In the end, it always comes down to execution. The question is right there, beneath the surface: What did you set out to do, and how well did you do it? We know this much: Mediocrity is often born of artistically brilliant ambitions. In the viper pit of rap music, few are the organizations like Cypress Hill that have consistently shown the ability to execute their designs, to translate concept into finished product with the accuracy of a United Nations interpreter.
The release given the ominously understated title IV is the fourth installment in Cypress Hill’s ongoing cannabis chronicles. In an arena where allegiance to the get-high is nearly ubiquitous, Cypress has managed to move to the front of the weed line to become the most prominent partisan of the smoke. While rap philistines shouted the Chronic’s virtues, Cypress moved to create an actual marijuana aesthetic. Its eponymous debut set the mold with the collective’s dark, dense sounds that bubbled up from the haunted corners of the psyche. In his work within the trio, DJ Muggs created a style of music as peculiar as a DNA sample: The beats warbled up from the bottom of the register and consistently sounded like a bass drum being played beneath the Potomac. This was music to get stoned by. In the Cypress Hillian world, time moved like an old 45 being played at 33 rpm. Even people like me who don’t smoke weed caught an audio contact high and looked at the world through newly bloodshot eyes.
This is how the early work was executed: Lead vocalist B-Real contrasted the inebriated drawl of sounds with his own nasal drone. On tracks like Black Sunday’s “I Wanna Get High,” he wailed like a kid lost in the mall, supported by sounds diabolical enough to give Alfred Hitchcock a stiffness in the trousers. He took aim at his political antagonists: “My oven’s on high when I roast the Quayle/
Tell Bill Clinton to go and inhale.” Sen Dog was content to play the heavy, growling the chorus from the outer precincts of the studio, occasionally piping in a menacing verse of his own. Right down to the cover art, the members of C.H. were the first to import goth chic to the rap game.
Theirs is a world peopled by smoked-out slackers, heavily gunned fugitives, and barrel-bellied cops, every bit as devoid of female life as your classic war flick. Unlike their contemporaries, they have neveruntil nowbeen accused of misogyny, probably because they have been too stoned to notice women in their music. Instead, they have narrated their way through a male carnival of terror and bleeding. Their depiction of violence is both stylized and stark, somewhere between Stanley Kubrick, Raymond Chandler, and Notorious B.I.G.
The themes, the format, and the architecture of sound remain the same on IV, although Muggs has added a few colors to his aural palette. You can look at this CD in one of two ways: as a seamless continuation of the style pioneered on the group’s previous releases, or as Cypress mining the same territory yet again, seven years after it first made the scene. I tend toward the former argument, but there are moments at which the latter seems stronger. It is as if Cypress Hill avoided the curse of the sophomore jinxor junior or senior jinx, for that matterby incorporating elements of its self-titled debut into each release that followed. For better or worse, you know what you’re going to get when you rip the cellophane off a new Cypress Hill record. The group sacrifices thematic development for consistency, which ensures that everything it puts out goes at least platinum. Cypress will always come off well because, like Michael Jackson and his dance moves, it has created a signature catalog it rearranges in creative ways, but to which it seldom adds new features.
I listened to IV in its entirety. In one sitting. Then I hit the repeat button and did it again. And I was unsmoked; I can imagine the narcotic effect of the record on Cypress’ core weedhead constituency. Beyond the nagging fact that the vocals are consistently mixed in too low, IV is primed for hot rotation. You just have to remind yourself every so often that you’re not listening to Black Sunday or 1995’s sleeper, Temples of Boom.
The stream-of-consciousness riff on the opening “Looking Through the Eye of a Pig,” is classic paranoia drawn up from the bottom of the bong. Sen Dog is conspicuously absent here; nonetheless, B-Real conjures up a distorted and disorienting set of verses woven through a cold-blooded guitar track with a hint of subterranean bass.
“Steel Magnolia” is an airtight, hermetically sealed cut, a 9 mm epic with sublime production undergirding it. Relying almost solely upon whining, elongated keyboards, the sound of this track neatly mirrors the noir bravado of B-Real and guest orator Barron Ricks. “Riot Starter” shows more flexibility, employing a frenetic, rock-laden guitar and a menacing whisper-
chorus to get the job done. The song stands out structurally because its insistent, kinetic bridges are far more interesting than Sen Dog’s shouting threatening choruses.
But alas, folks, one does not inhale lungfuls of smoke without its affecting one’s faculties. The Chronic has apparently left Cypress Hill, on some level, mentally embalmed, because there is no other explanation for the imbecilic “I Remember That Freak Bitch (From the Club).” Steering impetuously into barricades C.H. has previously avoided, “Freak Bitch” is an infertile piece of adolescent dick fantasy made all the more pathetic by the authorship of ostensibly grown men. Musically speaking, this is one of the more nondescript offerings, but then, it would have been tragic to waste stand-out sounds on vapid subject matter.
It was at this pointalmost halfway through IVthat the Cypress riddle began to unravel. The consistency of its approach is intended to keep the attentions of a fan base that is in its late teens, even if the group members themselves are in their early 30s. This fact didn’t come across on Cypress Hill or Black Sunday, because they were rapping to their peers; but now, they rhyme for their younger brothers. Or nephews. Maybe I’ve just aged out of the Cypress Hill movement, but IV is possibly the last time that they can get away with going back to the same well. Or it could be that I’m gloomy, coming down from my listening buzz. And when the buzz begins to wane, the review is over.CP
Cypress Hill performs at the 9:30 Club Monday, Nov. 2.