It was like the changing of the guard—that moment this summer when Missy’s “She’s A Bitch” flopped spectacularly while Eve’s “What Ya Want” established its long thrall over BET and Hot 97. This wasn’t just Eve Jeffers displacing Missy Elliott as “that next bitch” (as she describes herself in her album’s notes), it was the defeat of Timbaland by Swizz Beatz, chief producer for the Yonkers label/MC clan Ruff Ryders. Indeed, there was a definite hint of slay-me-not Oedipal anxiety when Timbaland paternalistically bigged up Swizz in The Source as the only producer he checked for.
Like that other new beat pretender She’k spere (TLC, Destiny’s Child), Swizz is rhythmatically a son of Timbaland, though; both take the latter’s trademark microsyncopations and hiccuping hesitations and make them even more fiddly and off-kilter. The flagship single off the Ruff Ryders’ Ryde or Die, Vol. 1 compilation, “What Ya Want” worked as a perfect advertisement for self—Eve pushing herself forward both as look-don’t-touch fantasy object (for male rap fans) and “the one to fear” (for rival female rappers), Swizz polyrhythmically announcing the Ruff Ryders sound as “changing the game.” The ultra-languid groove of “What Ya Want”—a slinky lattice of Latin percussion and piano—dovetails perfectly with Eve’s seductively supercilious flow.
“Gotta Man,” the first single from Eve’s debut album (which entered the Billboard pop charts at No. 1 a few weeks ago) is even more striking. It’s so sparse, so deceptively simple, there’s almost nothing to it: a loping, falter-funk beat, a pre-orgasmic female moan like the lowing of a lovesick cow, and a plangent mandolin refrain doubled at the chorus by a singsongy schoolgirl vocal with the indelibly catchy play ground chant quality of “The Clapping Song,” “Double Dutch,” or “Iko Iko.” “Gotta” is a chip off the same block as Swizz’s other smash production of the moment, Jay-Z’s love song to diamonds “Girl’s Best Friend”—similar clip-clop rhythm and ultrafeminine vocal hook, but even more so-wrong- it’s-right sounding. With its asymmetrical beat-loop and staccato Morse code synth-riff, “Girl’s Best Friend” could al most be a hip-house or early rave track, some thing by Shut Up And Dance or 4 Hero from 1990—there’s that same makeshift, threshold-of-disintegration quality.
Exquisitely blending supple lilt and stilted lurch, “Gotta Man” and “Girl’s Best Friend” are the most peculiar black pop hits since Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody?” So it’s a little disappointing that nothing else on Eve’s debut approaches their idiosyncrasy and charm. Most of Ruff Ryders’ First Lady sounds like Swizz’s productions for DMX—that grimy, “ugly” sound that defines street (as opposed to under ground) hip hop in 1999. The formula is crude but effective: muddy bass thump, kick drums impacting like low blows, snares like syncopated flurries of punches to the head, and the Hook. Usually played on keyboards (Swizz prides himself on not using samples) and exuding that cheap-and-nasty ’80s-digital odor, the Hook ranges from the bleat of a traumatized pocket calculator, to spindly semi-melodies like ad jingles or videogame muzik, to sub–Harold Faltermeyer synthstrumental refrains of the sort you’d hear in a pre-Hollywood Jackie Chan movie, to riffs that oddly recall early-’80s hard core techno, to random-sounding, atonal trills like mice scampering on Schoenberg’s piano.
There have been hints that First Lady is not exactly the record Eve intended to make—one early interview promised a Lauryn Hill –style mélange of styles and collaborations with multiple producers. But Swizz wound up producing almost all of it—a putsch that might explain his low placement in Eve’s sleeve-note thank-you list, after virtually everybody else involved in the record, including the team who designed the sleeve. And you can sorta see why she might be pissed. From the testosterone-soaked production to the title Ruff Ryders’ First Lady itself, Eve is subsumed within her crew’s identity. Although she holds her own amid the gruff-voiced brawl of posse cuts like “Scenario 2000,” she’s had to play down what was so unusual about “What Ya Want”—the sultry skrewface poise, the sweatless cool—in favor of a more in-yer-face, tomboy raucousness.
At a time when hardcore rap’s sole ac knowledged value is flow (verbal and cash), Eve is more than capable of running with the boys, though. Rhyming with an impressive blend of smooth ‘n’ vicious, she finds the requisite new twists to the standard-issue thematic repertoire: boasts, threats, brand-name checks, click salutes, and territorial boosterism (like her Illadelphian anthem “Philly, Philly,” which is preceded by a nativist-verging-on-racist skit caricaturing a Bangladeshi immigrant who can’t make a cheese steak correctly). Predict ably if entertainingly, Eve righteously scourges inadequates and haters, blasting “little-dick niggaz” and “fake-ass bitches” in “Let’s Talk About,” and in “Stuck Up” humiliating a suitor with “insufficient funds” and an unfortunate allegiance to last year’s designer goodies. “Ain’t Got No Dough” is the most sonically arresting track after “Gotta Man,” an amalgam of con temporary r&b beats, electro high hats, and scratching (skids and disconcerting decelerations, like your turntable keeps switching off midbeat). Lyrically, though, it’s just a late entry in 1999’s quasi-feminist trend of divas trashing “broke-ass niggaz.” The skit “Chokie Nikes” similarly savages a scrub with a fake Rolex, chronic halitosis, and poor chat-up technique. And while the anti-wifebashing “Love Is Blind” could be construed as pro-empowerment by those looking for strong women in hip hop (what other kind could there be, though, rap not exactly being a haven for the shy or self-doubting?), Eve seems as disgusted by her girl friend’s weakness in sticking with her abusive man as by the perpetrator’s brutality.
Basically, Eve’s persona is the thug’s moll. As guest rapper DMX puts it in “Dog Match,” “behind every real dog there’s that bitch behind him”—you’n’me–against-the-world, Bonnie & Clyde romanticism undercut somewhat by the chorus’s marrowcurdling image of “paramedics on your chest/pushing and breathing.” (The couple that slays together, stays together?) By far the best of First Lady‘s (th)ugly tracks is “Maniac.” Driven by rowdy call-and-response and a TV sports–style triumphant synth-horn fanfare, the song thrillingly evokes the bristling alpha-male energy of a nightclub. It’s a milieu through which Eve moves confidently, flirting with the scene’s “top dog,” getting “drunker than a muthafucker,” and finally cutting in line for the ladies’ room. The image of Eve gloating as she leaves a long line of “chicks hating” in her wake says something about the bitch-eat-bitch “reality” that rap in 1999 so doggedly represents. And it says something about Eve herself—in the contrast between the originality of the rhyme versus the petty triumph of incivility it celebrates.