Ghostface Killah, Supreme Clientele (2000)
Ever since releasing his damn-near perfect Fishscale in 2006, Ghostface Killah’s become something of a do-no-wrong darling to hip-hop heads and critics alike. That album was as potent and high-inducing as the one-of-a-kind pure Peruvian blow from which it took its name, even earning him an extended, glowing review in The New Yorker. (That New Yorker spread— sandwiched between a review of an Ibsen revival and Seamus Heaney poems— would have been the kiss of death for any other MC, but not Ghostface). But, I beg your pardon, this elder-statesman of hip-hop’s best album ain’t Fishscale. In early 2000, four years after his debut solo album (that’s an eternity in hip-hop time) and upon his release from a stint in the joint, Ghostface produced Supreme Clientele, one of the two or three best albums of this decade. His lyrics have never been wackier or more lucid: “Rhymes is made of garlic” or “This rappin’s like ziti.” Gone are the hip-hop cliches. Ghostface didn’t talk about his doing time; he wasn’t interested in autobiography as such. No, Supreme Clientele is the grand experiment in hip-hop lyricism: for some of the tracks, apparently (including “Nutmeg”), Ghostface is rumored to have created lyrics via the prosthesis of voice-recording software, which scripted his stream-of-conscious verbal effusions as he spit them out (a sort of hip-hop automatic writing): “Chop the O, sprinkle a lil' snow inside an optimo, swing the John McEnroe, rap rock'n'roll, tidy bowl, gun’-ho pro, Starsky with the gumsole, hit the rump slow, parole kids, live Rapunzel.” During a Village Voiceinterview in 2006, Ghostface had this to say about Supreme Clientele: “I just fucked around and was trying a new style. Some people took it serious, some people respected it as something else. I just said I'm going to come with a group of words or make a joint that don't mean nothing from nothing, but that's what I felt like doing at that time [. . .]. It was new. It was new to me too. A bunch of words, shit that nobody has ever said before; you don't even have to understand it. It confused a lot of motherfuckers. Some motherfuckers like it. But it's all good at the end of the day; it's still dope.” If Theolonius Monk was around in 2000, and if he was an MC, he’d be Ghostface on Supreme Clientele.
Standout tracks: “One,” “Apollo Kids,” and “Buck 50”
K.M.D., Black Bastards (1994)
If you haven’t heard of this album, it’s not really your fault. You’re forgiven. The thing is this: K.M.D.’s sophomore effort, Black Bastards, was originally slotted for release in 1994. However, a confluence of events caused Black Bastardsto be shelved for seven long years. So, what happened, you ask? K.M.D. was a trio composed of Zev Love X (now, better known as underground rap hero MF Doom), his brother Subroc, and Onyx. While the early ’90s saw a plethora of shitty, ubiquitous, gangsta-obsessed copycats rapping ad nauseum about “keepin’ it real” and “representin’,” K.M.D. took a different route altogether. They had ideas, and they had the production and lyrical chops to back them all up. K.M.D. went to great lengths, first, to argue that so-called “real” representations of young black men as hoods were really just uninspired variations on the “Little Sambo” caricature made popular during the 19th century. Second, they disidentified with that caricature and its dangerous trappings for good — a fact made explicit in the cover image for the album, in which Little Sambo is drawn beaten and killed in a playful game of hangman gone dead (pun-intended) serious. And it’s that very cover image, deemed offensive and over-the-top, that contributed to the album’s shelving by Elektra records. That K.M.D. was forwarding a critique of the too-limited perception of young black men rather than endorsing public violence didn’t seem to matter, especially in 1994, when the panic around hip-hop’s morals was at its highest pitch (e.g. 1994 included C. Delores Tucker’s public campaign against rap music and the congressional hearings in Washington). Further complicating matters: Onyx had left the group; and, more importantly, Subroc died during the making of the album. He was the victim of a hit-and-run. However, his untimely death— set against the album cover and the public outcries against hip-hop— was flipped so as to be just another example of hip-hop’s violent nature. So, the album got shut down. But in 2001, Zev Love X (a.k.a. MF Doom) saw fit to release it. Yes, some of it’s under-produced and marred by a sense of unfulfilled promise and haphazardness. Still, the masterpiece that almost was is worth checking out.
