Petey Pablo is riding the crunk wave right now. His kick-ass single "Freek-A-Leek" is top-tenning it big-time, courtesy of its Lil Jon beat and its general dirty-minded-ness and its classic chorus featuring a list of ladies that Petey is down with: "Shamika, Keisha, Tara, Shonda, Sabrina," etc., the litany will be repeated at many summer parties. Penelope Magnet's cooing "How you like it daddy?" is classic; Lil Jon's seven-note synth is classicker (and his yelling is approaching iconic status); Petey's last interjection is my favorite line in any song in any genre this year: "Now I gotta give a shout-out to Seagram's Gin, 'cause I drink it, and 'cause they're payin' me for it!"
But what really makes "Freek-A-Leek" special, what elevates it over all the other crunk sexxxrhymes of the last couple of years, is the relative gentleness of his approach. Sure, he's looking for someone to be freaky with, even on a booty call; his stated favorite proportions are 24"-34"-46", which I've spent hours thinking about and have concluded that I'm not sure it's really possible. But he's not interested in any but a willing partner, and he actually asks her in the course of the song what she wants: "It's time to give her hers" is not a sentiment we've really heard a lot of in crunk. Somehow "Freek-A-Leek" manages to be funky and fun without devolving into hardcore sexism. So score one for the dude from North Carolina.
This seems important. Not only is Petey dropping his state of origin every chance he gets, it also forms the foundation of my favorite track on this record, the self-produced "Let's Roc". It's country as HELL, with banjo plucks interspersed among the synths that sound like accordions and a beat-box section that kind of sounds like a dude playing the spoons except with his mouth, and Petey talking about how you shouldn't mess with him even though he's been taking time off to enjoy his wealth, and a whole gang of voices yelling "NORTH CAROLINA" on the chorus. There are just seven times as many hooks as anywhere else in the world-and when the metal guitar-synths blast in out of nowhere for the last verse, backing up his claims with the holy fire of rock: "I rep for the prisons / I rep for the block / All my nine-to-fivers out there workin' a job. And he doesn't stop there; he reps for "Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese," he reps for "the white ones and the black ones"... he's the rap savior we've all been waiting for!
I'm really impressed with Petey Pablo's production skills on this record. "Stick 'Em Up" is amazing, true minimalist funk with a tapping cowbell percussion track and some black college marching band horns and not much else, with Pablo talking about how his gun "is the only homeboy I call". But these are the only two songs where he's in charge of the beats. He's got a lot of more obscure friends that come up with some pretty dope backups: T&J Productions rock "Boy's Bathroom" with a spazzy fast handclap pogo beat; someone named Honky Kong turns the guitar and horn hooks from Chicago's "25 or 6 to 4" into a menacing "What You Know About It" (man I hope this hits radio, it's the hardest thing I've heard in a long time); Focus builds "Roll Off" out of wind chimes and shuffling almost-drums so that Petey can rap over it about how he needs to not listen when other people talk shit about him, "be the bigger man / Let it roll off". It's like Missy Elliott's "Gossip Folks", except less dancey and more introspective.
But we still get the big-namers coming around. Timbaland builds a clippy-cloppy loosey-goosey funk track for Missy's guest shot on the sexy "Break Me Off" -- I mean, it doesn't sound like they were actually in the same room or anything, but it's still pretty goofy great anyway. More conceptual is Timba's other track, "Get on Dis Motorcycle", with the great Bubba Sparxxx: it shimmers and jingles and turns kids' voices into percussive hooks and keeps adding layers even when there's no more room on the track. It's great when it provides Petey P. an opportunity to talk about his rags to riches story ("I just wanna go to the Grammys / I don't even care if I win"), but works even better for Bubba because half the stuff drops out for his muted flow before building it all back up. It's like house music except not. It's hella.
The biggest surprise here comes with track 16. He's got an honest to God gospel track on here called "He Spoke to Me" that doesn't seem cobbled together or faked -- Pablo sings more than he raps here, and shows off a really great soul voice, singing about how his life was empty until he heard the word of Jesus. It's also not hurt by Warryn "Baby Dubb" Campbell's production, including an Al Green sample, or by the backing vocals from Khaliq Ibinhamid-Bey. I'm not a Christian anymore, but songs like this are pretty much the best argument for Christianity. Pablo could have a huge career as a gospel singer if he ever gives up the semi-thug-crossed-with-country-boy-poet thing. (Did I mention there's a song here called "Be Country"? Is there any difference between hip-hop and country anymore? Answer: no. When I finally get my book deal on this topic, I will make a million dollars.)
I kind of sound like a cheerleader here, which annoys me when I read a review, so let me talk about the track that pisses me off. "O It's On" throws around a lot of homosexual slurs, pretty clearly aimed at Ja Rule for his whole feud with 50 Cent. There is nothing else like this on the record, but it's low and it rankles. By the time Young Buck from G Unit drops by to spit even more evil venom (repping for his crew member, trying to win more of a reputation than he already has, trying to keep up with Lloyd Banks for the title of "oh yeah he's in G Unit with Fiddy also", whatever) I've already bounced to the next track, so this album will never be all 71 minutes for me. There's no need for "O It's On" to even exist... but damned if the clarinet hook isn't some smooth sailing.
Overall, except for "O It's On", I was going to nominate Petey Pablo for the title of Best Rapper Who Also Seems Like a Pretty Good Guy. I guess he can still be up for that, but this homophobia thing needs to die quickly. It was played out in 1985, it's played out now. Petey, you could be HUGE, you could be the biggest thing in hip-hop, you've got heart and soul and a big vision. But you're gonna give it all away by hating. That's all kinds of wrong, and just kind of sad.