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Noreaga simply doesn’t know when to quit. The list of hiphop artists who’ve continued past their artistic prime is pathetically long: Public Enemy, Big Daddy Kane, X-Clan’s Brother Jay, and Special Ed have all put out albums recently that could serve as soundtracks for the Muhammad Ali vs. Larry Holmes fight. But judging by his solo debut N.O.R.E., Noreaga could only wish for such an ending.

But to fall off your pinnacle, you need to have ascended it; Noreaga hasn’t even made it to the top—and at this rate, he never will. Whereas an artist like Big Daddy Kane should have quit after a few albums, new-jack rappers like Noreaga should just quit now.

N.O.R.E. is a pretty bad album, a sonic exhibition of everything that’s wrong with hiphop music today. There is the rank materialism and tired Versace-worshiping. There is the plastic production of those Bad Boy rejects, the Trackmasters. There is the requisite posse cut, on which even clueless Cam’Ron outshines the host. And finally, there is Noreaga, who, like many of his mainstream comrades,

is seemingly devoid of craftsmanship.

After the intro “The Jump Off,” N.O.R.E. opens with the posse cut, “Banned From TV.” The track, with its sparse drums and wailing horns, represents some of the album’s best production. Big Punisher, one of rap’s eminent statesmen, chips in mightily: “I ain’t playin’ I’m truly the worst, who be the first/to get his whole body fully reversed/ Ooh gee it hurts, I leave you double-dead/ I’m a bubble head, I never listened to nothin’ my mother said.” Firm member Nature and the Lox also contribute a decent enough offering to allow you to overlook Noreaga’s constipated finishing verse.

But despite the plethora of guest stars appearing on more than half the album, Noreaga’s weaknesses as an MC quickly become apparent. His flow is awkwardly aggressive and unfailingly arrhythmic. And his lyrics consist of strung-together clichés that just happen to rhyme. Even on “Body in the Trunk,” when he flows back and forth with Nas, Noreaga never quite jells with his tracks. The sign of a good MC is his ability to make preposterous braggadocio sound somehow believable. Noreaga simply sounds like the whiny-voiced skinny kid who always ran his mouth at lunch but bolted when the school bell rang.

It was undoubtedly his initial successes that led Noreaga to release a solo record. Last year, Noreaga and his now-incarcerated rhyme partner, Capone, released their respectable debut album The War Report. The beats on the album were mostly average, but a few hot tracks kept it afloat. Bad Boy Nashiem Myrick, who produced Biggie Smalls’ “Who Shot Ya?,” offered the Premieresque gem “T.O.N.Y.” Fellow Queens Bridge native Marley Marl came through with “Capone Bone,” and a resurgent though hypocritical Intelligent Hoodlum blazed over a couple of cameo spots.

Report’s main weakness was its headliners’ lack of lyrical dexterity. But as average as Capone is, he’s still a better rapper than Noreaga, a wretched lyricist with an annoying squeal of a voice. Still, with a bag of banging beats and lyrics that could easily be tuned out, Report was at least a decent first effort—nothing less, and most certainly nothing more. Noreaga, apparently, begs to differ. To that end, he’s released N.O.R.E a year after Report.

It’s not just Noreaga’s MC-ing that’s so horrible, but the whack production backing him. The sound-shaping was handled mostly by the Trackmasters, a production team who’ve done more than their part to commercialize rap. The man who’s done the most, of course, is Puff Daddy. But even amidst the syrupy schlock that Puffy’s clique of producers regularly serves up, he offers a gem every once in a while, such as “Niggas Bleed,” “Victory,” or even “Hypnotize.” And although Puff does get crass, he has put out a string of hits. The Trackmasters can make no such claim.

Despite initial platinum success with Nas and LL Cool J, the Trackmasters’ most recent outings with the Firm and AZ have been commercial duds. At least Puff can say he sacrificed creativity for commercial success. The Trackmasters have simply sacrificed creativity for the hell of it. At the bottom of the current lot lies the inane ode to oral sex, “Hed,” as well as the gooey Chico DeBarge cameo “The Way We Live.” Hiphop music at its best is a filling and complete meal. The tracks on N.O.R.E. are more like one of those cheap cakes from Giant—heavy on the icing but not much else.

Aesthetically, Noreaga has fallen into the same trap as most mainstream rappers—attempting to replace Biggie Smalls. When Biggie snatched gangsta rap from the West Coast and wedded it to his high-life meanderings, he invented neo-gangsta rap. The idea of the high-rolling player is not new—in the ’80s, Ice-T bragged about his opulent lifestyle. But no longer was the thug someone who simply sat around drinking 40s and looking rugged. The new thug, or player, was bourgeois, but he was still a thug. He wore Armani suits and sipped Dom P, but he would still blow your head off.

Biggie perfected this aesthetic, in all its misogynistic and materialistic glory. But what his imitators miss is that Biggie was also the greatest lyricist of his time. He mastered the art of saying awful things beautifully. Noreaga steals Biggie’s style but forgets Biggie’s artistry; consequently, he says awful things awfully.

His subject matter is typical of neo-gangsta rap. He offers up glorified portraits of the drug trade, cheap women, and senseless violence. Noreaga’s topics are wretched enough, but with no lyrical skill and a cartonload of Styrofoam beats, it doesn’t take long for the eject button to start beckoning.

The worst part of N.O.R.E. isn’t even the album itself, but the fact that there’s a whole generation of rappers presuming to inherit Biggie’s mantle as if it were their birthright. Cats like that don’t get the chance to be legends who hang around too long, because in releasing their debuts, they’ve already overstayed their welcome. Noreaga should do himself and us a favor and bow out while he can retain at least a shred of self-respect. Biggie said it best: “Don’t be mad—UPS is hiring.” CP