It’s been 10 short months since Vibe ran its big story on Death Row. The cover shot featured Suge Knight, Dr. Dre, Snoop, and Tupac Shakur decked out entirely in black and staring out from a black background. The brothers looked fierce. In the article, Suge and Tupac bragged of their impending takeover of hiphop. Tupac insinuated that he’d been sleeping with Faith, the wife of East Coast rival Biggie Smalls. Dre noted that the coastal war was getting so bad that East Coast rappers wouldn’t feel safe out west and vice versa. The article raised a whole lot of shit.

Here was Tupac, one of rap’s most successful acts, teamed up with Death Row, one of the business’s biggest purveyors of gangsta rap. Hiphop puritans were sure the end was near. They warned us that the alliance of Suge and ‘Pac was like Lex Luthor teaming up with Magneto. Meanwhile, paper-chasing rap pundits trumpeted the money-making power of Death Row and Tupac, claiming that Death Row was now the new Motown. Here is where the ignorance begins.

Death Row had been in business all of three years when Tupac joined its roster. To proclaim it the new Motown displayed an amazing degree of shortsightedness. Nothing is forever. And in the rap game most artists don’t even make more than a couple of albums. Here we are, less than a year after that article appeared, and what of Death Row? Dre broke camp to start his own label. Snoop’s album, while topping the charts (mostly off of hype), has yet to produce a hit single. Suge is in jail for a parole violation. And Tupac? He left us in a cacophony of blood and bullets—a scenario familiar to anyone who’d scanned his lyrics.

It is Tupac’s death that has captured the most attention. But his impact on the rap world had little to do with his mike skills and everything to do with the power of his image. As a rapper, he was just above average, displaying a decent flow but mediocre lyrics. If you make a list of the top 20 MCs ever, ‘Pac isn’t gonna be on there. Even if you took the top 10 contemporary ones, he still might not make the cut.

But combine Tupac’s Black Panther legacy and his charisma with his knack for starting shit and you had the makings of a star. This isn’t to say the kid wasn’t talented. But it wasn’t his talent as an MC that made him. He was like Dennis Rodman, who was always a talented defensive forward but became one of the most popular athletes in the game only when he dyed his hair and tattooed every part of his body.

What we lost with Tupac’s death was young black America’s most popular cultural ambassador. More importantly, Tupac’s death signifies the end of an era. The days of gangsta rap, of its misogynistic and fratricidal lyrics sprawled across thumping bass lines, are numbered.

Even before ‘Pac’s death, you could sense the end coming. East Coaster Jeru the Damaja spoke for many when he launched the assault against gangsta rap way back in ’94, exhorting low-riding MCs to “leave your nines at home and bring your skills to the battle.”

But in ’96, whole crews assailed gangsta rap, as well as its blossoming East Coast sibling, playa rap. The militia included cagey hiphop veterans like De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, sophomore simile-slingers like Jeru and the Roots, and rookies like the anti-gangsta bitch Bahamadia, but it was led by the Fugees.

While the product that these groups delivered wasn’t always the tightest, these kids stood up and challenged the established order on an unprecedented scale. Does this mean that gangsta rap’s dead? No, it just means that it won’t be the dominant subgenre of hiphop anymore.

Tupac’s death threw a pall over a year in which several phat albums were released. So I don’t further that effect, I’ll refrain from the bullshit analysis of Mr. Shakur that critics and public intellectuals have already undertaken. Instead, I’ve listed five personal favorites:

The Score

Fugees

Columbia/Ruffhouse

When my man first told me that the Fugees had just dropped a new single called “Fu-gee-la” and that the shit was hitting, I looked him over to make sure his eyes weren’t glazed over and bloodshot.

Nope, the kid was fully coherent. This was the same group that in ’93 had dropped an album whose remixes were the only thing on the disc worth mentioning, the same disc that many heads had contemplated waxing and gift-wrapping as Frisbees for their younger siblings. “This kid must be stutterin’ or some shit,” I thought. He looked at me, laughed, and said it real slow: “Fuuu-geee-laaa.”

That was almost a year ago, and as you can see, I’m a believer. Rarely, if ever, has a rap group put out such bona fide wack product and then followed it up with a bona fide classic. But the Fugees weren’t done. On top of putting together a phat album, they filleted and fried Cristal-sipping MCs the old-school way—on a skillet of solid beats and tight lyrics.

Lauryn Hill had to peel the hiphop pundits off her bra strap (myself included) after not only taking on Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly” (and possibly improving it) but dismissing pseudo-gangstas with one verse: “So while you imitatin’ Al Capone/I be Nina Simone/And defecatin’ on your microphone.”

There is no other way to say this: The Fugees had the phattest shit to drop in ’96.

It Was Written

Nas

Columbia

Anybody who read my earlier review of Nas’ sophomore effort knows I was disappointed with it. Nas’ debut album, Illmatic, administered a heavy dose of underground realism with a regimen of hard-core beats. On his second album…well, the lyrics were still there and the beats were OK, but it just didn’t hit you the way the first one did. But hey, to follow Illmatic was a daunting task, and though It Was Written doesn’t stack up, it’s still a better album than most artists put out at their best.

