Do or Die follow their younger Chicago colleagues, Twista and Kanye West, into the American limelight with this impressive but lousily packaged new record.
Decent enough album from these Chicago native trio, Do or Die. The general concensus about DoD, I think, is that their MC innovation isn't in lyrics but in flow. The flow is one part Fu-Schnickens, one part doo-wop. It's kind of amazing, and their protege Twista has made this flow as important to Chicago as choruses are to crunk. For 10 years now, Do or Die have been releasing albums on the Houston label Rap-a-Lot, but this album, on Legion, is likely to be the record that puts them into the larger context of mainstream rap. Twista and producer/ rapper Kanye West are both indebted to their big brothers in Do or Die, for building and repping Chicago's underground scene, and helping get their start. Now that the spotlight has fallen on their younger counterparts, it's fitting that Twista and Kanye play a major part in making Do or Die's new record a success.
Compare the somber, charcoal sky and leafless black trees alongside the dirt road on the cover of the album with the three DoD members leaning on the hood of a cousin Vinny's black Cadillac, and you'd think the album's tracks would be darker and murkier and violent than the worst despairing moments of a Mobb Deep record. But no, instead we got Kanye's "Higher" popping off a "where you hear this song you know it's on" and a buttery guitar lick, and a wet chorus of female backup singers... you'd think this was Barry White's vocals on 78rpm. The beats won't upset the champagne flutes on the glass table, and no synthesizer is going to grind away at your good high.
Where's the sound that's represented by an insert sleeve that has the members of Do or Die standing over us, from where we are laid to rest inside a freshly dug grave? The Caddy's trunk is, noticeably open. What are we to make of the cover art when the music inside is so light? There are songs on here that will make you feel a little like shedding a tear, but mostly there are songs about getting booty.
There's plenty of gangster talk, mafia mythology and dynastic status on "Chain of Command". Lyrically, it's a pretty basic tough-guy speech, suggesting over and over again that Do or Die are above you in the "chain of command" and if you make a mistake, it's off with your hand. I'm not totally sure what all that implies, because for the rest of the album Do or Die's doo-wop steez has me getting freaky-deaky on the hardwood, not cocking back and buk-buk-bukking.
Fun? Yes. I feel like despite all the nasty talk and party banter, my mother and I could have a fine afternoon listening to Do or Die on her new iPod attached to her home stereo, while we drink beer and Red Bull and she recounts for me the trials and tribulations of my sister's stormy relationships, and then moves on to my own troubles with getting my act together, before we have to stop and think and listen to just how rocking this album is. And we'll both agree. My mother won't be like, "Turn that shit off. I can't fucking stand this new generation of rappers." Nothing's going to happen like me smacking her or her throwing scalding hot water over my face. If anything, we'll have a laugh. I'll be like, Mom, listen to that trunk-rattling double bass kickdrum beat and narcotic timpani of ambience underneath Twista's guest spot on the track "If Only You Knew", don't you think that sounds a lot like Aphex Twin's Richard D James album? And she'll say, "I know, it's sick. It's got me retarded. I'm killing myself over here with the broadband speed of these lyricists. It's like rocking the mic at the speed of sound. My ears have popped."
Am I supposed to love rap that my mother could love? I'm not sure. Perhaps. Snoop Dogg has made a serious attempt at an adult contemporary version of gangsta rap with his new Neptunes-produced bit of Zapp and Gap Band homage, and there's no doubt that there's a generation of rap fans who have aged and feel alienated by the aggressive crunk. For middle-aged hip hoppers, we've got groups like Do or Die, or Detroit's Slum Village, the most celebratory, playful, and joyous gangsta music available. Still a bit rough, aggressive, but softer at the edges.
Not that D.O.D. is too soft -- the track "Magic Chick" is insane and curvy and raunchy, and it's so good. Featuring R. Kelly, you kind of know it's going to be a gong-show, and it delivers bang after bang. The MCs flows undulate on a wave with swooping highs and tumbling lows, bouncing on the rhythm like rubber balls made of syllables. The production on the album, mostly by good people like Scott Storch, Legendary Traxter, Dj Quik, and, of course, Kanye West, is as tight as it comes, bridging gaps between West and East, South and North. This is some of the best production since the heydey of Bad Boy, but with nothing so scary as Biggie on mic. No, Do or Die are De La Soul compared to that.
A song like "Around Here", or the fairly moving spoken word pieces by Max Julien, suggest that Do or Die is a trio of real artists, original MCs, intelligent musical thinkers, with real stories and real ideas. I guess I'm an idiot for being so confused by the album art, but I think it's hugely confusing and kind of unfair to the music to package it like Do or Die is just another group of thugs with a hard-on for The Sopranos and no control over their image. I don't mean to suggest that they need to start dappling their album covers with flowers and Natives Tongue imagery. I just wish that a group with such a soulful, optimistic, funny, sexy, and smart style wasn't packaged as a set of thoughtless henchmen. Because they aren't. They're more intelligent than henchmen. They should be depicted at the TOP of the chain of command. I'm talking cufflinks and silk ties and someone else doing their dirty work. These aren't thugs, these are Chicago businessmen rapping about the holiday escapades husslin' in the sun.