It’s been weird watching Scarface lately. He’s unquestionably the most important rapper in Southern rap history, the guy who established the template of the hard-slurring reluctant thug. A few years ago, it looked like he was finally reaping the rewards of his decade-plus career, serving as president of Def Jam South, signing Ludacris, and releasing utterly unfuckwithable stone-cold classic The Fix, which probably kickstarted the current wave of Southern coke-rap just like his earliest efforts with the Geto Boys kickstarted gangsta rap in general. But when Lyor Cohen left Def Jam and LA Reid and Jay-Z took over, he left, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why. He’s made a handful of great records with Jay, and LA Reid put out a couple of amazing OutKast and Goodie Mob albums that were direct descendants of the organic thump that the Geto Boys pioneered. You’d think it would be a good fit. But in interviews, Scarface talked about being disillusioned with the whole culture surrounding pop music, and he didn’t seem to want anything to do with it. A year ago, he was making noises about retiring, but that never happened. Last year, he reunited with the Geto Boys and released the magnificently bleak and utterly slept-on The Foundation. Earlier this year, he released One Hunid, a pretty good album from his new group The Product, and it’s every bit as choked-up and downbeat as The Foundation, though not nearly as great. When Houston became the big story in rap last year, Bun B stepped into Scarface’s role as omnipresent elder statesman of the scene, showing up on everyone’s albums and telling every out-of-town reporter about purple drank and DJ Screw and car culture and Pimp C and everything else. Scarface showed up on Bun’s album and on Chamillionaire’s, but he mostly sat the zeitgeist out, making a couple of Geto Boys videos and playing a few shows around Houston with a live band.
Before last Tuesday, Scarface hadn’t released a solo album in nearly four years; the triumph of The Fix is now a distant memory. Truthfully, he still hasn’t made a solo record; the new double album My Homies Part 2, like its 1998 predecessor, is basically a Rap-A-Lot compilation released with Scarface’s name and picture on the front; he himself appears on fewer than half of the album’s 25 songs. The album’s packaging is a total bait-and-switch: Face on the cover, Yankee hat pulled low, chain and iPod earbuds dangling, surrounded by dudes in ski masks. The back-cover tracklisting doesn’t mention any of the hordes of guests who do most of the rapping on the record. There’s plenty of frustrating stuff on the album. Like every other rap double-album ever, it’s too long and too overstuffed with filler; nobody buys a Scarface album to hear Trilltown Mafia, who I think are somehow affiliated with Trillville, trying out an absolutely god-awful interpolation of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” “Pimp Hard” collects an unprecedented number of gravelly voiced Southern masters: Scarface, Z-Ro, Pimp C, Juvenile, Petey Pablo; these guys could make their own “Self Destruction” if they wanted, but no, they just want to talk some queasily misogynistic bullshit. Mike Jones shows up. From time to time, it gets ugly.
But it’s hard to complain about the album’s format when the first non-Scarface song is Z-Ro’s devastatingly gorgeous and defeated “Man Cry,” Ro slurring brokenhearted gangsta blues over emaciated slow-rolling G-funk: “Nothing changed for Ro / Twelve albums strong, looking for dough, but yet I’m still poor.” Almost all of the album rests on the Rap-A-Lot house producers who everyone loves to complain about, but their stuff is better-suited to a full album than virtually any other signature production-style in rap, a humid and elastic but oddly airless and claustrophobic staggered lurch. On top of this stuff, hardbitten depressive voices tend to sound amazing, and Scarface’s collaboration with Beanie Sigel and Game, “Never Snitch,” is practically a classic. Scarface and Sigel have similar styles, a paranoid heart-on-sleeve emo growl, forbidding and vulnerable in equal measure, and Game does everything he can to keep up with these guys, maybe overcompensating a little (“I leave you bleeding like your period came late / Red bandana on, call that my Game face”). Other moments are more fleeting but almost as enjoyable, like Slim Thug’s verse on the posse cut “Southern Nigga,” just about the fiercest and most impeccably constructed thing he’s ever done. On “We Out Here,” Skip of UTP (who I love; he raps in something like Dave Chappelle’s Rick James voice) and the Ghetto Slaves, who I’ve never heard of, hijack the beat to Mike Jones’ “Cuttin'” to talk about being Hurricane Katrina refugees slowly settling into their new temporary homes in Texas: “I’m in Houston, but you know that / A nigga like me, old school, look all like a throwback / And when they build it, I’ma go back / But for now I’m out here; you ain’t seen the ‘fuck you’ on my doormat?,” fascinating stuff. A few tracks have been kicking around mixtapes for a year or more, like Common’s Scarface-assisted remix for “The Corner” and the “Platinum Stars,” an irresistibly bouncy cartoon-funk track from Lil Flip, Chamillionaire, and Bun B; even if you’ve heard these songs before, it’s great hearing them properly mastered with no DJ drops. My Homies Part 2 is no substitute for a real new Scarface album, and it’s not going to get anywhere near the attention that E-40 is getting right now with his big pop move, but I don’t regret the twenty bucks I just dropped on it.