My favorite TV show is BET’s Comicview, the stand-up showcase that airs every night at nine. Punch lines are few and far between, and they’re usually drowned out by a noisy audience that stays one step ahead of the comedians. So I tune in for the setups, which offer handmade truths as age-old wisdom: “light-skinned brothers ain’t been in style since Shalamar broke up”; after rough sex, “ain’t nothing wrong with a little sore coochie”; a “broke nigga” is more loyal than a “paid nigga.” BET sometimes heightens the effect by organizing the show thematically, joke by joke. As a result of this bizarre technique, you might hear three or four comedians in a row recounting the story of a relative who got so distraught at a funeral that she demanded to be buried with the coffin.
The end result is always the same: a pointedly self-conscious self-portrait of the black community. And yet it’s not nearly as monotonous as you’d think, thanks to the geographic diversity of the show. The comedians are introduced like professional wrestlers, with their hometowns nearly as prominent as their names. Funny, but unnecessary: Everyone knows that the guy who uses “hella” as an adverb is from Oakland, the dude with the white-on-white suit and vowels-only pronunciation is from Atlanta, and the brother in the colorful short-sleeved shirt and tinted glasses is from Florida.
Miami, to be precise: His name is Marvin Dixon, and he performs the opening and closing skits (some nonsense about a precocious youngster and a sexually accommodating aunt) on Trick Daddy’s Book of Thugs: Chapter A.K., Verse 47, which might be the year’s best rap record. Trick Daddy started his career with Luke Campbell, but he became a star on the strength of a sparse, furiously catchy little ditty that elaborated on a simple refrain: “You ain’t no nann.” At least that’s what it sounded like; fans who went to the Trick Daddy Web site, www.thug.com (also the name of his second record), learned that the hook was Miami-speak for “You don’t know anyone (else),” although they were left to figure out the rest (” . . . who’ll fall off in the clubs/Free drinks, fellas, show some love/Take the bar home for the thugs”) on their own. “Nann Nigga” owed an obvious debt to the booty-and-the-beat style that has ruled Miami since the ’80s, but it was also clear that Trick Daddy was onto something unique: He’s a mesmerizing bullshitter, and—like the comedians on BET—he wins you over long before you have any idea what he’s talking about.
That said, Book of Thugs is a true hip-hop oddity: a brilliant third record. Trick Daddy created a few dozen beats and hooks and distributed them to his collaborators, without allowing anyone to hear anyone else’s rhymes. The result is a wide range of sounds and styles united by Trick Daddy’s expressive drawl, exemplified by a single called “Shut Up” that deserves to be this summer’s club anthem— while he growls, “Uh-huh/OK/Whassup/Shut up,” the combined marching bands of Miami Northwestern Senior High and Miami Jackson Senior High lay down a symphonic sledgehammer riff that makes Pharoahe Monch’s “Simon Says (Get the Fuck Up)” sound like a slow jam. In fact, unexpected noises abound on Book of Thugs: “Gotta Let You Have It” is a staccato keyboard experiment stealing back the electrofunk that producers like Swizz Beats stole from the South (it also boasts an electrifying verse from incarcerated rapper Buddy Roe), and “Get On Up” is an endless list of Southern cities propelled by a James Brown-style arrangement complete with electric guitars.
“Symphonic,” “keyboard experiment,” “electric guitars”: In hip-hop, these are euphemisms for overproduction. And sure enough, the drum machine that ruled “Nann Nigga” has been buried beneath an onslaught of studio musicians and fancy programming, thanks to in-house producer Righteous Funk Boogie. But it works, because the songs work: Even “Amerika”—a George Clinton tribute, an R. Kelly cover, and a political diatribe rolled into one—has you smiling before the first chorus. The secret of Trick Daddy’s appeal is his knack for delivering even the direst of threats with a knowing wink, and on “Bout My Money” he shows off his elastic sense of meter (comedians call it “timing”) while blasting away at cheats and haters: “All this huffing and puffing ain’t going to get you young fuck-niggas nothing/But a shit bag and bullet holes in your bloody clothes/Out of all the niggas you motherfucking know/I should have been the last nigga you want to motherfucking know.”
As if to prove the singularity of Trick Daddy’s genius, his protégé Trina has just released her first album, Da Baddest B***h. She made a feisty, impressive debut on “Nann Nigga” (“Hold up! Who the fuck this nigga think he is?”), but this record is a one-dimensional collection of tough talk and sexual provocation, delivered in a ferocious, thin voice that emanates from the back of her throat. Indeed, the difference between Da Baddest B***h and Book of Thugs is the difference between stereotype and archetype, between cliché and comedy. Trina is clumsy with a punch line and even clumsier with a story; every word sounds belabored. But Trick Daddy makes his twice-told tales of Miami’s thugs and hoes sound as ludicrous (and as compelling) as the story about the mourner who jumped into the grave. As my father likes to say, “It’s not funny. It’s a joke!”