Despite his recent conversion to shameless commercialism, Ice Cube retains his place in hiphop’s pantheon. From Straight Outta Compton to his last truly creative offering, Lethal Injection, Cube told the story of the crack age from the other side of “Just say no.” A cursory scan of Cube-bangers like “The Product,” “Endangered Species,” or “A Bird in the Hand” reveals Cube as the master of the urban-slave narrative. In his day, Cube was that corner where Stagolee and Malcolm X meta wicked cross-breed of racialism and crack vials. Not only is Cube a member of the rap pantheon, but he’s also the best MC California has ever produced.
Ever since Cube turned his naturalistic scowl into an icon of petty regionalism, the hiphop world has been looking for someone to take up the banner of urban angst. No man fits the bill like Xzibit (pronounced “exhibit”). Consistently glowering at the camera, both in videos and on promo shots, Xzibit has to be the most vexed cat in hiphop. Much like Cube, he offers a ghetto-centric rendition of black nationalism. But whereas Cube was a screamer, Xzibit is a growler, a man whose lyrics seethe out of the speakers.
Xzibit’s debut, At the Speed of Life, was the sleeper of 1996. Life’s geography encompassed masterful battle rhymes like “Plastic Surgery” as well as introverted gems like “Carry the Weight.” Before Will Smith hypnotized MTV-land with “Just the Two of Us,” his syrupy ode to his son, Xzibit offered up a much more realistic sermon to his first-born on “The Foundation.” Predictably, Life sold next to no records. Less expected was the album’s failure to generate buzz in the underground.
Xzibit’s sophomore effort, 40 Dayz & 40 Nightz, isn’t exactly causing ripples throughout the record industry. It’s a capable effort, but doesn’t quite ascend the heights that his debut album did, owing mostly to production gaffes.
Like many of hiphop’s most gifted MCs, Xzibit fails to ensure that his production equals his lyrical offerings. Cuts like “Chamber Music,” “Inside Job,” and “Recycled Assassins” simply don’t hold up sonically, dooming the album to the program button on your CD player. Part of the problem is the inexplicable absence of E-Swift, the primary producer for Xzibit’s debut and for his associates, Tha Alkaholiks, which means that no track on the album approaches “Plastic Surgery” in percussive force.
Yet despite the mediocre beats, Xzibit is that rare MC who, strictly through aggressive delivery, makes you want to listen. While colleagues like Inspectah Deck attract heads based on the complexity of their wordplay, Xzibit attracts heads with his relentless rhythmic banter, rasping and grumbling over even the most puerile of tracks.
There are exceptions, however. The wicked keys and pounding drums on the first single, “What U See Is What U Get,” most effectively match Xzibit’s landslide delivery: “You got more than you bargained for, hit the floor/I pull a fast one and let you know today could be your last one/Black take your breath like an asthma attack.” Equally impressive is the strumming bass line on “Los Angeles Times,” as well as dark piano riffs on “3 Card Molly.”
Xzibit is most potent when given the type of rugged beat that snaps necks. There’s no icing to his rhyme style. His lyrics are capable but for the most part basic; he achieves excellence through sheer emotion. Xzibit puts forth an admirable effort, but there simply isn’t enough head-nod on 40 Dayz to go around.
In 1996, after Cube went AWOL but before I’d heard the Xzibit album, I wandered the streets of rapdom in search of an anti-hero to take up the banner of urban angst. Then a buddy of mine emphatically informed me that Ras Kass was not just the next great West Coast MC, but the next great MC, period. “He’s gonna be the Nas of the West Coast,” my friend told me. Sadly, Ras Kass’ second opus, Rasassination, confirms that assertion. At one time, it would have been a compliment.
Ras Kass is a darling of the rap underground, just as Nas once was. But like other underground artists (see Mic Geronimo), he seems to have been seized by the urge for record sales. Yet Ras Kass still appears unwilling to sacrifice his underground credibility for a gold record, so he’s attempting to achieve both goals and failing twice. Rasassination is a motley collection of ugly productioncharacterized by plastic drums and syrupy stringsand OK lyrics. In addition to their cheesy beats, none of the tracks possess the catchy hooks and strong bass lines that make commercial hits worthy of ass-shake.
His first single, “Ghetto Fabulous,” is emblematic of Ras Kass’ problems. The cut’s materialistic theme is bad enough, but the song, which features famed producer Dr. Dre, also lifts a portion of Dre’s hit “Been There Done That.” Producer Stu-B-Doo (who?) apparently believes that a mere appendage to Dre’s work can be inflated into a hit single. But most insulting is a skit where Ras Kass essentially acknowledges that his production is mediocre: “Nigga, I don’t give a fuck about a beat! I’m a lyricist’s nigga,” he growls to a critic. It’s the type of foolish sentiment that ends careers. I love lyrics as much as any hiphop head. But rap is music, and if all hiphop fans wanted was good writing, then they’d buy a book instead of a Ras Kass album.
Yet even with Ras Kass’ boisterous proclamations of being a lyricist, his lyrics on Rasassination are not earth-shattering. Ras Kass rhymes like a cat who, after each line, is waiting for the crowd to say, “I can’t believe he just said that!” But it never happens on this album. Instead, Ras Kass delivers a Cam’Ron-like barrel of weak similes that inspire nothing but shock and revulsioncheap lines such as “Walk holding my nuts, I don’t give a fuck/Spit some shit so nasty it’ll make Lil’ Kim blush,” delivered with overbearing emphasis.
Not to mention the sexism oozing from Ras Kass’ lyrics. Sexism is to be expectedand denouncedin rap. But to hear it from an allegedly enlightened MC like Ras Kass is sickening. This is the same dude who attempted to break down the historical evils of Europeans in his lengthy quasi-historical opus “Nature of the Threat.” But Ras Kass should quit railing about white people and break down the nature of his own threat to black women.
Rasassination is a manifold disappointment. The last album’s mediocrity was blamed on a lack of good production (that and the presence of the godawful Coolio). On this album, the production may have gotten worseand the lyrics have not gotten better. News flash to ultra-real hiphop purists: Ras Kass is overrated. CP