Tips for the hip-hop community: (1) don't ever call it a comeback, (2) don't rely on clichés, (3) don't give up, and (4) don't let your production outdo you.
I have been defending you -- and hip-hop as a whole -- for many years now, mostly unnoticed. I know, I know. None of you have ever asked me to do this. One of the unusual facets of our relationship is that most of you have no idea who I am. Nobody's paying me a retainer or salary for my efforts. But I'm willing to defend you just the same, which I suppose is remarkable since the population of hip-hop defenders seems to be dwindling. Even hip-hoppers are challenging the viability of hip-hop.
I'm sticking around because I believe in you. All of you. I believe you all can do powerful and creative things. In consideration for all the music you've released that I've enjoyed, and especially for the ones that made me think about the world a little differently, I will continue to offer my friendly (and free!) counsel.
Whether you pay my words any attention is entirely up to you. But if you do, please don't concern yourselves with such things as "privacy" or "attorney-client privilege". Yes, outsiders will be able to read what I'm telling you, but that's okay. They'll assume it's not important (because why else would I be so open and notorious about it?). The wise guys will say, "Well, that's what he wants us to think," but to that I say, "A-ha! Maybe that's what I want you to think that I want you to think!" Either way, the confusion will create the necessary smokescreen for our communication.
This time, my observations relate to Prodigy, one-half of the "infamous" hip-hop duo Mobb Deep, and his release Return of the Mac. The album is a prelude of sorts, an introductory mixtape to Prodigy's forthcoming H.N.I.C. 2 album. My comments are as follows:
1. Don't Call It a Comeback
Rappers, when your lyrical reputation's at stake, as Prodigy's rep arguably is, LL Cool J's advice is instructive. LL said, "Don't call it a comeback, I've been here for years," in the opening verse of his hit "Mama Said Knock you Out". Prodigy, following this advice, wisely titled his album Return of the Mac, saying nothing at all about a "comeback".
A "comeback" implies an uphill battle waged against unforeseen and uncontrollable circumstances. Here's an example. In 1989, Austrian tennis player Thomas "the King of Clay" Muster suffered severe physical injuries when he was struck by drunk driver, mere hours after reaching the final of the Lipton Championships in Key Biscayne, Florida. At the time, he was ranked among the world's top ten. Through relentless training and physical therapy that would make a Rocky movie look like a film about couch potatoes, Muster managed to play professional tennis again. He was the pro tour's "Comeback Player of the Year" in 1990; in 1996, he reached the number one spot in the world rankings. That's a hell of a comeback. In hip-hop, that's like Tupac coming back with All Eyez on Me after getting shot five times and incarcerated.
A "return", on the other hand, sometimes indicates the existence of a choice. Keeping with the tennis analogy, John Patrick McEnroe, Jr., tennis's "Superbrat", decided to take a sabbatical from the sport in 1986. He took his hiatus, but when he jumped back into professional tennis, he discovered that the world had changed -- new racquets, more topspin, and athletes who were bigger, stronger, and fitter. McEnroe was "returning" to tennis, not making a "comeback" (there are articles that do indeed call it a "comeback", but don't pay that any mind). In hip-hop, McEnroe's voluntary sabbatical and return to tennis would be akin to Jay-Z's retirement and subsequent return to the studio.
Return of the Mac, as a title, exudes a sense of control and an insinuation that Prodigy has his eye on reclaiming a favorable position in the rap game. Last year, when Mobb Deep released Blood Money on 50 Cent's G-Unit label, many (including me) wondered if the Mobb had lost their individuality. Many (including me) surmised that the Mobb had gotten sidetracked by Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson's vision instead of sticking to their own.
This time around, Prodigy keeps the 50 and G-Unit references to a minimum. There's a noticeable one in "Take It to the Top", where Prodigy says, "I got blood on my G-Units", but I'm okay with that. A little cross-promotion never hurt anybody. And there's his shout out to 50 in the liner notes for "giving a f*** when you didn't have to." No problem there either.
Prodigy's titular statement is reinforced by the intro, "The Mac Is Back", which isn't bad as far as intros go. The bassline bubbles, punctuated by tense, almost soap opera-like strings, plus horns that seem to salute the homecoming of a king. It's as if the executives at the Showtime cable network decided to substitute Prodigy in place of Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry VIII on The Tudors.
