8Ball & MJG: Diddy's Prisoners
MJG's braids, on the other hand, continue to improve every year
In the Biggie tribute post I wrote on Friday, I did a little what-if fantasizing and tried to imagine a 34-year-old Biggie as he might exist in 2007; a lot of people in the comments section picked up on the thread and ran with it. But there's one likely outcome that nobody's quite brought up, mostly because it's too damn depressing: Biggie could've ridden off into middle-age making albums that sound a lot like Ridin' High, the new one from 8Ball & MJG. Ball & G, after all, have spent the past couple of years on Bad Boy, presumably letting Diddy figure out what to do with them instead of putting their own records together, and they're both around the same age Biggie would be if he were alive today. Ridin' High is a schizophrenic stylistic splurge of the worst kind, an all-over-the-map song-collection that plays to the duo's strengths for only a fraction of its time, and those few good songs feel almost like happy accidents. What's worse is that the album's failure doesn't feel like Ball & G's fault; I get a distinct impression that they're just following orders. Diddy snatched the duo up during the early stages of the Southern rap boom, and I'm in no position to say whether or not he knew what he was going. The investment paid off pretty well initially; another hodgepodge album, 2004's Livin' Legends, managed to go gold in 2004. But even that album felt more focused than Ridin' High, and I can't imagine Ridin' High will do even remotely as well. If the album does sell, it'll be hard to get too happy about it, since there's nothing worth recommending about it.
8Ball & MJG have two very particular and very complementary styles, styles that work best when they're paired with slow and organic funk tracks like the ones on the 1999 album In Our Lifetime, Vol. 1, still probably their best album. In Our Lifetime is an album that swells together into a cohesive whole, an hour-long suite that wraps 8Ball's mumbled rasp and MJG's throaty preacher's boom into a humid soup of guitars and pianos and huge, shuddering 808s. Many of that album's tracks came from Organized Noize, the Atlanta production unit who also guided the earlier albums from the Dungeon Family collective and who are thus responsible for maybe half of my favorite rap albums. Given that In Our Lifetime remains 8Ball & MJG's only platinum album, you'd think that a businessman as savvy as Diddy would leave the duo alone to put together something as seamless again. And the duo just participated in their biggest hit ever; Three 6 Mafia's "Stay Fly," on which both of them appear, is a big, organic Memphis banger not far removed from some of the stuff on In Our Lifetime. But it's received rap-industry wisdom that listeners no longer have the attention-spans to handle album-length pieces like that, and so nearly every album comes out as an all-things-to-all-people mess. Some artists can hold albums like that together through the sheer force of their skills and personality. Maybe (probably) Biggie could do that now. 8Ball & MJG can't; it's just not how they work.
Ridin' High starts out promisingly enough, with Diddy using the ten-years-since-Biggie nostalgia-fest to launch a nice little tribute, doing his inspirational-speaker schtick over epic synth-churns: "You have legends that are no longer here with us, and then you have what we call the living legends." That bleeds into "Relax and Take Notes," the album's fiery first single and one of its only truly good songs. Maybe the song was just intended as a quickie Biggie tribute, with his sampled voice booming out on the chorus and his image shoehorned into the video. But with its foghorn bass and whistling synths, it's a monolithic Southern banger, and these guys perfected that sort of thing years ago. They're pretty much just bragging and making threats, but that's something they do better than almost anyone else, and a few of their lines really grab me. "Illegal hustling, dirty money muscling / Spend it like I never saw a day of pain and suffering," says 8Ball, and then: "Look at my face and you can tell I seen both of them." MJG's blustery snarl is a little lighter: "You don't want no drama with me / I got the ghost of Jeffrey Dahmer with me." I love picturing MJG hanging out with Dahmer's ghost. What would they talk about? Would they just sit and watch TV? The song's guest is Project Pat, another Memphis veteran, and he manages to steal it with maybe the best verse he's delivered since he got out of prison. Livin' Legends was full of tracks like this, and maybe that album didn't get anywhere near the heights of In Our Lifetime, but at least it figured out something to do with these guys. Ridin' High could've done something like that, but my heart sank as soon as I heard the candy-electro blips of the title track; it's not horrible, certainly, but it doesn't have anything to do with 8Ball & MJG. And the offenses continue. "Cruzin'" is a 112-assisted R&B slow-jam snooze. "30 Rocks" is a rote bit of personality-free money-talk. The chorus of "Hickory Dock" steals a rhyme from Andrew Dice Clay, of all people. Some of this stuff is OK, but all of it is miles short of what these guys could be doing. Almost all the tracks fit some other predetermined blueprint, and they're all the sort of thing that rappers apparently have to do if they want to put out major-label albums these days. On one of the only other good songs, the slow and pretty hometown anthem "Memphis," guest Al Kapone talks about what they listen to there: "I'm talkin' bout that pimpin' Willie Hutch, Marvin Gaye, David Ruffin, Bobby Womack." Ball & G always talked about money and pimping, sometimes almost exclusively, but they always sounded like they belonged somewhere in the same lineage as those artists. Not anymore.
The next couple of months are going to see album releases from other aging legends, and I'm pretty amped about all of them. I can already vouch for Prodigy's Return of the Mac, and I can't imagine Devin the Dude will do anything other than what he always does so perfectly on Waitin' to Inhale. But I'm anticipating Underground Kingz, the big comeback double-album from Ball & G contemporaries UGK, with a weird mix of excitement and dread. Early reports say it adheres to the same weary warmth of UGK's best albums, but I'm not so sure after looking at the cluttered lineup of producers and guests. The inclusion of Jazze Pha doesn't do Ball & G any favors on Ridin' High, and it's hard to imagine it'll mean anything good for UGK either. Aging rappers can adjust to changing times in plenty of different ways. They can play catchup like Ball & G, they can make ambitious but spotty grand statements like Nas, or they can settle into comfortable grooves and stick to the ideas that they've already perfected. Let's hope UGK went with the latter; I don't want to face another disappointment like this one.
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