There’s a story floating around about how Noreaga got his name—the type of tale that doesn’t require reality to bolster it, because it’s the myth that matters. At Collins Correctional Facility, where Queens-born Victor Santiago met collaborator Capone on kitchen duty, he smuggled in his little brother’s Gameboy so he could read after lights out. In prison, this seventh-grade dropout “wanted to work out my brain muscle, so instead of lifting weights, I became an avid reader,” as he told Tha Hip Hop Warehouse. The trajectory is well-worn, much fabled, but no matter. He read about crime and drug lords, and graduated to a thick tome on the life of Manuel Noriega. When the incredulous prison unit quizzed him on the content, Santiago delivered, and Noreaga was born.
He’s now known as N.O.R.E, having left the “aga” at Tommy Boy, his estranged label, “with the anger.” God’s Favorite comes after two solo joints and two albums with Capone, and was postponed several months by various entanglements. What’s he been doing in the last year? “Learning how to be a muthafuckin’ man,” he says in the title track. “Spend some time with the muthafuckin’ kids.”
With unforeseen humility, N.O.R.E also apologizes for Melvyn Flynt—Da Hustler, his underrated previous release, and hastens to explain why he’s calling himself God’s favorite. “I been through so much in my lifetime, as an artist, as a regular nigga, and now as a man”—and still he’s survived.
He isn’t the only one claiming divine legitimacy in his move toward maturity. Will Smith, with the new Born to Reign, is the other half of the hip-hop coin—the comedy to N.O.R.E’s tragedy. Set genial, scrub-faced patter against dour anglings at intimidation: N.O.R.E’s the ex-hustler, the grubby luminary of what he calls Thugged Out Militainment. Will’s the nice middle-class boy who turned down an MIT scholarship, a one-man media powerhouse: Willitainment.
Ironically, Will’s seminal role on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was that of the reality check. The Bel-Air branch of the family tree were typically effete, overeducated brats; cousin Carlton, with his V-necked sweaters and wince-worthy Tom Jones jig, was a shame to his race. Enter Will, wielding West Philly street cred and good-natured ladies’ manhood, to teach them How to Keep It Real.
In that incarnation, Smith gleefully breached boundaries. Back then, legions of youngsters, irrespective of race or even nationality, could muster an embarrassingly verbatim version of the theme song, complete with rousing finale of Will sitting on his throne as the Prince of Bel-Air. My own grandfather still chuckles over Hebrew-subtitled reruns. Since then, though, Smith has settled past palatable accessibility into barren safeness.
Apparently he’s been too busy saving the world every summer to take much notice of the last decade or so of hip-hop—or else he realizes, quite correctly, that the rules just don’t apply to him, because no one expects him to be able to follow them. It’s almost too easy to compare his flow to Barney and his merry troupe of first-graders rapping the pledge of allegiance, or to crack that the only street his music would feel at home on is Sesame.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Remember Eminem? “Will Smith don’t need to cuss on his raps to sell records/Well, I do, so fuck him, and fuck you too.” Big Willie’s not going to sink to that level. His title opener on Born to Reign, which eerily imitates Em’s inflection and style, laments that “hate gets exalted as art falls to greed.” Needless to say, art isn’t exactly stalwart against Will’s greed. “You see me with Denzel and Russ Crowe/You know, the movie’s just a chick on the side, I’m in love with the flow,” he quips in “How Da Beat Goes.” This last has also been quoted as “check on the side”—mistakenly, I think, but the difference is inconsequential.
OK, cheap shots quota fulfilled. Cultural snob that I am, I rented Will’s much heralded serious movies, Ali and Six Degrees of Separation. In the latter, Smith plays a hustler, of all things, who re-creates himself, Gatsby-style, as Sydney Poitier’s lovechild, and dupes a fleet of elite Manhattanites. This new identity, while admirably enacted, isn’t entirely snug. Paul tells you a bit too much; his voice is a little too bright and glibly solicitous. “Why has imagination become a synonym for style?” the character demands passionately, in a haphazard, Holden Caulfield-inspired diatribe on the self. A good question—one that begs an answer from Will, given his continual reliance on that conflation.
Born to Reign offers no reply. Smith volunteers plenty of borrowed sounds and mildly likable ditties, most of them touchingly deferential to the Pinkett-Smith family lovefest. Daughter Jaden has her own cooing interlude. Wife Jada lends a surprisingly competent, if overly cautious, vocal to “1,000 Kisses” over a Luther Vandross sample.
God’s favorite is also a family man. “I understand now that I gotta be the man,” N.O.R.E reiterates in “Love Ya Moms,” when he uses Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” to say sorry for all the times he hurt his mother. “Take care of my wife, kids and the fam, especially you, Moms.” The chorus wails, “Love ya Moms, hate the street,” and there you have it, internal conflict laid bare.
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 II compilation 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 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.