The thuggish ruggish hip-hoppers from Cleveland, Ohio kick game about life, ladies, and lyrics.
Sometime in the future, I imagine myself lounging in my rocking chair on my front porch, taking intermittent sips from a tall shot of lemonade while fiddling with my broken and long-outdated mp3 player. Inside, my grandkids will be rifling through a box of my old CDs, playing their favorite game of "Look at Granddad's Ancient Stuff". Having found the album Thug Stories by Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, they'll dash outside and go, "Yo, Grand-deezy! What's this?"
Since I'll be itching to discuss the glory of hip-hop with anybody who'll listen -- my future wife will have perfected the art of pretending she's fallen asleep -- I'll be more than happy to explain why Thug Stories fits snugly within the Bone Thugs-N-Harmony discography, even if it's not the group's best offering. I'll hype the legend of this rap super-group from Ohio, and I'll rant about how the group's individual members (Bizzy Bone, Krayzie Bone, Layzie Bone, Wish Bone, and the sporadic Flesh-N-Bone) are often overlooked on those perennial lists of the rap's best emcees. I'll be like, "You mean to tell me Diddy keeps making the top 50 but none of the Bones made it?" Never mind that I can't always make out what they're saying, and never mind the fact that I've never really been able to tell these dudes apart from each other -- they nevertheless kick some seriously def flows.
I'll reminisce, probably to a captive but daydreaming audience, about my youthful desire to become the sixth Bone Thug -- they would call me "Back Bone" (either that, or DJ Patella) -- and I would rap r-e-a-l-l-y slow, in stark contrast to my super-speed Bone compatriots. I'm working on my verses for my first two singles with the group, "Back Up in Ya" and "The Joint", but that's another story. More important than that, I'll relay the two things I'll always remember about Bone-Thugs-N-Harmony.
First, there's loyalty, as demonstrated by Bone's everlasting allegiance to the late Eric (Eazy-E) Wright. Once the brothers Bone were signed to Eazy E's Ruthless Records, they were determined to keep Eazy's name on every listener's mind, long after his death in 1995. You can always count on Bone Thugs-N-Harmony for an Eazy-E shout-out in an interview or performance, as demonstrated by their tribute to Eazy-E at 2006's VH1 Hip Hop Honors. On Thug Stories, they keep the Eazy-fest going with an "Eazy-E in the motherf*ckin' house tonight" plug in the song "What U See (Reload)". Their level of commitment to their mentor -- especially now, when they really aren't under any pressure to be so committed -- is hard to come by.
Second, I'll remember Bone's presentation. In the '90s, these guys hit the scene like some thugged-out do-wop crew, alternating between hip-hop Christmas carols and lightning fast tales from the other side of the tracks. They flew into the hip-hop stratosphere with songs like "Thuggish Ruggish Bone" and "Tha Crossroads" (for which the group won one of those Grammy thingamajigs), and you can hear their influence on, or similarities to, artists like Twista and Nelly. Of course, my grandkids will say, "Who's Nelly?" and I'll fan myself, saying, "Wow, it's gettin' hot in here. That's a discussion for another time. But, back in my day, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony recorded the fastest, slickest, tongue-twisting-est lyrics you ever did see." Add to that some of the grimmest, scariest imagery this side of Stephen King and the movie Tales from the Hood, and you've got the profile of the group that generated millions of record sales.
Although Thug Stories doesn't epitomize the Bone legacy as well as, say, E. 1999 Eternal (1995), it's a decent effort, considering Bizzy Bone's departure from the group and Flesh-N-Bone's ongoing incarceration. With the official quartet (and sometimes quintet) trimmed to a trio -- only Krayzie, Layzie, and Wish remain -- you might expect Bone Thugs to sound a little softer around the edges, more mellow and less rambunctious or, as the old beer commercial used to say, "Tastes great, less filling."
But much of the old Bone magic is still there, even if the final product, at slightly more than 43 minutes, is a touch too short. In terms of subject matter, this album doesn't hide the ball. The premise hasn't changed since Bone rap-sang the single "1st of the Month", namely: it's hard work being a thug. Ya know, if it's not one thing, it's another. Between the drama from the ladies, static from the cops, and unwarranted friction from jealous rivals (and that's all before lunch!), I'm surprised "thuggish ruggish" rappers like Bone have time for the studio. At any rate, Thug Stories offers tales that tend to fall into the following categories: (1) Love Stories, (2) Industry Stories, and (3) Street Stories.
