So what’s it gonna be, hip-hoppers? What do you consider most important in a rap song? And please, please don’t go into the whole “rap song is an oxymoron” stuff — we got it already, but thanks. Just answer the question. Is it the beat? Is it the lyrical content? Is it the delivery? What makes a rap song “good”? (And I’m not accepting “Nothing” or “A parallel universe” as answers.)
Some listeners adhere to the “beats reign supreme” perspective, most notably and hilariously described by comedian Chris Rock in his Never Scared routine: “If the beat’s all right, she’ll dance all night.” Other listeners, who might self-describe as “socially conscious” or be labeled as “backpackers”, prefer lyrical content to hot beats. Still others would argue, perhaps cynically, that delivery trumps all else, “It’s not what you say; it’s how you say it.” And of course there will be a contingent suggesting a hybrid of the three positions. Any takers for nailing down a precise formulation of the hybrid position? Something like, “30% production, 50% lyrical content, and 20% delivery.” Of course, that wouldn’t account for the artists who “give 110% percent.”
Oh! If only it were that easy.
But it’s not easy. Usually, this isn’t much of a problem, at least not a conscious one, but every year an album comes along that makes me keenly aware of the components of its songs. You often hear this about Nas’ albums, that his delivery is top-notch and his songs generally have substance, but his beats don’t measure up. This year, the album is Carte Blanche by the Detroit, Michigan rapper Phat Kat, also known as “Ronnie Cash”.
Carte Blanche is a promising listen, considering everything it has to offer. There’s quite a lot to like about Phat Kat. Although he’s only on his second solo effort, he’s a veteran emcee and a key player in Detroit’s thriving underground hip-hop scene. From a marketing standpoint, he has a recognizable voice that lands in the vicinity of Ice-T and Sir Mix-a-lot on the Raspy Meter, slightly short of Canibus, DMX, and Jah Rule.
When it comes to delivery, Phat Kat ignites his verses, layering his vocals so it sometimes sounds like there’s two or three Phat Kats passing the mic to one another like a baton in a relay race. His is an energetic flow and I like his tendency to extend his rhyme scheme beyond the usual one or two couplets, sometimes inundating entire verses with rhymes and near rhymes. In “Cold Steel”, he ends several lines with words that rhyme with “classic whips”; in “Vessels”, the line-enders rhyme with “disassociate”; and in “Cash Em Out”, he simply goes for words that rhyme with “hot”.
Add to that a roster of guest vocalists and emcees. For vocalists, Melanie Rutherford steals the shine with her Amy Winehouse-style chorus on “Lovely”, overshadowing Phat Kat’s tales of escapades with “fine ass chicks”. Seriously, I would love this song if it didn’t have the rap part in it. A similar thing happens when Truth Hurts shows up for the chorus on “Pressure”, although Truth is nowhere near as rough and rugged here as she could have been. Her outrageous tirade on her “Queen of the Ghetto” track, from Truthfully Speaking, is an example of the wonderful havoc she can wreak.
For guest rappers, we get Slum Village’s Elzhi (“Cold Steel”) and T3 (“Danger”), along with Loe Louis (“Cash Em Out”), Fat Ray (“Hard Enuff”), and Guilty Simpson (“Nightmare”). Just so you know, that’s not “Simpson” in reference to “Orenthal James Simpson”; it’s really this guy’s last name.
The best part of Carte Blanche, however, is the production. Detroit’s favorite beatmakers keep the disc hoppin’, from the minimalist compositions of the late J. Dilla to Black Milk’s swaggering joints and ear for vintage samples. Nick Speed (“Pressure”, Nightmare”) and Young RJ (“Get It Started”, “Lovely”, “True Story Pt. 2”) offer more than gap fillers, putting in work that’s just as textured as the other beats on the CD. What I dig is how simple the songs might seem, but the details eventually show themselves as the songs run, with elements added, looped, and taken away, like viewing a collage in which the visual elements blend into each other. The main exception is when the percussion takes precedence, as on Young RJ’s “True Story Pt. 2” or J Dilla’s hard-as-hell “My Old Label”. Phat Kat gets props just for being able to hang with “My Old Label”, as beyond-banger as it is, let alone having something to say over it.
So far, so good, right? Phat Kat sports a confident delivery over (mostly) innovative beats, along with more than competent guests. Shouldn’t that be enough?
Well, it could be. I’ve enjoyed albums with less going for them. But, in this case, fly delivery and def beats aren’t enough to compensate for the set’s lack of substance. “My Old Label” and “Nightmare” are the truest exceptions, focusing on Phat Kat’s disdain for the politics of the music business. “Survival Kit” reminds me of the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Ten Crack Commandments”, with a variety of advice, while the aforementioned “Lovely” tries a player storyline but falls short of captivating. The most sincere track is “True Story Pt. 2”, a stutter-stepping account about emceeing interspersed with guests reminiscing about Dilla and Phat Kat. The rest is mostly bluster. Some of it is clever, some of it not so much.
On the downside, there’s stuff like the “bringin’ drama like Susan Lucci” line in “Don’t Nobody Care About Us” — what is it about Susan Lucci, the United States soap opera queen, that inspires rappers to namedrop her and her soap character Erica Kane so much (especially when all the real gangstas know Reva Shane on Guiding Light is way better)? Although I’d be willing to argue that “Don’t Nobody Care About Us” is the best and most precise song on the LP, lines mentioning Susan Lucci this late in the game need to be checked. I’m willing to accept it as an old song being released now because it’s a Dilla beat, but what’s the excuse for comparing yourself to “Hasbro” because of “all the game that I got” or saying your rivals are “artificial like turf”, as Phat Kat does in “Cash Em Out”?
Likewise, on “Nasty Ain’t It?”, he goes, “Phat Kat, Ronnie Cash, got a John Gotti stash / Put you in a body cast from a shottie blast”. In terms of rhyme and assonance, I like it. In terms of what it says, well, I don’t love it. I ain’t sayin’ it’s wack, I’m just sayin’ it doesn’t distinguish Phat Kat’s skills from the pack the way it should. Fresher analogies alone would give the album more staying power.
What we’re left with is a transition album of sorts, an album that should garner Phat Kat a higher profile, but doesn’t quite succeed in showing off how well rounded the man is. His first album, The Undeniable, got the ball rolling. This one does well with production and delivery. Maybe the third album’s the charm.