Late into producer-MC Mannie Fresh’s lavishly entertaining solo debut, an estranged lady friend calls the Cash Money Records don to ask for $8,998.61. “If you can’t do me that,” she says, “just give me $8,923.40.” Fresh knows 6,428 things, one being that absurdly specific large numbers are comedy gold. Also he knows how to make high-frequency synths glisten while the low ends scowl, and to keep his brags humorous like Ali rather than delusional like Jay-Z, and that there’s nothing unmanly about getting a manicure (“I keep my hair cut and I get my nails done,” he rhymes on the old-school winner “Conversation.”)
In keeping with a famous hip-hop-producer bylaw, Fresh is no dazzling microphone technician. He’s a great rapper all the same—charming, relaxed, word-drunk but concise. Take special note of his mastery of commercial and compound adjectives: “peanut butter suede,” “Heineken green,” “Dr. Pepper-can-colored Turbo Coupes.” The Mind of Mannie Fresh, alas, is 19th-century-Russian-novel long and not untouched by missteps—notably “Shake That Ass,” to which right-thinking asses will be impervious. But an editor would probably ruin Mannie. The guy is generous with his music, and part of the fun is hearing him pull off ideas (a long chitlin-circuit-soul parody, for instance) that a more judicious artist would save for a B-side to a radio-only Christmas cassingle.
Away from Big Tymers, Mannie is still a sleaze but a nuttier, friendlier one. He’s funny when he’s posing—mostly as an inveterate back door man—and soulful when he’s being his horny, occasionally wise 35-year-old self. On the introspective “Nothing Compares to Love” he’s motoring down what sounds like the Trans-Europe Express when he spots a family of nine riding in a battered station wagon. The poor schmucks bring on an anti-bling epiphany—or just some fleeting, Kanye-style rich man’s guilt and a bit of sermonizing. Either way, the kids’ choir on the minor-key chorus sounds heartfelt. The singers, in fact, seem to be the seven kids from the station wagon, singing for their lives, or a record deal.