They've been around for thirteen years, but Tha Liks would have you know they haven't changed.
It's been three years, but the original hip-hop drunkies are back.
At a time when the West Coast was falling deep into gangsta rap, Tha Alkaholiks burst onto the scene with a laid-back alternative. From the easy-going raps to the backpacker beats, 21 & Over (and the subsequent albums) built them both a reputation and a cult following. They deftly fused hardcore partying with more serious underground sensibilities, mixing the two into their own distinctive brand: as Tash phrases it on "Chaos", "West Coast sip-hop". And in the face of the recklessly violent, street-corner thug image that was dominating the charts, it was original, it was rebellious, it was subversive.
All of which, 13 years later, begs the question: now that drinking and casual sex are far from "subversive" in the world of hip-hop, where does this leave Tha Liks? Answer: right where they've always been. While they haven't really fallen off from where they've stayed since their inception, neither have they really grown up or evolved as a group. They've more grown in, settling into their own niche and getting more comfortable with what they do. They came into the game staring expectantly at liquor in a fridge; now that the songs have been sung and the drinks poured, they're going out their way, unabashedly alcoholic and ready for the last party. In a sense, this is fitting: sudden gravity would seem inappropriate from a group with a urinating cartoon character for a logo. But at the same time, it leaves a question as to their legacy. Tha Liks have always toed the lines between carefree party music and harder-edged hip-hop, underground and mainstream; while even fellow Likwit Crew members like Xzibit had their day in the sun, Tha Alkaholiks hovered just outside the circle of commercial acceptance. On their last album, they made their biggest bid yet for a greater stake in the mainstream consciousness: the songs were their most radio-friendly to date, and they even officially shortened their name to Tha Liks, to assuage the possible concerns of radio programmers. With Firewater, they seem to have come to terms with their status as cult favorites, resolving to go out like they came in: Alkaholiks to the end. It may not be their best album, but where it doesn't really add to their legacy, neither does it really tarnish; altogether, this is a decently solid final outing that should satisfy old fans and turn a final page for the longstanding pioneers of sip-hop.
The disc starts out strong with "Turn It Up", a well-produced banger of an opener that sets the tone for the rest of the album. J-Ro and Tash are both on point with their respective verses, and E-Swift, who raps more this time around than on previous albums, finishes the track out. It's one of the better songs here, and it leads in to the rest nicely.
Tha Alkaholiks follow this up with lead single "The Flute Song (Lalala)", in which they sum up their governing ethic simply and succinctly: "You know you can't party like us, so stop tryin' . . . / We like to get money, get drunk, and smoke weed". While it's not nearly as technically impressive as Busdriver's dark-humor tongue-twister "Imaginary Forever" or as catchy as the Hov classic "Big Pimpin'", the flute loop here is about ten times as badass as hip-hop flute has seen previously, and Tash's throaty voice sounds even crazier than usual. "Chaos" is another highlight, as Tha Liks ride a staggery-stumbly drum beat (punctuated by bright synth-organ punches) courtesy of Danger Mouse and offer up a million ways to "teach these niggas how to stunt". J-Ro drops what is probably my favorite line from the album -- "chillin' in my drawers in hotels like the Bible" -- while Tash holds his own with the strangely catchy "I'm rowdy, I'm cocky, I'm like Jeremy Shockey". This, however, is about where the album starts to break down -- apart from these, the main middle stretch is comprised of lackluster electronic beats from E-Swift and rapping that recycles the same simplistic themes of free-flowing women and wine. Songs like "The Get Down", "Handle It", and "On the Floor" blend together in a mess of ugly buzzing and synthesized thumping, with lyrics built mostly from simple imperatives like "drink it, smoke it, party ya ass off". The main problem is the sinister, not-quite-conducive-to-partying production, including ominous, angry sampled shouts of "get your ass on the floor!" that Tha Liks try to pass off as serviceable choruses. The man is yelling at me! This does not make me want to dance!
"Poverty's Paradise" interrupts for a brief interlude of near-social-commentary, but it's such a short break in the lineup of mindless partying that it ends up more highlighting the lack of other such songs than really adding anything substantial itself. The drinks at points appear to be beginning to take their toll, and Tha Liks' attitudes toward women often swerve into disturbingly casual misogyny. "Do It" has to be about the only really strong track on the album's second half, pairing the three MCs with an earnestly wistful beat that finally seems to bring some feeling into the group's dissolution. Not that they discuss the split here, even: over the course of the entire album, the announced break-up merits about a verse from Tash and barely a mention from J-Ro. And the final track, "Over Here", takes it right back around to a darker tone and hard raps, despite King Tee bringing the whole affair full circle. There's no fatalism, no Jay-Z-style "My 1st Song", just an ominous, electronic beat while Tha Liks rap about "kickin' it over here".
If, after thirteen years and five albums, the Alkaholik revelry was starting to wear thin, at points seeming more hangover than party, they can be forgiven: thirteen years is an eternity in hip-hop, and while Firewater probably won't win too many new converts to the fold, they've managed to stay surprisingly relevant over the course of their career (remember Crown Royal?). Tash's album dropped a while back, and both J-Ro and Swift have solo projects in the works, with cross-features expected, so this won't even be the very last we hear from them. With a final toast, they finish their drinks, and the fridge door shuts.