2006 / Music

Review: Mobb Deep Return To Hardcore Roots

Hip-Hop Partners Link Up With 50 Cent’s G Unit

In the hip-hop world, having your own record label imprint is a rite of passage.

Photo: Infamous Records/G-Unit Records/Interscope Records

Photo: Infamous Records/G-Unit Records/Interscope Records

While it’s obviously a status symbol of the highest order, it’s one that can give back. It provides rising stars the chance to give their buddies — talented or not — the opportunity to play in the big leagues. (This sometimes pays off, particularly in that many of rap’s hottest talents have come up through personal labels, including Eminem, 50 Cent, the Game and D12.)

But beyond offering a leg up for cronies, these labels also give artists a chance to give apparent has-beens another shot at center stage. Examples include former Death Row Records head Suge Knight, who signed Tupac Shakur and most infamously MC Hammer to gangsta rap’s Motown, or Dr. Dre, who had legendary MC Rakim under contract for a spell.

The latest recipients of this second life is Mobb Deep, the once-praised New York duo who recently seemed headed to the hip-hop discount bin despite the fact that both men — rapper Prodigy and producer Havoc — had achieved some crossover success and were barely older than 30. The last five years, however, the group’s career has been in a tailspin. They engaged in a futile war of words with Jay-Z and their last two records remained firmly planted in store CD racks. Finally, the group split with two record companies (Loud and Jive records) in quick succession.

Now, the duo has signed up with 50 Cent’s G-Unit label and their new record, “Blood Money,” finds them returning to their gritty, hardcore roots. It’s an attempt to turn things around, and while the record is often inconsistent, the pair largely accomplish their aim. They’ve again crafted a few sober street anthems subsisting on minimalistic, creepy instrumental tracks and slow beats that compare to their best accomplishments in the past. If anything, this at least a step up over their last two releases.

But with plenty of hosannas to their benefactor and near-constant guest appearances by most the G-Unit roster, including Lloyd Banks, Tony Yayo, Young Buck and even 50 himself, it provokes the question of whether Mobb Deep has forsaken what made them distinct to be just another one of 50’s gangstas.

When Mobb Deep first emerged in the early ’90s, they were one of only a handful of street rap outfits on the East Coast. Their simple samples and thug-praising lyrics ran against the prevailing fashions of the time. The big issue now is how can Havoc and Prodigy really be themselves when constantly having someone reaching over their shoulders to grab the mic? This record really comes across as a G-Unit record as opposed to Mobb Deep one.

The worst offender is “Pearly Gates,” which is so dominated by 50 Cent that he can’t be labeled as just a guest. The cut, consisting of church organ and choir loops, features 50 asking his compatriots to help spring him from Hell so that he can sweet talk his way into Heaven. In fact, it’s more like Mobb Deep is the guest here. (The song also contains several apparent disses of fellow New Yorker Nas and others, but these jabs are all distorted out. Question: why dis someone and then hide it?)

The same scenario of a guest besting his hosts plays out on one of the record’s highlights, “Click Click.” Repurposing the theme from TV’s “Knight Rider,” the track is hijacked by a powerful appearance by Tony Yayo. His animalistic take on the mic literally leaves his hosts sounding like amateurs.

From a musical perspective, this album lacks consistency. There are several disappointments, but luckily when Mobb Deep hit the mark, they really do. “Speakin’ So Freely” has a steady, slo-mo flow fostered by a mournful funeral organ and descending guitar figure. “It’s Alright,” which boasts vocals by Mary J. Blige, has a brilliantly gaudy ’70s feel (both flutes and strings!) that suggests Isaac Hayes’ best work. “The Infamous” partners complicated drumwork with a simple bass guitar pattern that could lead listeners around l on a hook. Similarly, “Put Em In Their Place” has a sinister, zig-zagging keyboard murmur that amplifies Prodigy and Havoc’s verbal threats and taunts.

The same threat doesn’t carry over to “Creep,” which is so basic that it shouldn’t qualify as a professional recording (it was produced by Havoc). The only music is a lame up-and-down keyboard glissando. The beat is so muffled that it sounds like it was recorded in a shoebox in a closet. 50 Cent’s turn on the mic only adds to the ridiculousness. Does one of rap’s giants not have common sense to pass on this clunker?

“Backstage Pass” is offensive on so many levels. First, there’s the cheap drum machine beat, which old-school masters with so many fewer studio tools and almost no creative touchstones at their disposable, made so much more out of. Then, there’s the rhymes, which both praise and damn groupies in the most dumb, misogynistic and vile ways. The less said about this, the better. There’s little point to this song besides ego.

And ego is the main problem with “Blood Money,” but not Mobb Deep’s. While the crappier songs detract from the record’s overall potency, one can’t escape 50 Cent’s megalomania, which taints so many of the songs. Like new converts, Mobb Deep’s bleet praise and follow the violence-praising, streetwise party line of their leader. “Capital P, Capital H” is a cliched gangsta pep rally (a spooky keyboard fragment hisses throughout) that ceaselessly praises G-Unit. (The song interestingly contains several sly quotations from Snoop Dogg’s seminal “Doggystyle” record.)

Even the album art features a family portrait of the G-Unit crew, all dressed alike. It’s as if Mobb Deep no longer have a distinct personality anymore. They are just part of 50’s ever-expanding crew. “Who basically controls this rap sh**?” 50 announces at one point.

Maybe what Mobb Deep need is their own label on which they can call the shots and then run roughshod over their new lackeys’ albums.

For More Info:

Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2006 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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