Standout tracks: “Smokin’ That Shit,” “What a Nigga Know?”, and “Suspended Animation”
R.A. the Rugged Man, Die, Rugged Man, Die (2004)
Ok, so there are a lot of things I could tell you about the rapper who goes by the name R.A. the Rugged Man. For example, I could tell you he’s collaborated with some of the best MCs around, from Kool G. Rap to Mobb Deep. I could tell you about his flow, which is marked by a conspicuous lisp. I could tell you about his being psychologically unstable. I could tell you how in the early 1990s there was intense competition between numerous record labels trying to sign this hip-hop prodigy (he would eventually sign with Jive). I could tell you he was then blackballed and his debut never released on account of his erratic behavior, which included sexual assaults and something about his walking into Jive headquarters with a gun-in-hand wanting out of his contract, Don Corleone style (or something like that: the details are hazy). He raps about much of this, by the way, in his song “A Star is Born,” from Die, Rugged Man, Die. And, of course, I could tell you that he’s responsible for one of the single best hip-hop verses ever recorded: check out his work on Jedi Mind Tricks’s “Uncommon Valor.” And I could tell you how “On the Block” is a great example of hip-hop historiography. I could tell you he’s able to spit rapid-fire syllables over long periods of time, all the while keeping up narratives filled with cinema-scope detail. I could tell you he’s the white rapper you should be listening to. And I could tell you the title of his album alludes to H. Rap Brown’s Die Nigger Die! A Political Autobiography. Yes, I could tell you all of that. But when it comes down to it, only one thing really matters about R.A. the Rugged Man, whose first album was finally released in 2004: the greatest of all time— the Notorious B.I.G.— thought R.A. to be even greater than he. Let me put that in terms you might understand: that’s like God ceding, ultimately, there’s someone more powerful than he.
Standout Tracks: “A Star is Born,” “How Low,” and “Black and White”
Prince Paul, Psychoanalysis: What is it? (1997)
As its title suggests, this is a concept album. Actually, it is the hip-hop concept album. (Warning: Prince Paul isn’t a rapper, and there’s lots of instrumental work on the album.) Released in the aftermath of Tupac’s and Biggie’s deaths in 1996 and 1997, respectively, and during a down-time when hip-hop was reduced by industry demand to cliched, one-dimensional representations of African Americans as drinking, smoking, and fucking citizens prone to violence, Prince Paul put what he perceived to be a very sick and unstable hip-hop music and culture of the mid-1990s on the great analyst’s sofa. The result: an album that is unusual in its ability to be, alternately, hilarious in its over-the-top musical satires of major hip-hop genres (the titles tell you everything you need to know: “To get a gun,” “Drinks [Escapism],” “2 B Blunt,” “Booty Clap”), elegiac in terms of its expressing what hip-hop has seemingly lost, and intelligent in its use of the psychoanalytic conceit, which at least suggests that hip-hop is not totally irremediable. Oh, and if you’re wondering who Prince Paul is and where you might have heard his work before? He produced De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising(1989), an album consistently cited as one of the best in hip-hop history (if it’s not in your top ten, something’s wrong with you and your list). I once saw Prince Paul’s collage of beats, samples, and voices from all walks of life and music referred to as “Joycean” in its scope. Sounds about right.
Standout Tracks: “Beautiful Night (Manic Psychopath),” “Booty Clap,” and “Vexual Healing”
Pharoahe Monch, Desire (2007)
“You’all know the name, Pharaohe fuckin’ Monch, ain’t a damn thing changed.” That’s how Monch kicks off the first verse of his modest 1998 hit, “Simon Says.” Well, he’s partly right and partly wrong: indeed, ain’t a damn thing changed, but nobody knows his name. It’s an odd one, yes, even by hip-hop standards: get over it! (In case you’re wondering, it’s pronounced “mon” as in “monitor” and “ch” as in “church”). I went back and forth in trying to decide whether to choose his 1998 debut, Internal Affairs (in large part because “Simon Says” is one of my favorite songs ever), or last year’s Desire, which earned Monch all sorts of praise but no real popular notice. Desire’s the better album from start to finish, and the fact that Monch’s lyrics are finally balanced-out by consistently catchy music production makes it an attractive listen for the uninitiated (the strings on “Desire,” in particular, are killer!). That Monch’s lyrics are so dense and cerebral is probably what keeps him from gaining a popular audience a la Kanye or Jay-Z. His lyrics are full of puns, paragrams, and witty turns of phrase, all of which are delivered with astonishing rhythmic variety. He can be stop-and-start; he can be smooth. His lines can run long and his lines can run short. The fact is Monch’s flow has always been rich in its density, ever since his days as part of Organized Konfusion in the early 1990s. Check out, for example, “Releasing Hypnotical Gasses” (from O.K.’s self-titled 1991 debut) with its egregiously extended biochemical warfare metaphor. The track is a clever and subtle hip-hop response to US military action of the First Gulf War. Sometimes, his oppositional stance to the Man can veer into the absurdly paranoid, as is the case on “Free” (from Desire), where he claims that the U.S. government is responsible for putting HIV in condoms used by African Americans. But that’s all part of the show. Next time somebody tells you hip-hop artists never say nothing about nothing: ask them if they’ve ever heard of Pharaohe fuckin’ Monch!
Standout tracks: “Desire,” “When the Gun Draws,” and “Body Baby”