Family Men

The delay in God's Favorite's release means that one of its best tracks has been relegated to last summer's jam, having turned up on the Violator IIcompilation in 2001.Like N.O.R.E himself, it's meant to be menacing, but instead achieves a childlike rambunctiousness. The Neptunes, his frequent partners in crime, supply a bouncy undercurrent, like a tot jumping on a bed. Toy-store squeaks and the enthusiastic, misspelled chime of "Grimey!" punctuating the chorus complete the juvenile effect.

Where Smith's rapping rises and falls pleasantly, seemingly impervious to expression, N.O.R.E knows how to use steady blandness: to pace himself, to sustain tension. "Nothin'," the album's gem and inaugural single, showcases this most effectively, even as it dips into the orientalist trend that's revitalizing hip-hop's most glittered names (Missy Elliott, Jay-Z, Nas). To get there, though, you have to wade through vacant self-aggrandizement and excess after excess—through moronic smut like "Big D," N.O.R.E's pairing with Akinyele for yet another ode to fellatio.

"They say I'm a myth. . . . Out of the depths of your imagination appears Will Smith," Will says in "Black Suits Comin' (Nod Ya Head)" the Men in Black II theme. The song clumsily serves as Born to Reign's flagship, aping a hard edge. Tellingly, the resources Smith taps to bare his teeth aren't those of traditional hip-hop bombast; he goes right for rock. Loud guitars, plus some serviceably swelling string arrangements that evoke nothing more than such classic classical dabbling as "November Rain," are wasted on a supremely uncatchy chorus and Will dubbing himself "the best looking crime-fighter since myself in Part One."

The Fresh Prince of Barren Safeness
photo: Reisig & Taylor
The Fresh Prince of Barren Safeness

The entire MIB franchise is notable in its recasting of a fashion staple, the black suit, from the symbol of corporate America to a beacon of mysterious cool, imbuing business as usual with ersatz excitement. This process echoes the music itself, faithfully or in reverse, depending on your level of cynicism. Smith's chief exhortation, to merely "nod ya head," reflects how minimal an involvement his music asks: no "shake ya ass," not even "put ya hands up." Chaste head waggle will suffice.

N.O.R.E demands a bit more, but that doesn't mean that both men aren't shameless entrepreneurs. N.O.R.E addresses an entire song to the CEO of his label, though he claims (unconvincingly) to love the rap and hate the business; Will Smith's cross-marketing exploits are now legendary. Each recognizes, savvily enough, that posturing his magnified ego both enables his success and buffers him from revealing too much.

In Six Degrees, Smith's character is a pleasant parasite, leaving people feeling dazed, used, exhilarated. Nobody knows his real name, and he resolutely believes his own lies. Paul's downfall is Smith's: He believes his own mythology too absolutely to grow beyond it. N.O.R.E manages to escape this, at least in part. His stout, zealous machismo is comical at times, but there's just enough vulnerability under his playground bully bluster to redeem him.

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