2007 / Music

Review: Bone Thugs-N-Harmony Revive Career With ‘Strength’ Of Peers

Ohio Gangsta Rap Group Calls In All-Star Favors For New LP

Nearly everything about Bone Thugs-N-Harmony is tainted with contradiction.

Photo: Full Surface Records/Interscope Records

Photo: Full Surface Records/Interscope Records

Starting with the name and continuing the theme through to the group’s often volatile personal dynamics, so little about the Cleveland gangsta rap outfit has ever been harmonious. During their two-decade career, the group’s four rappers obsessed about street-life daydreams and silly Scarface scenarios even as they increasingly sprinkled elements of spirituality into the rhymes. They cultivated a menacing image for cred, but nearly every album has sought out chart-attractive hits to please the cross-over audience. Even the outfit’s discovery by Eazy-E in the early ’90s is surely the only positive aspect of the late rapper’s abhorrent, post-N.W.A. music career.

Ultimately, all of these conflicting messages were initially unable to derail the group’s rise. Their records sold in the millions. They even won a Grammy for remaking an existing song into a syrupy tribute for Eazy-E, who died from AIDS. But 10 years after their career peaked with “Tha Crossroads,” Bone Thugs, now pared down to its core troika of Krayzie Bone, Layzie Bone and Wish Bone, hope to lay claim to 50 Cent’s mantle with a new ’90s gangsta-rap-hailing album, “Strength & Loyalty.” Given Bone Thugs’ waning popularity, the potency of the new disc can’t be seen as anything but a comeback.

However, even this achievement is corrupted to a certain degree because it was accomplished in no small part because of the high-priced guest stars offering extra charisma and big-name producers who craft Dr. Dre-influenced, electro-funk jams.

Those pressed into service on “Strength & Loyalty” include pop stars Mariah Carey and will.i.am of Black Eyed Peas, rappers Akon, Bow Wow and the Game and upper-echelon beatmakers Swizz Beatz and Jermaine Dupri. They provide expert cover and sometimes relief from the Bone Thugs’ familiar blabby, intertwining vocal delivery.

Opening track “Flow Motion” is a horn-filled, high-energy introduction into the rappers’ patented, fast-paced rhyming. As a soul-music banshee hollers in the background, the three dash through couplets like someone is holding a stopwatch. They act like they’re afraid the music will run out before they’re done reciting. Each of the three voices is similar in tone and timbre so that they can cross over each other in an effective blend as they continue to steer in their own directions.

The rappers ease up on their verbal assault for the album’s big singles, “So Good So Right” and “I Tried.” Unfortunately, both are classic hip-hop “ballads” and so direct in poppy cheesiness that it’s almost kitschy. As the sensitive piano plods around and swooning vocals crescendo, you feel set up for a children’s chorus to come in to drive the cornball message home.

Instead of scouring for a hit, “Strength & Loyalty” is most fulfilling when the Thugs don’t seem so huggable and are instead tag teaming with their celebrity helpers. The collaborators in turn demonstrate sufficient respect to the Thugs’ style and plenty of deference when trading time behind the mic.

Swizz Beatz, fresh off his success as one of the few producers to make Gwen Stefani’s latest solo disc worth illegally downloading, offers his new protégées (Bone Thugs are signed to his imprint as well as Interscope Records) “Bump In The Trunk.” The cut is a vortex of evil-sounding update on the G-funk sound.

Even better is when the Game and producer will.i.am team up for the excellent “Streets,” which oddly has a Marvin Gaye feel to it. The song is deftly built on samples from an old Bobby Womack number, and with a thudding beat and orchestral flourishes, has a more nuanced melodic approach. Game and the Thugs trio take a different tact when it comes to the rhymes, which brag about the glories of thug life. There’s full use of the N-word and dozens of violent threats, but the speedy rapping is so tightly aligned with the groove that it somehow makes the offensiveness palatable.

The group can also show a softer side without stooping to syrupy-ness. Mariah Carey’s sensual crooning is the first voice you hear on “Lil’ L.O.V.E.” and before listeners know it, they’re hooked and drawn into the midst of a seductive club jam. Dupri, who specializes in such designer dance floor material, helms the song’s dense, layered keyboard noodling and synthetic bass pattern that while completely formulaic, could’ve been a contender on the R&B charts if Carey was its sole focus. Instead, the song’s potential is blocked by the Thugs’ and Bow Wow’s loquaciousness on the mic.

“Wind Blow” is an enigma. The cut culls together samples drawn from parts of Fleetwood Mac’s ’70s masterwork, “The Chain.” The Thugs take the song’s best parts — the entire chorus as well as the Lindsey Buckingham and John McVie guitar and bass parts — for rhythm tracks. In fact, the samples are used so extensively during the song that it really crosses the line and gives hip-hop haters yet a recent example of rap’s supposed creative bankruptcy. The Thugs’ motor-mouth rhyming is largely overshadowed by the famous licks, which sounds like the Thugs were listening to classic-rock radio in the studio.

Equally curious is “Sound The Same,” which initially comes across as if it might critique hip-hop’s basic and most played-out lyrical premise: the rapper who overcomes the streets to become a superstar. “Why does everybody’s story seem to sound the same?/Struggle in the game,” the trio harmonize together. But instead of commentary about rap’s repetitiveness, the rappers try to draw a pattern based on many people’s urban experience like it was some kind of revelation. Not only do the rappers seem to miss the irony in this topic, their earnestness quickly comes across as ridiculous. “You ever been shot? Me too!” goes one line and the insights only get more obvious from there.

Maybe it shouldn’t be such a surprise. The Bone Thugs were always better rappers than they were lyricists or philosophers. Similarly, they are still reliant on a svengali-like producer to lay down the beat.

Fitting into Bone Thugs’ penchant for contradiction, “Strength & Loyalty” is an example of both the positives and negatives of the group’s musical approach. When it works, the trio has a proto-hit. When it doesn’t, there’s little some dexterous wordplay can do.

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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 2007 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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