I use the word "love" loosely here, since you're not going to hear Bone covering Luther Vandross or Babyface. It's "love" in the sense that the brothers Bone write and perform songs about relationships (of the "gone bad" variety, as in "She Got Crazy" and "So Sad") or simply having sexual relations ("Call Me"). Thug Stories is unimpressive when it comes to this category, as "Call Me" chimes in as a twist on the Janet Jackson and Nelly duet "Call on Me". Bone Thugs-N-Harmony take things a step beyond Janet and Nelly's "I wanna be your homie, lover, friend" refrain; Bone will show up, with lust and a "sack" of "sticky icky", to please the ladies when "your man ain't servin' ya swell".
Maybe the casual mood of these liaisons was intended to tie into the mini-plots of "She Got Crazy" and "So Sad". On "She Got Crazy", our rhyming lover boys talk about the lovely women they've hooked up with, only to learn how quickly good things can come to an end. What begins as a friendly, happy chase ("she had a booty that was sicker than lupus / I had to scoop it") somehow changes into the saga of an "insane lover" who will "have a n*gga sleepin' under daisies". As you might guess from that "sicker than lupus" line, Bone's misery often becomes the listener's. The smooth R&B production for "Call Me" and "She Got Crazy" also wears thin with repeat plays.
Out of Thug Stories's three "love" songs, the most controversial is "So Sad", Bone's ode to "all these slimy, grimy women" who are "birthin' children to make a livin'". According to Bone, true thugs are plagued by females who want to trap them with babies. "She don't need a nine to five," the lyrics go, "'cause [she's] workin' the system." Now I know the anti-groupie and anti-gold-digger sentiments run deep in hip-hop, and I'll even submit that you'll always find people living foul, but this song just didn't sit right with me. It's catchy as hell, though, which might be why its "baby mama drama" generalizations alarmed me so. Maybe I'm a hater, but it seems the antidote to this aggressive strain of "gold digging" is to avoid the casual sexual encounters celebrated in "Call Me". Just a thought.
The "Industry Stories" are much more substantial, musically and lyrically. I call them "Industry Stories" because these songs, at least in part, exalt the group's position in the rap game or hype their lyrical skills. In this category, there's the album's "intro" tune (called "Intro"), "Do It Again", and "Fire". On "Intro" and "Do It Again", we get the typical "what-do-you-mean-we're-fallin'-off" complaints from the veterans. From "Do It Again", there's this example:
You feelin' we slippin', huh
You think that we missin' "The 1st of the Month"
Ten years we done been here
We spendin' them thangs and bringin' them guns, yup
And in the "Intro":
Let me make this the last time a n*gga gotta say this
The original Bone Thugs, them n*ggas ain't to play wit'
We get down for our damn thang, rank us among the greatest
And I'm sendin' my shouts out, and f*ck you to the haters
Normally, I'm wary when rappers start doing "f*ck the haters" songs because it means they're making songs about how hard it is to make songs, which is a drag. Here, it works well enough because Bone Thugs-N-Harmony are good at what they do. Meanwhile, "Fire" is a straightforward banger that maximizes Bone's characteristic round singing delivery. "Fire" could've fit in the "Street Stories" category, discussed below, but rhymes like "L-Burna finna burn it up / we got 'em runnin to the radio to turn it up" center the song on Bone's sense of flow and style instead of relaying the trials and tribulations street life.
This is not a default category for the songs that don't fit comfortably in the categories already discussed. These are the gritty songs with the trademark Bone flavor, so it's no shock that these are the best of the collection. From the title track's tales of seemingly random violence to the sense of remorse conveyed in "This Life", these songs represent the core of the Bone Thugs-N-Harmony songbook. My two favorites from this category are "Don't Stop" and "Still No Surrender". I admit "Don't Stop" is a quirky choice for a favorite, constructed around a sped-up sample and an '80s vibe, while narrowing in on the thug's inner struggle:
I know I ain't livin' right, and gettin' it right is part of my plan
But I been in the streets so long, I think a thug is all that I am
"Still No Surrender" is an emphatic protest against police brutality. With a hint of reggae (also featured in "Stand Not in Our Way"), the song has the triple threat: flow, production, and lyrical content. If only Thug Stories as a whole had matched "Still No Surrender"; the album would have been on fire, definitely something to brag about in the future, long after CDs are obsolete.