I’s remember when I was on the Ave, clutchin’ them dimes.
Gut touchin’ my spine, bustin’ my rhymes,
Feelin’ like I’m livin’ in them lost times.
No sight of the future, damn right I shoot ya.
— Obie Trice, “Cheers”
I’m internationally known baby, but actually,
There are few people who know how I am naturally.
All you know is that I can act irrationally
When you shove a puppet up in my face on national TV.
So they label me this crazed loony rap bully.
— Eminem, “Lady”
The lost times, for Obie Trice, probably still feel a little too close for comfort. His debut album, Shady’s first scheduled release (back in fall 2002), was pushed back when the label signed 50 Cent and made industry history. At last dropped, Cheers‘ most forceful tracks are littered with details of hood life, focused and harsh, “straight from the block to the industry”, as he puts it on the title track. Obie has nerve, history, and comedy, a useful combination when you ride with Eminem, recently turned super-sincere perfectionist producer boy, on top of everything else.
Some of this work is tough going, working overtime to establish Obie’s street experience. The opening track, “Average Man”, is baleful, highly orchestrated (courtesy of Eminem on the board), vibrant and precise, resonant and enraged. Featuring blamming gunshot effects and an ambulance siren to mark the death of the Obie character’s adversary, gunned down at a club, the lyrics recount the pain of macho posturing: “I put my tune first nigga, you was in second place, / And second place just means you didn’t react with haste. / And this differentiates life where murder bein’ the case. / And since murder was the case, it just means niggas erase, / Another black mother can’t eat the food on her plate.”
Likewise, “Cheers” is a seeming toast to easy girls and club culture, with a hard-pulsing backbeat, which includes a loving nod to his young daughter, Kobie: “From rocks to pow pows, glocks to powder,” he raps over a trumpet, “I done did it all, so I clutch my balls, / And notice they still here, so Obie is still here. / So Kobie, here’s to you and daddy’s new career.” Success never sounded so grim.
For all this drama, the album has already established its affection for slapsticky comedy with the first single, “Got Some Teeth”. Obie’s got jokes. Seriously. Obie’s not a thug or a player so much as he’ a class clown, looking for a class. The track offers sound effects worthy of the Beastie Boys (or Benny Hill), from whistles, to teeth clattering to Fred Flintstone’s feet a-running (the video currently rotating also demonstrates Obie’s impulse to hijinks, with broad caricatures of the dangerous dating scene: “And I know I don’t wanna be headin’ home / With some double D’s full of silicon. / Ten hoodrat chicks surround me outside, / Found me outside, clown me outside,” he sings, mimicking Em’s “Without Me”. The sound of false teeth plunking in a glass accompany Obie’s effort to measure his “big lips” against her prominent lack — something has to give. Such misogynistic malice at this late date is too simple and too trite. Similarly, “Bad Bitch”, pretty regularly produced by Timbaland, is less a seduction than a game plan: “I’m Barry White tonight, you feelin’ alright. / Got a buzz and this huzzie saying O’s her type. / I take her to the high end and strike.”
That said, the album comes with a full load — 19 songs — and some do fall off, as if he and the production crew (with heavyweights like Dre and Timbaland, as well as Mathers, who cowrote most of the songs and raps on several, mostly to insert his own ongoing saga into Obie’s) run low on invention. As SNL demonstrates near-weekly, repetition rarely makes jokes any funnier or points any more effectively. Here the beatdown comes on trifling hos, psycho thugs, loyal homies, and, yet again, the 50/Ja Rule beef.
With Southern-twangy production by D-12’s Kon Artist (who spits a verse as well), “Spread Yo Shit” features an intro by Em’s longtime support, Proof, and more standard tough-guy lyrics (“Now your momma got a funeral attendin’, /Just for mentioning Obie Trice the Henchmen. / All I wanna do is make music and ‘bench’, man.” Mm-hmm. “Lady”, featuring and produced by Em, serves up more paranoid sexism, punctuated by cocking guns and rage at deceptive females, as in “But be damned if I end up back in that pattern, / And we end up back at that goddamn tavern, / And havin’ another déjà vu, we seein’ security. / Pass my pussy around like it’s Ja Rule’s jewelry. / I got news for you bitch, your new curfew’s early. / You ain’t home by 2:30 [gunshot] Ya heard me?” Yeah, heard that.
“Hands on You” is more of the same, though it seems a likely single with short sight, moaning girl effects, and Eminem’s version of a love song chorus: “Any problem, we can see it through. / Baby, if you promise to be true, / I will never put my hands on you. / Come on and think about it.” Growing up continues to be a difficult process, sometimes less comical than others. As Obie puts it here, “There’s a drought, you look out. / I’m on edge, you put the palm of your hand on my head and squeeze. / Please believe I ain’t scared of commitment.” (That said, “Hoodrats” is straight-up petty, calling out “All my hoodrat bitches, Neneh, Aqua, and Trip Entenetta,” sounding mad to be compared to 50 and D-12, and more inane than insightful.)
More significant, though, are the tracks that do work on multiple levels, from “Oh!” (with Busta Rhymes, where Obie describes himself as “A derelict who inherited hustle, / My heritage married the street struggle, / Like a couple of a great unk’s ago”) or “The Set-Up” (with Nate Dogg, produced by Dre and Mike Elizondo, a vivid tale of vengeance and bling-lust). And 50 offers up another version of his increasingly mythic and mystified self in a tight verse on “We All Die One Day”: “Fear me like you fear God, ’cause I bring death. / Silverback gorilla in the concrete jungle. / I’m the strongest around, you know how I get down. / I watch gangsta flicks and root for the bad guy.” (For what it’s worth, Eminem’s gangsta act here is considerably less convincing.)
The most compelling tracks on Cheers, though, are the most complicated and unresolved. Obie’s first mama song, “Don’t Come Down”, begins with bleak memories (“As a child I was foul, / Ma, I couldn’t understand them things that came out your mouth”), but comes round to an appreciation and apology: “Even though I left the house wrong, / Seventeen years old on my own, / Using these streets as my home, / There’s no need to prolong this beef, dear, I love you, / Miss Eleanor Trice, I place no one above you.”
The second track focused on his mother’s influence, “Follow My Life”, articulates likewise ambivalent feelings: while she blames his no-count, run-off father, she presses Obie, “[T]ake your ass out there and fight for tomorrow,” but after tales of violence and survival (“I’m so involved with the grind, I’m losin’ my mind, / Fuck a steady job, I’m tryin’ / I steady mob, I’m dyin’ in this game, I ain’t lyin’ / Sellin’ so much coke, forgettin’ it’s a crime”), he comes back to himself. As Biggie’s “Big Poppa” plays under, he admits at song’s end, “Yeah, all my of life, / Only my momma know.”