Politics of the Business is easily mistaken for satire. The tone is set from the opening skit, which bitterly alludes to Prince Paul’s recent trials in the music biz — specifically, the commercial failure of 1999’s Prince among Thieves. For the remainder, we get Paul behind the boards doing his parodic take on the poppy, slick, technoed-out sounds currently ruling the upper reaches of the hip-hop charts, along with a stable of underground rappers spitting out their takes on the “big baller” persona. It’s like Spinal Tap, only hip-hop, right?
For his part, Prince Paul gets it right, effortlessly emulating all the bells ‘n whistles of current production trends. On a few tracks he fully taps in to the energy and funk that can make the best commercial rap great on its own terms, and this pushes the album’s best tracks that much closer to success as parody. One of the reasons Spinal Tap were funny was because they rocked harder than Accept, and Paul, at various points, helps the Beatnuts, Kardinal Offishal, and especially Eric Sermon ball at least as hard as those they’re licking shots at. In fact, Sermon’s own “React” — luridly overblown, hilarious, and funky as shit — seems to be Paul’s primary template.
Unfortunately, while Paul maintains a similar tone and approach almost throughout, the MCs he’s working with don’t, and this is the album’s ultimate downfall. It’s hard to say whether someone just forgot to forward the memo or what, but a good portion of the rappers on Politics of Business seem to have little if any concept of what’s required of them, or in many cases, that they’re even on a parody album. The likes of Planet Asia and Kokane can pull nothing out of their stocking caps but the same sort of self-serious moralizing the underground has been bringing for a decade, which, when joined to Paul’s bling-bling production, somehow becomes harder to get down with.
But this is far from the worst of it. There are some truly disturbing moments on the album, all of which seem thoroughly unintentional. More than once, it becomes suddenly unclear whether the lyrics you’re hearing are intended to be taken sincerely, or as satire. The standard is set by a member of Horror City rhyming, “You’re rappin’ ’bout the jewels you got / While I’m rappin’ bout the jewels I got from all the dudes I shot”. The charitable reading is that he’s taking a subtle jab at mainstream hip-hop’s obsession with violence. The problem is that, if the beat were a dusty, minimal backpacker track, it wouldn’t occur to anyone that it was meant as anything other than another in the long string of threats from the weak to the strong, backed by values that are mainly distinguished by being muddled in subtly different ways.
Paul’s “commercial” beats act as an acid test, revealing, here and in a couple of other places, the retrograde impulses that lie not-so-hidden in the personas of a certain segment of the underground community. For all their self-righteousness, some of the folks on the record seem to be separated from those they’re criticizing mainly by a few million dollars and the willingness to really, really bust caps. I mean, they’ve got guns. They’re for real. Even if they were actually intended as satire, these are potshots at an easy and ill-chosen target. These days, what little stylized and whitewashed violence remains on mainstream rap albums is not in any sense the subject of the music. Rather, it is on equal (or lower) footing with money and sex in constituting the rapper’s stratospheric rock-star lifestyle and cartoonish personality — a personality whose absurd entirety makes a much riper target than any one of its dimensions taken alone.
Contrast all this confusion, briefly, with a similar recent project. Mike Ladd’s Majesticons album is, like Politics, a broadly conceived satire of current rap trends. But Ladd’s crew is considerably less well-known and much, much weirder than Paul’s — they belong to the same far-leftfield axis as Def Jux, Anticon, and Project Blowed. Ladd and Co. are not so much taking aim at their targets as borrowing their clothes in the firm knowledge that, when they lay their temporary personalities aside, they’ll still be independent as fuck. They’re mostly able to embrace their roles with much less restraint, leaving their portrayals complex, their irony much purer, and the record much more enjoyable.
Politics of the Business ends on a bittersweet up note, as Paul briefly abandons the “concept” of the album to give us a bouncy, dusty, brilliantly goofy track in his classic style. Over a chopped-up waltz, Chubb Rock, Wordsworth, and the unspeakably brilliant MF Doom give us three sincere, funny and insightful condemnations of the profit motive in hip-hop. Sure, it’s something that’s been done before, and it has become more than clear that calling rap stars “greedy swine” isn’t going to motivate them to re-assess their erroneous ways. But perhaps the only sure path to victory in the long run is for the underground to offer music that is more entertaining and rewarding than that of the mainstream and — tough as it is for me to say this — that only happens one time on Politics of the Business.