Triple Play: Now a trio, Bone Thugs get back to basics.
Triple Play: Now a trio, Bone Thugs get back to basics.

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If it were 1995, white Midwestern teens who fancy themselves gangsters and believe their woes to be on par with inner-city pain would immediately claim “Never Forget Me” as their own. The ceremonial, somber track, which closes the new album from Cleveland rappers Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, would be bumped out of their station wagons and Civics, recited as a way to gain cool points, and played whenever one of their pals got shot down, locked down, or, more likely, grounded.

In other words, “Never Forget Me” is a throwback to “Tha Crossroads,” Bone Thugs’ see-you-on-the-other-side anthem that, more than a decade ago, snared kids everywhere with its mix of thoughtfulness and ruggedness. Though “Never Forget Me” is more about Layzie Bone, Krayzie Bone, and Wish Bone proclaiming their dominance and insisting on their importance, the Akon-supplied vocal hook about struggle and haters makes for a perfect teen anthem—for the teens of 12 years ago.

Still, the track is pretty good, which is something that has been hard to say about anything associated with Bone Thugs for some time. The crew has been on a downward trajectory for several years, having lost key members—Bizzy Bone is absent on Strength & Loyalty, as is Flesh-N-Bone, who is still an official member but has been locked up for armed assault since 2000.

The men also made the mistake of embarking on ill-fated solo careers at the height of their popularity, an especially fatal move considering that their stock-in-trade was their harmonizing. The group reunited in the late ’90s, and the results have been a mixed bag. Their later works, beginning with 1997’s The Art of War through last year’s Thug Stories, seemed to suffer from the effects of too much weed use, unlike their early singles and albums, which were enhanced by just enough.

But Strength & Loyalty, despite its whittled-down crew, sounds more focused, and more like classic ’90s Bone Thugs than any of their recent albums, with several tracks sounding like the music of their acclaimed E. 1999 Eternal. The murder-minded “9mm” and “Gun Blast” are vintage Bone—both are the sort of violent paeans the group is known for, made all the more creepy by the fact that the rappers sing hauntingly and whisper ominously—a much scarier approach than the loud hollering used to deliver most street-related hip-hop.

But duplicating their ’90s sound isn’t the same thing as sounding inspired. Strength & Loyalty mostly feels dated—even old-fashioned, if an album about killing, smoking, death, and sex can be characterized as such. Part of the problem is that, in the late ’90s, East Coast and Down South rappers from Biggie to Da Brat tried on Bone Thugs’ style, which both removed some of its mystique and hastened the moment of its saturation point. Their insanely quick, slightly slurred flow, mixed with sweet vocal harmonies, was once one of the more innovative techniques in rap, but it now sounds staid.

Consistency is prized in hip-hop, but if an MC or group’s sound is incredibly distinctive and tied to a certain past era in rap, the opposite is true. Even though rap fans bash their heroes for switching up and falling off, for a group like Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, retaining a certain sound doesn’t much matter. There is a reason that Chip Fu and Das EFX aren’t ruling the airwaves right now—novelty, by definition, isn’t built for longevity.

There are a few instances when the album almost reaches the level of Bone’s early stuff by tweaking their formula rather than simply repeating it. “Streets,” featuring the Game and, puts the Bone Thugs family and their guest stars over the music of Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street.” And “C-Town,” featuring Twista, is a fun unofficial MC battle that pits the fastest rapper from the Chi against the fastest rappers from the C.

But otherwise, they’re either on autopilot or pimping out their sound in horrible, ridiculous ways. Perhaps looking to find a new fan base as loyal as their suburban teenage fans were in the ’90s, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony are now trying to reach out to a group with even less credibility and more disposable income—middle-aged women. How else to explain the presence of Fleetwood Mac, Mariah Carey, and Yolanda Adams on one rap album?

On “Wind Blow,” the men rhyme over a sample of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain”—not since the Clinton ’92 campaign adopted “Don’t Stop” has there been a use of Fleetwood Mac’s music that has been more beneficial to the band’s cool quotient and more damaging to the reputation of the borrower. Mariah Carey used to be known for cutting-edge collaborations with rap artists, but “Lil Love” is nothing like her duets with Jay-Z or O.D.B. It sounds like the sort of sweet sludge one might find on a Bow Wow album—in part because Bow Wow himself shows up on the record.

On “Order My Steps,” Yolanda Adams sings a little bit of a gospel song as the hook for the tune’s dark, gothic tale. Adams sounds fantastic, of course, but when it comes to expressing the conflict involved in having a relationship both with God and the streets, her technically perfect, lovely voice just doesn’t convey the struggle inherent in being a thugged-out, God-fearing person. Still, it’s a slick move on the part of Bone Thugs to put her on their album. If they can’t speak to the kids anymore, why not try to work their dated material into the CD players of church-going, album-buying, AARP members?