The Roc-A-Fella franchise is facing a potential crisis. Team captain and hall-of-famer Jay-Z has, at least temporarily, retired. Sidekick Beanie Sigel is likely facing serious jail time. Cam'ron, who brings the best remaining mix of talent and experience, is far from a team player. The rest of the roster is filled with role players (Memphis Bleek), has-beens (Old Dirty Bastard), and mistakes (Peedi Crack). Not wanting to suffer the same rebuilding fate as former powerhouses like Death Row, Roc execs wisely looked to its farm system and called up superstar rookie Kanye West, as well as State Property's Chris and Neef to provide some much needed energy to the squad.
While West made the team by appealing to backpackers and commercial fans, Chris and Neef have earned their stripes by dropping addictive, radio-friendly cuts for the ladies while infiltrating the mix tape market with street bangers. When their smash single "Can't Stop Won't Stop" almost single-handedly moved State Property's Chain Gang units last summer, it was obvious that the duo collectively known as the Young Gunz had a huge commercial upside. Unfortunately, on their debut album, Tough Luv, the Young Gunz fail to deliver on their extraordinary promise.
Like most of the Roc-A-Fella team, Chris and Neef use their lyrical gifts to tell stale street tales about girls, guns, and drugs. Unfortunately, the Young Gunz lack the skills and charisma to distinguish them from the rest of the pack. Tracks like "Problems", "Time", and the radio hit "No Better Luv" reflect the cut-and-paste feel of the album. On "$$$ Girlz", the duo spoil a sick Hall & Oates sample with dull lyrics and a weak appearance by Juelz Santana.
Particularly disappointing is the performance of Neef, already the weaker member of the group, who has failed to show much progress since signing with the Roc. Ironically, it is this very issue that makes for one of the album's most original and enjoyable cuts, "Tough Luv". In one of their most balanced efforts, Chris and Neef talk about the struggles of building a group despite Neef's admitted lack of focus: "Now I got the game mapped, plus I want my spot back / We together forever, these niggaz can't stop that / Do it for who? I do it for you! / Let's be for real homeboy, they not our crew / And since we talkin facts, it's really just us two / And I know you feel the same when you're signed / But you couldn't even ride cuz I wasn't on my job / Don't never ever think I left your side / Never T-mac and Carter, C / Man you a part of me".
The album's brightest spots are those that feature guest appearances by senior Roc-A-Fella MCs. On "Never Take Me Alive", Chris, Neef, and Jay-Z send shouts out to their lost homies. Although Chris and Neef (whose verse was added later for the album version) hold their own, Young Hov brings the track to another level: "BIG you had the Mafia / Me, I got the Property / Got a lot of these fake families out here copyin' / But nigga trust I'ma flush all this bullshit / All this fake Tupac and fake Suge shit / We ain't the first to make hood shit / We ain't invent the wheel / But we made the Goodrich tire / And now we hood rich / And I rhyme like my momma still in the hood, shit". Killa Cam's appearance on "Look in Your Eyes" breathes life into an otherwise dull track. Even Beanie Sigel's lackluster lyrics on "Roc U" are enough to overshadow Chris and Neef.
While Tough Luv is certainly on par with most of the year's commercial hip-hop releases, the tame beats and predictable lyrics are unacceptable for such high draft picks. Hopefully, their sophomore release will meet the considerable expectations set for them by fans and Roc-A-Fella higher-ups. Otherwise, this may be a very short career for the rookie MCs.