst all-time hip-hop greats, the discography of 8Ball and MJG plays out like a bunch of really good songs with a lot of filler and a couple near-great albums.
By the time these guys got national, mainstream exposure by joining Diddy’s Bad Boy Records in 2002 -- an opportunistic move during the Southern rap explosion -- their pop concessions made them appear, to those unacquainted with them, to be simply a product of a popular yet sure-to-fade trend. With a lot of their best work either out of print or scattered throughout solo-albums and obscure compilations, a greatest hits album feels not only like a logical move, but one necessary to expose one of the greatest and most influential hip-hop groups to new audiences.
We Are the South: Greatest Hits is the first project to come from the joint venture between Koch Records and the newly formed Suave House II. It appears Ball and G had nothing to do with the compilation but it doesn’t matter because it’s one of the greatest and most warranted “best of” collections available in all of hip-hop. At just one disc, omissions from We Are the South that will displease longtime fans are inevitable, but the song selection here seems to have been reasonably thought out and I doubt many will protest inclusions of individual songs that did make it.
8Ball and MJG’s two best albums (1995’s On Top of the Worldand 1999’s In Our Lifetime, Vol. 1) are heavily represented on We Are the South; their songs take up seven out of the 15 tracks. These tracks include most of the duo’s best known songs like the hard “Pimp in My Own Rhyme”, the incredibly smooth “Space Age Pimpin’”, and the Cee-Lo-featuring, Organized Noize-produced soulful “Paid Dues”. The lesser-known cuts from those albums like the dark, introspective “What Can I Do?” and the incredible “Friend or Foe”, which features Bay Area legends E-40 and Mac Mall as well as Houston’s Big Mike are great selections that casual fans may not have heard.
What really makes We Are the South a worthwhile compilation is the inclusion of several rarities that were never on any of the 8Ball and MJG albums. “Just like Candy” and the Prince-interpolating “Starships and Rockets”, from the compilation Suave House: The Album of the Year, are great songs that fit well in the context of the music represented here. Tela’s smooth, Jazze Pha-laced classic “Sho’Nuff”, which has verses for both Ball and G, is a great inclusion because it sounds more like their song anyway. The three tracks from each member’s solo albums are also great additions. “In the Middle of the Night” from MJG’s No More Glory features both Ball and G rapping in double-time -- a southern trademark not often exhibited by this duo.
The largest complaint one might have with We Are the South is that all of the songs were selected from 8Ball and MJG’s mid- to late ‘90s output. Their debut album, Comin’ Out Hard, is totally disregarded while their sophomore LP, On the Outside Looking In, is represented only by the classic Ice Cube-assisted “Lay it Down”. As a Suave House product, this compilation is limited to songs to which Suave House holds the rights. That means that all of Ball and G’s post-millennial material, from the likes of Space Age 4 Eva (one of their better LPs) to both of their Bad Boy albums, had to be excluded. These limitations do prove to be minor because the time period from which the songs of We Are the South are pulled (1994-1999) was arguably the artistic peak of 8Ball and MJG and when their influence on Southern hip-hop was at its apex.
I’ve always had a problem with greatest hits albums from prolific musicians. They are typically ruined by overly ambitious song selections trying to give equal billing to all phases of that artist’s career. You usually end up with collections that are one-third not-quite-there, developmental stage, one-third artistic prime, and one-third complacent self-parody; everything sounds out of context. The triumph of We Are the South is that, by sticking to its artists' most important period, the compilers have created an album full of great songs, all of which fit in to a context. That context is the essence of 8Ball and MJG and, by extension, Memphis hip-hop: the best blend of Southern soul and spaced-out funk that rap music has ever seen. So in the end, We Are the South sounds like that elusive, classic Ball and G album instead of a “Greatest Hits” collection, which is so much better.