Rap albums tend to have backward titles. Dre’s The Chronic was about a onetime explosion in L.A.; Lil’ Kim’s Bella Mafia was a solo joint; Lil’ Flip’s Undaground Legend is on a major label; EPMD’s Strictly Business is pure pleasure; and Eve-olution was the same old stuff again. Likewise, Sarai’s The Original is probably better titled The Well-Tuned Simulation.
The upstate-NY-to-ATL transplant’s lyrics aren’t too clever, but every deliberate turn of her voice makes endorphins rush. On an early track she does a great Eve impersonation, dead-on capturing that deliberate, upwardly mobile, sharply punctuated, over-enunciated drawl. Later she does a smashing Missy-lite full of “gizza go”s, “scurry scurd”s, “filly illy”s, and “blizzy blah”s. Then there’s a Trina kick that outsexes the source material with PG-rated evasions: “Ride it like Tonto, I’ll be ya sidekick/the sweetest song sang when the mouth silent/when you doin’ what you’re doin’ get movin’ the tongue/Tornado Oh I ain’t in Kansas no more.” Girl’s flow is seriously all-purpose! The production matches up, with sometime Dre producer Scott Storch’s G-funk keyboards on the cheap, Bomb Squad alum Ali Dee slinging noise-wall Southern bounce, and Beau Dozier spitting the same post-“Can I Get A . . .” tech-house madness he brought on 3LW’s A Girl Can Mack.
All this imitation is a fantastic thing. See, I’ve already heard plenty of Missy and Timba and Trina and and and. But I haven’t heard 16 bars of Twista or Foxy Brown à la Sarai before—how she turns what she thinks distinguishes them into how she mimics them. This all makes me understand them better, and Sarai better too. Which isn’t to deny Sarai her own flow: mainly this cool trick where vowel sounds closing lines get stretched into different vowels and then back again. (Unlike Ludacris, who stretches vowels and just leaves them with a big growly decay. Either way, the range of available rhymes is multiplied.) On a New York-style track like “Swear” she generally turns them into “ah,” but on the Slip ‘N Slide-inspired “What Mama Told Me” it’s more an “uhr,” almost a faux-Jamaican patois. She’s got her own themes also, less the sexually empowered but emotionally unstable gangsta-bitch or sexually empowered but emotionally devoid hustleress than r&b vixen lashing out at no-good men and reliving high school torment. (It helps that she sings her own hooks.) Sample theme No. 1: “You lied to me and now I hate you.” Sample theme No. 2: “I knew this girl in sixth grade who was abused by her mother. In eighth grade she killed herself. Stuff is messed up.”
Then there’s the anthemic single “Ladies” whose tick-tick-boom Casiotone crunk isn’t so much based on another artist as on the momentous feeling of dancefloor release on stepping into a club and feeling the whole world shift around you. So many words, so many rhymes, and they’re all mounting invocations to tear it up: “Tube tops, T-shirts, blue jeans, miniskirts/overtime make it work/wobble that ass ’til the thing hurts/wifebeaters, throwbacks, fitted caps, bucket hats/No matter where you from where you at/Shake that shit like how ya love that.”
Between high school heartache, musical bacchanalia, and weak threats (“I don’t bust guns, I bust rhymes to see funds”!?) Sarai lives in a cloistered world of beach-blanket booty-bass where the only crisis is who wins the big freestyle contest next week. But it’s a world I return to again and again, the comfort of streamlined nostalgia for the now. The Original isn’t the soul of rap, but still much more than a shadow. Sarai wants to be hip-hop, own it, hold it, kick it, throw it—so bad you can’t help but feel that need.