Prodigy avoids dwelling on past mistakes. He could have easily made songs devoted to lashing out at critics, or defending the move to G-Unit, or explaining why some of his "rhymes" haven't always involved a rhyme scheme. But he didn't do that when, arguably, the burden was on Prodigy (more so than Havoc) to account for the group's missteps.
He also handles some old wounds in a mature fashion, such as the fallen rapper shout outs from Madgesty in "Madge Speaks". Madgesty includes a shout to "Makaveli the Don", which is kinda cool, considering the Tupac-Mobb Deep beef from back in the day. In "The Rotten Apple", Prodigy says, "If Pac was still alive, we'd be on the same team". That's a nice thought. In this way, Prodigy attempts to move forward, and that's a good lesson for us all.
2. Don't Rely on Clichés
As you know, the "gangsta", "thug", and "pimp" personas are under attack. Personally, I don't have anything against them, but there are many who disagree. You might think it's hypocritical for people to revile "gangsta rap" while praising (or at least being indifferent to) flicks like The Godfather movies, Goodfellas, Casino, and The Untouchables. I might even agree with you. But so what? That's not going to change anybody's mind.
Also, we have to be honest about the climate in which we live. People are worried about "terrorists" way more than "thugs" or "gangstas", so the "gangsta" perspective doesn't usually shock them anymore. A rapper who "doesn't give a f*ck" can't compete with the image of a suicide bomber. As a result, if you're going to use the "gangsta" angle, you'll have to go beyond stereotypes to dig deeper into this material and bring us something fresh.
This is where Prodigy could up the ante on Return of the Mac. His "gangsta" persona is well established, and it suits him, as his voice and delivery always made me think he was something out of a black-and-white movie. At any moment, I expect him to say, "What's the big idea, eh? Scram, will ya. Move, kid, ya botha me." Gangsters love guns, and Prodigy's verses are filled with them. On the title track, the hook goes, "I got 11 Mac-11s, 38 thirty-eights, Nine nines, ten mac-10s, the sh*t never ends".
"Gangsta" looks good on Prodigy, but the imagery is ultimately well worn. For Return, Prodigy models himself after Hoodlum, the 1997 film in which the intelligent hood Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson (Laurence Fishburne) and the often-erratic Dutch Schultz (Tim Roth) wage war against each other over the numbers racket in Harlem, New York. In the Prodigy's intro, you get a slice from a verse in which Prodigy says, "Alchemist is Dutch Schultz, P's Bumpy Johnson". The liner notes also refer to the connection, with Prodigy referring to the Alchemist as "Dutch Schultz", while the Alchemist sums up his thank you's with "Bumpy Johnson and Dutch Schultz signing off".
The album photos are first rate; they absolutely nail the time period, the clothing, and the clandestine atmosphere we've come to associate with "the Mob". Only problem is, it's Hoodlum's imagery, and not worthy of a high ranking on the originality meter.
3. Don't Give Up
There's an occupational hazard associated with "gangsta rap". When rappers aim to sound nonchalant, they run the risk of sounding unengaged. They can be so laid back you have to wonder if they have a pulse at all. You could pick any song from Mobb Deep's Hell on Earth (1996), and you'd hear what makes people like me get so invested in Prodigy's output, why we complain about an album like Blood Money but keep our hopes up for a release such as this one. Throughout Hell on Earth, Prodigy paced himself, remained ominously firm and prodding, firing his lyrics with controlled aggression. Beneath the cool exterior laid the heart of a warrior.
On Return, Prodigy tries to rekindle some flames. Return of the Mac presents a more refined and progressive Prodigy than the one we heard on Blood Money, but there's no indication that Hell on Earth's Prodigy will be heard from anytime soon. The title track reminds me of a song 50 would do, right down to the sing-song-y hook, although it's arguably the best song on the set, followed by "7th Heaven". Meanwhile, "Nickel & a Nail" offers energetic vocal turns. Still, on tracks like "Stuck on You" and "The Rotten Apple", Prodigy blurs the line between "rapping" and "just talking". By this, I don't mean "he rhymes so smoothly it sounds like he's having a conversation." I mean, he sounds like he's rambling, and doing it really, really slowly in some cases.