Even if the entire album was wack, Nas would make this list off the strength of “I Gave You Power.” The cut’s production is decent, but it’s Nas’ expert use of personification that elevates the cut above the average “kill or be killed” gangsta track. Nas imagines himself to be a pistol and takes you on an eerie trek through the world of black-on-black crime from the perspective of a gun barrel. “I see niggas bleeding running from me in fear/Stunningly tears/Fall down the eyes of these so-called tuff guys.” Nas describes his surroundings and his view of the world with clarity and detail, right down to his serial number, length, and weight. He even describes his home, a closet he shares with a grenade, bullets, and “a wrecked-up tech” that keeps crying. “Power” is lyrical mastery at the highest level.

As for the rest of the album, “The Message,” “Take It in Blood,” and “Affirmative Action” make for one of tightest packages released this year.

Ironman

Ghostface Killah

Epic/Razor Sharp Records

After his performance was lost in the crowd on Wu-Tang’s debut album, Ghostface stepped onto Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx with different shit, and hiphop heads took notice. His oft-quoted verse to “Ice Cream” was a textbook lesson in kicking game: “Caramel complexion, breath smelling like cinnamon/Excuse me hon, the don don’t mean no harm, turn around again…/I’m high powered, put Adina Howard to sleep/Yo pardon, that bitch been on my mind all week.”

But could Ghost hold shit down on a solo album? Was JFK hittin more ‘skins than the Dallas Cowboys?

Ironman is another monument to a crew that has quietly established itself as the tightest camp in hiphop. Screw all the champagne-popping and arrogant proclamations. Ghostface (aka Tony Starks) brings lyrics and flow, while Wu-Tang’s grandmaster, the RZA, assembles an aural collage that stretches from ’60s soul shouter O.V. Wright to jazzman Bob James, up through the Delfonics and the Force M.D.’s. With Ironman, the RZA establishes himself as one of the dopest producers in hiphop.

But this isn’t an album that rides strictly on production; Ghost also tosses in his own lyrical flavor. The story-weaving of “Motherless Child” or the pure honesty of “All I Got Is You” are achieved by virtue of mike skills and versatility almost unheard of in an era of one-track MCs. Ironman is an awesome package stuffed with phat rhymes and banging beats. No bullshit, this joint is tighter than a virgin clutching a vice-grip.

Nocturnal

Heltah Skeltah

Duck Down/Priority

In late ’95 these brothers had hiphop heads as open as an expressway. The cause: a cut whose name nobody could pronounce: “Leflaur Leflah Eshkoshka.” With Buckshot and Black Moon missing in action, Heltah Skeltah teamed up with fellow Boot Camp members OGC to introduce the BC’s other half. The pair became known on the street simply as “them two kids with the ill-ass voices.”

As usual, when you drop a butter single, expectations bloom like ragweed, and more than a few artists sneeze out wack products. But not these two. The duo enlisted a wide array of producers from the Beatminerz to Baby Paul, right on down to Buckshot himself, and laced each track with some solid lyrics. The result was perhaps the most underrated album of the year (only Xzibit’s record even comes close). At press time Nocturnal had not seen the land of precious metals.

But the crew gets an A for artistry. Take “Therapy.” The cut imagines Ruck to be a psychologist treating Rock for most of the stresses that brothers encounter on a regular: “Fuck the mystery/ Duke, tell me your history/You’re pissin’ me/Off, plus the time keep on slippin’, see.” It’s kinda like the Signifying Monkey meets Carl Jung. Needless to say, the psychoanalysis is somewhat unorthodox: “See that leather sofa over there (yeah)/Sit back wit’ the six-pack and the spliff that/Have your mind twisted while we chit-chat.”

At the Speed of Life

Xzibit

Loud

I can’t even front like I was all that impressed when I first heard this kid on Tha Alkaholiks’ “Hit and Run.” So when his album dropped, my expectations weren’t all that high. But I knew that the ‘Liks’ producer, E-Swift, had done some of the sound-shaping, so I figured I could at least count on a few banging beats. Well check it, you can give Coates the NyQuil award, ’cause me and whole lot of other heads sho’ nuff slept on Xzibit.

At the Speed of Life is a solemn journey into a world of ghetto nihilism. The title track is a nostalgic take on an art gone bad. It yearns for hiphop’s early years “before hiphop was all about drama/Anything for a dollar/Before Kane fucked Madonna” and recalls what it took to make it through the bad times that followed: “Xzibit maintained and bent like a comma/Just me and my bottle, we shall lead not follow.”

And backed by E-Swift’s production, Xzibit does just that. At his misogynistic worst, “Hit and Run Part 2,” Xzibit is a poet of the gutter—but a poet all the same. “Bird’s Eye View” features Liksters Tash and J-Ro dropping lyrics. And on “Positively Negative” Xzibit sums up his whole irreverent stilo: “Ladies and Gentleman, undivided attention/ Xzibit get you open like Nicole Brown Simpson.”

But the integrity and verbal artistry Xzibit displays on cuts like “The Foundation,” “At the Speed of Life,” and “Carry the Weight” hopefully shows where hiphop is headed as we enter ’97.

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