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Nobody in the genre today sees more possibility in hip-hop than Prince Paul. I say that in the face of his tour de force A Prince Among Thieves, a record nay, a hiphopera! telling the story of a young man's terminal initiation into the world of rap commerce. The creative are no match for the playa haters, crime pays, intellectual property is theft. Finale: the hero puts a bullet in his brain. That doesn't sound so hopeful, yet nobody can make you as excited about what hip-hop can do as the Prince formerly known as Paul Huston. With a technological facility second to none, he's still performing the original DJ's task: to create a world through conjunction, to bring sounds that don't exist in nature together and use them to critique the natural order. Spanning DJ culture, he's the one guy RZA, Chris Rock, tech-steppers, and trip-hoppers all agree on, the one guy whose skills they all covet.
Perhaps collaborations later this year with Dan the Automator and Dust Brother Mike Simpson will further open the subconscious bulwarks and let inner landscapes flow like chocolate lava. But with Prince Among Thieves, Paul makes his most focused, cine- matic, and single-minded work yet. He gets a roster of rappers Chubb Rock, Biz Markie, Big Daddy Kane, Kool Keith, Everlast, Sha, and Breeze among them to fit their contexts into his. Call it respect, call it Prince spaghetti day: He provided the scenarios, they wrote the lines, and when the story is about back stabbers and the dirty shit you do to get where you gotta be, nobody here is sitting around asking what's my motivation. The beats are secondary to the moodscapes, the loving care as evident in the skits as in the songs, and everywhere it's clear how much this means to Paul. He's hip-hop's great disillusioned figure, and he can't for a minute let it rest.
This is his dilemma: he didn't change history twice. The first time was when he produced De La Soul's 1989 debut 3 Feet High and Rising, practically inventing the hip-hop album and defining the studio as much as the streets as the cradle of creativity. His streets were suburban, with lawns. After 3 Feet High came a string of hits produced for Big Daddy Kane, MC Lyte, 3rd Bass, and then . . . well, there our story might have trailed off. He got bored, laid low for a few years; maybe it was about personal business, maybe it was waiting out the era when "realism" walked all over those lawns, but when Paul resurfaced in 1996 with Psychoanalysis (What Is It?!), he came back a different person angry, sarcastic, as critical of himself as of the hip-hop industry he didn't want to be a part of.
He was using an expanded studio vocabulary to inflame anyone who was listening the lampooning of gangsta and Miami bass was the least of it. Hard to tell which was less p.c., the chorus cooing "It's a beautiful night for a date rape . . . a beautiful night to kill crackers," or the samples from "the Director's Cut of Bloodsucking Freaks." Playing with images of blackness, provoking a fight then lobbing water buhloones from the sidelines, he had your average knucklehead reaching for milk of magnesia every which way. But for all the laughs, Psychoanalysis is about a guy declaring independence by setting himself on fire.
The record more or less disappeared after its release on the tiny WordSound Records in 1996; when reissued by Tommy Boy a year later, that just meant a larger circle of listeners were able to scratch their heads. "It's been three years since I made 'Psychoanalysis' which was not by all means a great album," Prince Paul all-too-humbly writes in the liner notes to A Prince Among Thieves. The new record isn't chastened, exactly; it's not gonna give Jay-Z a run for his popgun (even a Tommy Boy A&R man described it to Blaze magazine as "too smart for commercial radio"), but Paul's not raging against the hip-hop audience this time he's courting their attention with linearity and keyboard-driven hooks. The first time you hear "More Than U Know," a reuniting with De La Soul that's pure '83 new wave roller disco, you just know you'll be hearing it on the radio all spring long. That's until you focus on the words, where De La play against type as sky-high crackheads ready to rock. It's a hip-hop "Heroin." There's a clue in that, as there is in a line that stops me every time I hear rapper Horror City speak it: "The same thing makes you laugh makes you cry." If hip-hop is a religion, Prince Paul believes in a God who always tests your faith. He returns the favor, peppers the listener with questions, doubts, barbed jokes, and tunes that range far and wide "Steady Slob- bin' " is cheap, ecstatic effervescence, it's champagne in a can; "What U Got (the Demo)" loops Memphis soul blues. The songs are remarkably tight, but not quite freestanding, because they only thrive within the overall tale.
Prince Paul has subverted the natural order once again: first came comedy (Psychoanalysis), now arrives tragedy. Half the people in hip-hop are making music that doubles as movies, or music meant to accompany movies, direct-to-video music lavish fantasies in which pimpin' is too easy, and where the ghetto supastars are the biggest hams of all. But on Prince Among Thieves, Paul bleeds the fabulousness out of the flick the pimp's a fool, the g's a skunk, and the sex (like the crack) is embarrassingly real. Always ill but highly intelligent, he does it with a sense of invention that in the end puts the lie to his own premise: that in this game, the talented don't have a chance.