Let's say two rappers team up to represent on one album. Is there a danger that one of them might overshadow the other? Absolutely.
Politicians, businessmen, and rappers have historically employed a strategy that I find counterintuitive -- the use of an opponent's name. In politics, if you insult your opponent or your opponent's views, you're running a "negative campaign". In hip-hop, it's called "beef". Likewise, companies advertise the virtues of their products by referencing, verbally or with similar trade dress, the product of a competitor. That's "comparative advertising".
Regardless of what you call it, I'm wary of any technique that requires you to devote a portion of your paid advertisement or hip-hop record to mentioning someone else's name. Whenever I'm watching a negative campaign ad ("Candidate X is soft on crime"), listening to a hip-hop "beef" record (Kool Moe Dee's thrashing of LL Cool J on "Let's Go" or 2Pac's anti-Biggie anthem "Hit Em Up"), or watching a TV commercial ("Our product gets your toilet whiter than the name brand"), I can't help but wonder why, after all that effort, I usually end up remembering the candidates, the rappers, and name brands I was supposed to dismiss.
Although his motives are more altruistic, Lake, an experienced rhymer representing Queensbridge, New York, has a similar problem: the association of his name with a potential competitor (even a friend) might make us forget Lake and remember the other guy. On My Brother's Keeper, Lake runs the hip-hop version of a "positive ad" campaign, as he brings fellow Queensbridge wordsmith Cormega along for 18 tracks (inclusive of an intro, three skits, and a bonus cut) centered around the grimy reality of their neighborhood, the pressures of a dangerous livelihood, and the virtues of brotherhood. Or maybe it's the other way around, with Cormega carrying Lake, as Cormega serves as executive producer and weighs in with co-production credits for two tracks, "Don't Start" and "Q.U. Side".
Either way, it's a risky proposition. If you believe the album cover, which basically says the album belongs to Lake and merely "features" Cormega, then Lake faces the unsavory prospect of being upstaged by his pal. For the most part, he hangs tough as he works to put his weight down on his side of the lyrical seesaw. As far as skills go, he's not Cormega's equal. When you listen to Lake's rhymes, you're aware of his technique, aware that you're listening to a constructed verse. Cormega, on the other hand, sounds smooth and conversational. It's easy to become absorbed by what Cormega's saying rather than the way he's saying it.
Aesthetically, Lake's voice can be raspy, like in "Ghetto", the first song after the "Intro" track. Still, he doesn't come off as raspy as, say, Canibus, or as loud as Busta Rhymes. And while his voice isn't immediately distinctive, it works well enough when he's in storyteller mode, which is Lake's main strength. Lake is quiet, but steady, and his method becomes more ingratiating with repeat listens.
As you warm up to Lake on this set, you'll see that he has a knack for describing the characters and plot twists of street life. Lake's ability to rhyme a good story is shown in "Snitch N*gga" and "Stress & Greed". Another track, "Walk through Heaven", takes Lake into the afterlife, resulting in a theme of eternal reconciliation that's slightly better, and more personal, than Mobb Deep's "Pearly Gates" (from this year's Blood Money album), but not as good as 2Pac's Thugz Mansion or Nas' conversational rhymes to Biggie and 2Pac in "We Will Survive".
Other strong verses by Lake appear in: the catchy "30/30", featuring Uniqua Star rocking the hook; "Stress & Greed"; and "Dirty NY", featuring Fat Joe. By the end of the album, you come away with the feeling that Lake got the job done in workmanlike fashion, but it was indeed a "job" that required some effort.
That's where Cormega's performances make an impact, as his flows are effortless and his presence threatens to steal the limelight. One example is the album's closing number, a bonus track called "Dirty Game", completely performed by Cormega with production work by DJ Premier. As another example, consider "The Oath", a mid-tempo anthem in which Lake reiterates, in true "brother's keeper" fashion, the trust he shares with Cormega ("I leaned on Mega and he leaned on me"). Aside from a lackluster chorus, Lake's straightforward but self-assured flow, along with Ax Tha Bull's production, makes "The Oath" a standout. But then you hear the third verse, where Cormega delivers the best verse of the album. Here's a taste:
N*ggas rap about the game, but never been in it
Mega's equivalent to Eric Dickerson,
Incredibly gifted, the thoroughest lyrics since the era of Sega Genesis
Float like a Pegasus, my potential is infinite
I was blessed with a gift to spit so hard and strenuous
As it resonates prison gates and halls of tenements
Where dealers rise and fall like temperatures
Cold bodies make blocks hot as Caribbean's, it's real in the field
Serious, I got a myriad of skill -- you ain't feelin' me?
