You’d be hard pressed to make an argument for Ghetto D as one of the great rap albums of the ’90s, or even, really, a very good album at all. Anyone who has spent much time listening to Master P knows that the rapping has always been abysmal, the production amateurish, and the subject matter extremely circumscribed (when not cribbed directly from Tupac). Ghetto D itself is no different in this respect, despite its privileged position in the No Limit hierarchy: the album begins with a bald-faced Eric B & Rakim swipe and goes downhill from there. There’s a rap about having sex with Captain Kirk, delivered by a man, for goodness sakes (gangsta rap not being known for its tolerance of homosexuality) — how the hell did this fly back in the day?.
I really can’t tell you, but fly it did, to the tune of some umpty-million copies. So while, from any kind of detached critical perspective, Ghetto D remains reprehensibly bad, it’s still undoubtedly one of the most important albums of the last decade. You can’t really say that Master P put the South on the map as a force in the rap world — for starters, P wasn’t even entirely southern, having started his career in California before relocating to New Orleans. He didn’t have one one-hundredth of the charm or intelligence brought to bear by the likes of Goodie Mob or OutKast. What he did have was a sound — loud, fast and out of control, to steal another bit of cultural shorthand — the Southern “bounce” style that would go a long ways towards reshaping the entire spectrum of pop music.
At the time, Master P seemed like an anomaly, a completely derivative and surpassingly low-rent phenomenon with limited appeal. There was only one problem with assuming this kind of dismissive attitude: you couldn’t stop listening to it. As bad as it was (and it was bad!), there was something there that simply could not be denied, some kind of insane pop instinct that insured that no matter what you actually thought of the song, there was no way you could possibly get “Make ‘Em Say Ugh” out of your head once you had heard it.
The early and mid-’90s was a time of progressively more uncompromising rap, with the gangsta sound taken to its logical extremes through the nihilistic likes of Tupac, Biggie, the Wu Tang Clan and Nas. West coast G-funk had a kind of pop instinct that served as a contrast against the grit of the east coast, but there was still no mistaking even “Nothin’ But a G Thang” for mainstream pop, even as it blew up the pop charts. Rap dominated the pop music world in the wake of the grunge implosion, but there was still something missing from the equation.
Little did we know, listening to Master P back in 1997, but Ghetto D was far closer to the future of pop music than OK Computer or Dig Your Own Hole or even the Spice Girls. What Master P and No Limit Records did was to take the hardest, most uncompromising cliches of the gangsta rap world, stick them atop candy-coated pop beats — eminently danceable beats — that served as a direct contrast to the self-consciously grim mood of hip-hop’s East Coast/West Coast hegemony, and mass-produce the sound like Henry Ford. P was less a rapper or even a producer than a hustler: as opposed to those rappers who rose from humble origins and sought to transcend their criminal roots through transformative art (even if they couldn’t articulate it perhaps as cogently), P was one of the very first to approach music as just another hustle, albeit on a much grander scale.
He started by selling crack to crackheads, then selling self-published CDs out of the trunk of his car — in both instances the idea was not the individual quality of the product but an addictive rush that kept the customer coming back for more. If you bought one No Limit disc and liked that one, there were a dozen more just like it. No Limit discs were collaborative affairs as much as anything else, with a regularly recurring cast of supporting characters who could be counted on to provide pretty much the same performance from album to album — G Unit, anyone? There was a consistency to the early No limit output that enabled them to create a solid fanbase out of, for lack of a better term, gangsta fanboys: if you liked Master P, why not pick up Silkk the Shocker and C-Murder and the Fiend and Mia X and Soulja Slim and Mystikal’s albums too? Like a demented ghetto Stan Lee, Master P instinctively understood the hustle at the heart of his business model.
And sure enough, pretty soon after Ghetto D, the No Limit model took over the universe. Cash Money came up with a slightly more sophisticated version of the bounce sound, and the added bonus of having some legitimately talented rappers like Juvenile and a very young Lil Wayne. The southern sound blew up not long after that: Outkast became the biggest pop phenomenon of the decade at around the same time when people like Ludacris and Lil Jon and Nelly and TI were each taking their hustle to the next level, shipping gold and platinum on the strength of the template pioneered by No Limit Records. There were no real celebrity stand-outs at No Limit — not until Master P succeeded in freeing Snoop Dogg from his Death Row contract in 1998 — but there was a consistency built around an established brand name. (Of course, this dogged consistency would eventually be the label’s downfall, as it very quickly became impossible to differentiate one No Limit record from another.)
As for the record itself? As much as I wish I could report otherwise, it remains as catchy now as the day it was minted. (The “anniversary edition” doesn’t offer much new except a couple unreleased songs that sound identical to what we already have on the album and the, um, instrumental version of “Make ‘Em Say Ugh”.) Master P never met a couplet he couldn’t jack, and the fact that he got away with sampling Marvin Gaye (on “Bourbons and Lacs”) still astounds me, but there’s simply no denying that this is fun stuff. It’s aggressively dumb, pandering shamelessly to a degraded fantasy of ghetto life as romantic amoral adventure, built on a backbone of the most comically minimal 808 beats and Casio presets… but damned if it doesn’t still cast a spell. I still half expect Master P to be revealed as some kind of Andy Kaufman-esque pop provocateur at some point — I mean, seriously, the man built an empire on the virtue of an inarticulate grunt (I still have my talking Master P doll that screams “Uuuugggghhhh!” when you pull the string) — if that’s not a conceptual art prankster’s wet dream, well, I don’t know my Jeff Koons.
But regardless of whether Master P was a savvy pop mastermind, an idiot savant, or just a plain old idiot, Ghetto D is still one of the most important and influential pop albums of the last decade. Honestly, it was amazing to me at the time just how dumb Master P was, with tracks like “I Miss My Homies” representing what was at that point something of a nadir in popular song — little was I to know what the future held in store for us. It’s hard not to feel nostalgic for the cotton-candy halcyon days of “Make ‘Em Say Ugh” when confronted with something like “My Humps”. (Uuugggh indeed!)