By Bob Ruggiero
By Hilary Hughes
By Peter Gerstenzang
By David R. Adler
By Devon Maloney
By Brian McManus
By Jessica Hopper
By Harley Oliver Brown
Five years agobefore "bout it, bout it" became a nationwide catchphrase for big-baller success, before Cuban links were shelved in favor of platinum's bling bling, before Funkmaster Flex broke Juvenile's "Ha" at the Tunnel, bastion of New York-centric thug rapnobody bothered themselves much with Southern hip-hop, long presumed to be merely the purview of lap-dance recipients and drawling gangsters. When the new beats did start trickling north, they came in a surprising variety of guisesthe gruff gutturals of Baton Rouge's No Limit soldiers, the stark storytelling of Houston's Rap-A-Lot seers, the elevated player consciousness of southwest Atlanta's Organized Noize camp. The music was still sub-radar enough to maintain a sort of unblemished novelty, each scene birthing its own peculiar variation on the Southern-fried paradigms of double-time funk, churchgoing spirituality, and pervasive economic and social hustling.
Yet today, rap's two coasts are at their creative nadir. The Cash Money brethren now top pop charts, following in the path banged out by their fellow military Louisianans at No Limit and the futuristic Afro-funk from Goodie Mob and Outkast. With Southern hip-hop at its commercial peak, it's also at its moment of homogenization. If it ain't broke, don't get it twistedat least, so go the musical maxims evident in the latest efforts from these two early Southern innovator camps. P arrives at the dance swaddled in a thin cloak of spirituality (only prayer, it seems, could secure him this many shots at the gamerap orbasketball), and Goodie are digging in the footlocker for their moth-hole-riddled pimp gear as they recover their lecherous roots. It's as if, after years of playing for opposing teams, the two have stumbled upon the same playbook. Divide and conquer. Unite, and get rich to this.
Or don't they? With these latest albums, neither P nor the Goodie boys have achieved the commercial success of their prior work. P, steadily platinum over the past couple of years, has just barely broken the 500,000 barrier, while Goodie, whose gold plaques for their first two albums are more modest than P's, have yet to move even half that number with this allegedly most radio-friendly album.
But if anything, let the Mob's slim numbers represent just how far they've strayed from the cultural politics that defined their first two albums. Like dictum on wax, Soul Foodand Still Standingweren't exactly accessible recordsthe former's lead single ranted on about conspiratorial tricknology while the latter came off like an experiment in rap-rock that had nothing to do with Bizkit and everything to do with Hendrix. Nevertheless, each achieved solid regional success; Goodie had achieved that most enviable of thingsan intuitive rapport with their people.
So who's that knocking on their window? Pow! Nobody now. World Partyis the sound of wounded revolutionaries howling at the moon as they lament their people's downfall, too weakened by the struggle of struggle to fight any longer. Though easy on the eara combination of dumb-downed dis-Organized Noize and dumber-downed New York importees Deric "D-Dot" Angelettie and Easy Mo BeeParty-ing is almost always bad for the brain. Only "Rebuilding," and at times "Just Do It," clearly fit into the Goodie legacy. The remainder of the album is a haphazard debacleslick on the outside, but missing the growl that made Cee-Lo, Big Gipp, T-Mo, and Khujo essential spiritual griots. Instead we're treated to Cee-Lo, the South's prodigy son, assuring an enemy that "if you disrespect anything over this way/I will guarantee/ An awesome array of gunplay/Okay, this is Carlito's Way" on the we're-all-ballers-together anthem "Chain Swang." Last I checked, it was them QB and BK hoods with the druglord fantasies, but apparently what's good for the thugs is good for the last man (still) standing. We are all multiculturalists now.
Master P's concessions, if you could call them that, are somewhat less egregious than Goodie's. After all, he's already explored the mafioso mind-set in his vastly underrated MP Da Last Donstraight-to-video film. His past albums are uniformly clunky affairs unglamorous Beats by the Pound production under- neath strained vocals that on good days sound bitten from Tupac. Only God Can Judge Meis only slightly betteron both counts. The title echoes a track from Pac's All Eyez on Me, and P, as usual, uses the dead rapper as a vocal guide for his histrionics of hatred and self-hagiography. On the title track, P proudly asserts "I'm the last one left," the final soldier at the nexus of religion and military order. That must be why he's carrying those stone tablets on the album's back cover, iced-down No Limit pendant dangling in between them. Whether this quasi-spiritual fascism justifies the poorly crooned version of the Lord's Prayer, sung to the tune of "If Your Girl Only Knew," sprinkled with a series of breathy "Hail Mary"s, is anyone's guess. But like it or not, P has elevated the gangster's lament to an art form. It's the least he can do, offering semblances of prayer as the Dirty South burns. You can give P credit for injecting a dose of spirituality into a knucklehead's ear, but with Goodie you can only wonder what it is. Or ain't. Or once was.