Just like with the imagery, you have to keep it fresh. Of course there will be times when you'll pay homage to a classic rap song, or make a reference to a golden hip-hop catchphrase like "If you don't know, now you know" or "Can you feel it? Nothin' can save ya". But I can't stand the teeth marks left in the Geto Boys' "Mind Playing Tricks on Me" in the hook for Prodigy's "Mac 10 Handle": "I sit alone in my four cornered room starin' at candles". Perhaps it's because I despise "Mac 10 Handle" in general, as it drags along for a good four minutes of my life that I'll never, ever get back, multiplied by the several times I've listened to it to make sure I disliked it.
Besides that, Rappers, you have to be mindful of the pitfalls of "reality rap" or "keeping it real". Prodigy, for instance, says in "Mac 10 Handle" (damn, I had to listen to it again to quote it):
Too much of that gangsta music?
Nah, this [is] reality rap, I really go through it
In interrogation rooms, I 'on't crack
N*gga, I got nuttin' for ya, talk to my lawyer
Assertions of "reality rap" are in direct conflict with the album's imagery as derived from Hoodlum, which, although it's based on real gangsters, is a movie. It's like if I wrote a book and I tried to look and dress like Ghandi on the cover, and then I told you, "This book is about how I roll, dawg. It's my reality." But how can it be my reality if I don't normally look or dress anything like Ghandi?! Even if I said, "Hey, it's about my inner Ghandi," you might find it hard to take. I'm shaking my head in disapproval just thinking about it.
Besides all that, never believe what happens in movies. There's enough fiction in the history books to keep your wheels spinning for years.
Lastly, referring to "gangsta music" as a reality-based endeavor makes it more difficult for me to defend you guys. I'd like to argue that the music is artistic, imaginative, and creative. My argument for "poetic license" is weakened when you assert that the shootouts, coke sniffing, and pimp slapping is based on real life. So, from now on, it's "art", not "reality", okay? Or, you could just say, "No comment," when people ask about it. If you guys could help me with this, I'd really appreciate it.
4. Don't Let the Production Outdo You
On Return, the Alchemist handles most of the beatmaking, with assistance from DJ Muro ("The Mac is Back Intro", "Take It To the Top") and Kevin Crouse (mixing on "Stuck on You"). Although the Alchemist has clearly been busy (you'll also find him working it out on Evidence's The Weatherman), he more than justifies his presence here. Really, the production is the highlight of the release, providing quintessential "gangsta boogie" to augment Prodigy's rhymes in the foreground. Samples from 1970s films and grooves keep the project in perpetual bump, undergirding the gangsterism, much like the score of The Untouchables, the movie with Kevin Costner and Sean Connery. Check the music in that film when Elliot Ness (Costner) pushes Frank Nitti (Billy Drago) off the top of a building and onto a car parked on a street below -- I almost like the score more than I like the movie.
There are some beats on Return that I don't care for, like the one in "Nickel & a Nail", where the rhythm never quite connects with Prodigy's delivery. It's as if two different songs are playing at the same time. There's also the overused Barry White sample ("Playing Your Game, Baby") in "Stop Frontin'". Although the tune is one of Prodigy's better moments, I'd still rather just listen to Barry White sing his song -- that's some real "gangsta boogie" right there. Finally, the beat in "Mac 10 Handle" worked much better when Tone Loc used it almost 20 years ago in "Loc'd After Dark".
On the plus side, the title track sets the sleek, confident mood just right, while Alchemist squeezes more anguish from the sped-up soul sample of "Stuck on You" than the lyrics manage to do. I also dig the percussive bent of "Take It to the Top", the "Microphone Fiend"-ishness (in the drums) of "7th Heaven", and the sonic boom of "Bang on 'Em" (the bass makes my car windows shake!). On the minus side, I have a sneaky suspicion I'd prefer instrumentals of these songs rather than the current ones with the lyrics.
In the end, Return of the Mac just manages to keep my hopes up for Prodigy's next release.
Rappers, I hope I've given you some tips on how to tighten up your games. Use or discard these suggestions as you see fit.