Method Man on New Album 'The Meth Lab': 'We Cookin' Up Rhymes'
Photo by Adryan Payne/Amon Creatives/Creative Commons
Wu-Tang Clan loves the kids, but Method Man loves Fifties film noir. The rapper is thumbing the screen on his iPad and recounting the entire plot of Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard. It's the most animated he's been all afternoon. "It went from amusing at first to grotesquely sad [with] how it ended, you know?" he says of the film, which he saw recently on Netflix. The 44-year-old sits at the head of a conference table at Tommy Boy Entertainment's offices on 23rd Street. He's wearing a black T-shirt and black baseball cap with what appears to be a red, yellow, and green hairnet underneath. The room smells faintly of marijuana, but Meth isn't smoking. A bottle of Hennessy cognac sits on the table, but he isn't drinking, either.
It's press day for The Meth Lab — his first solo project in almost a decade, slated for an August 21 release — but it all seems desultory. The rapper answers many questions vaguely, or circuitously. He refuses to pose for our photographer. It's not altogether surprising. His relationship with the media has been fraught of late, and he's garnered a reputation for being evasive, suspicious of journalists. Is this characterization accurate? "Yeah. I guess. I don't know. It's up to you guys."
Born Clifford Smith, Method Man has been a hip-hop staple since Wu-Tang Clan's breakthrough Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) was released in 1993. His emotive flow and smooth delivery made him a star among the cadre and earned him prime placement on standouts "Method Man" and "C.R.E.A.M." His 1994 solo debut, Tical, was an instant classic. Bolstered by "Bring the Pain" and the "All I Need" remix (featuring Mary J. Blige), the work earned props from hip-hop heads and mainstream fans alike. He was that rare combination of venerable skill and boyish, 'round-the-way charm; it was only a matter of time before Hollywood came calling. Meth has racked up an impressive résumé of film and television credits since the Nineties, including roles in The Wire, How High, CSI, Garden State, and, most recently, Trainwreck.
The Meth Lab ostensibly borrows from television's Breaking Bad, but Method Man is no Walter White. Or actually maybe he is, depending on how you follow his trail of logic. "It didn't inspire the record," he says of the show. Then he offers, "It's not even a coincidence, it's just like, 'Yeah, why not have references to that?' It would be doing it a disservice, this record I mean, to not have a few Breaking Bad references in there. You know, keep it gully." I actually have no idea what he means. Meth hasn't made eye contact with me and doesn't do so for the 35-minute duration of the interview. Instead, he bores his eyes into my iPhone (which is recording our conversation) and occasionally sips from a bottle of pressed green juice. "The whole idea of The Meth Lab wasn't to promote smoking meth," he continues. "Let's be real about this shit. We cooking up rhymes."
The rapper returns to his stomping grounds on Staten Island for the cook-up. "The feel of the album is more coming home," he says. "Something you may hear when you and your boys are on the block." The album's title track has an indelibly gritty vibe. "Welcome to the meth lab, listen, it's time to cook/Not confessions of a video vixen, we by the book/Start the fire, I can tell what you thinkin' just by a look/I'm a crook, like some fish in a barrel, I got 'em hooked," he raps. The album was recorded in Shaolin, and he sources features locally. Raekwon, Redman, Cory Gunz, and Uncle Murda join relative unknowns Meth met through so-and-so-can-rap hearsay. "It doesn't sound like everything we're hearing today. I'm not saying that stuff is bad. It's just sounding like something I came home to."
But while Method Man has been gone ("touring and raising kids"), home has changed considerably. The local sound is pan-regional: Rappers borrow from Southern drums and trap loops and West Coast flows. Meth waxes poetic on musical gentrification. "I been around the world. I been to a lot of different clubs and festivals and things like that. It's like, if I'm at a festival and they're playing EDM music, even if I'm not into EDM music — at all — I could find myself grooving to some of the joints. Same with, uh, trap music. I find myself grooving to some of the joints every now and then. It just comes with the territory. When I'm in the club, my preference in the club? I don't wanna hear hip-hop music in the club. I wanna hear dancehall. That's just my preference right there. Something about that music in the club atmosphere that makes everything feel, for lack of a better word, irie." He smirks, still avoiding my gaze. "And I like the way the girls dance to it."
The veteran keeps attuned to what's trending outside of his wheelhouse in part because of his teenage children. He credits his kids with putting him onto Kendrick Lamar and A$AP Rocky. "I enjoy watching kids — teens and below — do the 'Nae Nae' and the whip." He pauses and shimmies to approximate the dance from the viral track "Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)." "That stuff is interesting, especially if it's coordinated. My kids put me onto stuff like that. They think it's amusing."
Strangely, the highly publicized beef between Meek Mill and Drake hasn't made it onto his radar. At the time of this interview, the city's airwaves are abuzz with Meek's allegations that Drake has ghostwriters. Funkmaster Flex of Hot 97 has devoted entire time slots — and ample bomb-drops — to the battle. Method Man is oblivious. "Nah," he says when asked if he's following the controversy. But he continues: "I've never had anyone write a rhyme for me, I can say that.
"I think it started with letting people bite. People getting away with biting people's shit and running with their words. Now there's no identity for anybody, so whatever. Whatever floats your boat. I don't care if you got a ghostwriter or not. If the music is good, it's good. When it comes down to categorizing, people categorize things to make it easier for simple-minded people to keep up. When it comes to categories like 'lyricist' and things like that, you know, the same way they do with baseball — they put an asterisk next to people who use steroids and shit like that." So are performance-enhancing ghostwriters fair play? "Still takes a lot of skill to hit the baseball, though," he says. Then he backpedals. "I'm not a politician. I have no opinion about it."
Whether he's genuinely neutral or feigning it because he's on the record is anyone's guess; the rapper has, after all, had a rocky relationship with the media. During an interview with XXL in March, Meth felt he was misinformed about Wu-Tang's Once Upon a Time in Shaolin. He harangued the journalist and upbraided hip-hop media collectively. "This is the reason I don't like doing interviews for anything hip-hop so far as magazines go," he said. "They are the bloodsuckers of the culture, if you ask me. They are the reason why a lot of this crap that's coming out now flies, because they co-signing it." He's less impassioned when asked about the incident now. "I have no beef with media," he says coolly. "Me and the media is good. There's a lot of people out there I get along with."
Maybe he's flip-flopping. Maybe he's over this interview. After twenty years in the rap game, Method Man is in the rarefied place where he gets to say and do whatever the fuck he wants. He has carte blanche over his career — musically and otherwise. He isn't trying to keep up with the young boys or play O.G. elder statesman. He's here because he just loves to rap. "Some days are good and some days are bad, but all in all, the work? I love the work," he says. "If someone tells you that they're not enjoying what they do and they're in this business, they're lying. Because you could be doing a hell of a lot worse."
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