Do you, I'll do me, and you ain't gotta deal wit' it
All in all, I found "The Oath" to be an average but solid cut. But when Cormega chimed in at the end, I knew I'd be listening to that verse many, many times.
Sometimes Cormega's contributions are more noticeable when he's not rapping. On those tracks, I found myself thinking, "Man, it'd be great if Cormega would drop a verse after this hook." For instance, Lake goes solo on "Walk through Heaven" to tell his story, but when some of his encounters in the afterlife are related to Cormega, it might've been interesting to hear Cormega's verse on the subject. It makes sense for Lake to play the role of messenger, since he's the one who gets shot to death at the beginning of the track for talking too much smack to a dude with a gun ("I'll make you eat that, you b*tch ass n*gga! What?!" and the response is a BANG). Still, Cormega's silence here -- about their loved ones or about Lake's demise -- seems odd.
Of course, it's Cormega's musical rap sheet that makes it plausible to wonder if the partnership could work against Lake's interests. While both are experienced craftsmen who've paid their dues in hip-hop's underground, Cormega's reputation precedes Lake's. You might remember Nas' own positive shout-outs to Cormega and "Lakey the Kid" on "Represent", a track from Nas' magnum opus, Illmatic. That was in 1994. In 2000, Lake appeared on Nas' God's Son LP, on the song "Revolutionary Warfare", and later released 41st Side, which compiled talents such as Mobb Deep, Nas, and Tragedy Khadafi . Meanwhile, Cormega's lyrical prowess is legendary. He's like one of those legendary street ballers who didn't play in the NBA but everybody knows has mad skills. After dropping a brilliant verse on "Affirmative Action" (from Nas' 1996 release, It Was Written), he split from the Nas-led supergroup, the Firm, and went on to release high-caliber independent LPs. One of Cormega's best known albums, The Testament, is generally held in high regard by critics as well as fans of underground rap, which is not easy to accomplish.
My Brother's Keeper, then, is a solid outing with six solid tracks ("Ghetto", which is too short; "The Oath"; "Snitch N*ggas"; "Walk Through Heaven"; "Hot on the Block"; and "No Happy Ending"), one below average track ("Hood Legends"), and seven above average tracks (the catchy "30/30"; "Don't Start", although it features Greg Nice being relegated to chanting an overly repetitive hook; "Q.U. Side", featuring Mr Cheeks; "Stress & Greed", "Get It", "Dirty NY", with Fat Joe; and Cormega's "Dirty Game").
The other tracks are skits, most notably the "Intro" track and "You Know Where He's From". In the intro, a neighborhood kid who's overly enthusiastic about street life converses with Lake and Cormega. It's a little disturbing to hear this kid, sounding like he just recently started eating solid food, saying stuff like, "That's why you my n*gga, Lake, 'cause you keep it gangsta", and, "Yeah, Mega! Yeah, Lake! My brother's keeper! That's what it is! F*ck these n*ggas!" with the last word echoing, "N*ggas, iggas, iggas, iggas". My take on the skit was that it was supposed to be funny, but I couldn't quite wrap my mind around the humor. The same problem emerged with "You Know Where He's From", which brings us some unconvincing dialogue between two women. Woman #1 inquires about Woman #2's "friend" (really, her boyfriend, who she says is a "hustler and a workin' man"). In addition to shopping and having dinner dates, Woman #2 reveals that she and her "n*gga" enjoy watchin' pornos, chillin', and havin' sex all the time. There's nothing remotely interesting about that conversation. Now, if Woman #2 were to confess that she'd been fantasizing about Lake when she's with Cormega, or vice versa, then maybe I wouldn't skip it every time I play the CD. Maybe it would also be an interesting tie-in to the "brother's keeper" theme. But as it stands, none of the skits warrant a listen.
In the end, this effort won't blow you away. Also, you'll probably walk away remembering Cormega, which is fitting since many of us will only take note of the album because it has Mega's endorsement. Nevertheless, there are some raw gems in this release that are at least worth checking out.