Keepin’ it real. This mantra has been the shibboleth of the hip-hop community since gangster rap supplanted the political rap movement of the early 1990s. To be clear, the notion of keepin’ it real extends beyond the soul and pre-soul values of honesty and artistic integrity, which have been part and parcel of African American music since its inception. After all, if “keepin’ it real” were merely about the existence of a one-to-one relationship between lyrical content and lived experience, we would undoubtedly consider MC Hammer or Will Smith to be among the realest MCs on the planet. Rather, to be truly “real” in the hip-hop context requires a particular lived response to one’s music, which is also crosschecked against a narrow rubric of ghetto experience. It is this construction of realness that has contributed to hip-hop’s greatest and most tragic moments.
From an artistic perspective, the hip-hop generation’s preoccupation with realness has resulted in the creation of some the most powerful and influential contributions to American music in the past twenty five years. NWA’s Straight Outta Compton, Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle, and Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, three classic exemplars of critical ghetto ethnography, provided listeners with access to the underside of post-industrial urban American life, foregrounding “the real” through the telling of ghetto-centric narratives. These masterpieces, which rank among the greatest in hip-hop history, demonstrated the power and beauty of hip-hop as a window into the ghetto quotidian.
Unfortunately, these works also raised the stakes with respect to the assertion and validation of realness. To be “real” no longer meant to simply talk about the realities of the ‘hood. Suddenly, a “real” rapper (as opposed to the “studio gangster”) was one who was willing to participate in the most pernicious aspects of street life. Tupac, the patron saint of ghetto authenticity, provides an extraordinary example of this phenomenon. It was not until Tupac’s “thug life” period that he began to receive the street credibility and eventual legend status that he continues to garner nearly seven years after his violent death. Fifty Cent, the current heir apparent to Tupac’s thug stardom, is marketed as much for his gunfight survival as for his lyrical prowess.
State Property, whose latest album Chain Gang was released on August 12, is quickly becoming another example of the frequently tragic intersection between hip-hop art and life. At the time of this writing, the group, a virtual seven man all-star team of Philadelphia MCs, is in grave danger of realizing the full potential of its name and becoming full-time members of the prison industrial complex. Neef, one half of the Young Guns, whose radio hit “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop” is the first single released from the Chain Gang album, was arrested in May on gun charges. Oschino and Peedi Crakk have only recently been released from jail. Group leader Beanie Sigel, whose solo albums The Truth and The Reason have received uniform praise from critics and fans, is currently in jail without bail on separate gun and attempted murder charges. Already a convicted felon, Sigel’s conviction would most likely signal the end to his burgeoning career.
Despite its legal problems, State Property, which also features Freeway, Young Chris, and Sparks, managed to stay together long enough to produce a strong follow-up to their self-titled debut album. The previous album, which also served as the soundtrack to the Roc-A-Fella ‘hood flick by the same name, received generally strong reviews but generated few sales, despite the popularity of Beanie Sigel and Freeway’s “Rock the Mic” single. This time around, the Roc-a-Fella camp provided the group with much stronger production and several potential singles. In addition to Chris and Need’s “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop”, Beanie Sigel, Peedi Crakk, and Dirt McGirt (née Ol’ Dirty Bastard) collaborate on “When You Hear That”, which borrows from KRS-One’s “Sound of the Police”. While Sigel and Crakk provide strong lyrics, McGirt brings his usual blend of high energy and unpredictability.
On “It’s On”, a mellow D-Dot production, Sigel and Jay-Z show the Roc’s junior members how it’s done by laying down yet another superb track that makes you daydream about the possibility of a full length collaboration album. Jigga, who has been on a lyrical comeback since his disappointing Blueprint 2, trades sharp verses with Sigel, one of the few rappers alive capable of outshining him on a song. Despite Sigel’s brilliance, this time around it’s all Jigga: “Since you was a baby coward / We been sprinkling the world with baby powder / So fresh and so clean / Been a Outkast since I was a teen / But I outlast ’cause I outblast anybody you bring”.
One of the surprises of the album is the strength and consistency of Young Chris. Although his Jigga-esque flow and improvisations reflect both his obvious admiration for “big homie” and an artistic immaturity that will develop with time, the more talented half of the Young Guns brings it on every track. Young Chris’ verses on “G.A.N.G.” and “State Prop” prove that he can hang with the upper echelon of Roc-A-Fella MCs. His “94 Bars” bonus track shows his promise as a commercial success and mixtape monster.
A major challenge when constructing an album with more than three or four rappers is finding enough bars for everyone, particularly when everyone performs at such a high level. Consequently, Freeway, fresh off his impressive solo debut Philadelphia Freeway, appears on only three tracks. Otherwise, the album features an evenly distributed mix of Roc-A-Fella’s next generation of stars. Despite the album’s generally predictable themes of sex, drugs, and violence, the diverse talents and styles of each rapper give the album a fresh feel. Unlike many label all-star records (Ruff Ryders, Violator), which have an individualistic mixtape feel, Chain Gang sounds like the work of a legitimate and cohesive group.
Like most hip-hop groups, however, the major challenge will be keeping State Property together. Unlike other talented groups, like Wu-Tang Clan, the Fugees, or A Tribe Called Quest, the cause of a split will not be a personal, creative, or financial disagreement. Ironically, it is State Property’s most appealing quality that is simultaneously undermining its promising future together: each member’s willingness to “keep it real”.