VH-1 runs a lot of irritating shit: James Blunt videos, Flavor of Love, El Chupacabra beating the Boegy Bunch in The World Series of Pop Culture. But the network hit rock bottom a few years ago during one of those smarmy one-hit wonder countdowns, when they inexplicably shoved the Geto Boys in with EMF and the guy who sang “Kung Fu Fighting,” basically the rap equivalent of including Radiohead on the countdown because they never had a radio hit that rivaled “Creep.” The Geto Boys are one of the most important groups in rap history. They were the first Southern group to be taken seriously all over the country, and they introduced a meditative style of introspective, depressive gangsta rap, which makes them indirectly responsible for some of the best music being made today (I really need to write an entry about Restless, the fucking magnificent new Trae album). They also have one of the most fascinating stories in rap, an epic saga of controversy and jealousy and reconciliation and attempted suicide. Their “one hit,” “Mind Playing Tricks on Me,” is an absolute masterpiece, a deeply evocative and compelling study in bad faith and paranoia. The rap landscape would look incomparably different today if J. Prince had never thrown the group together. But more than anything else, the Geto Boys’ greatest gift to the world is probably the introduction of Scarface, one of the most powerful voices in the history of rap.
It’s hard to believe that Brad Jordan is only nine years older than me, barely out of his teens when the Geto Boys were at their commercial peak; he’s sounded like an old man from day one. His voice is a bottomless, gravelly, worn-in boom, the sort of thing you expect to hear from a fire-and-brimstone preacher. There’s a bluesy, melodic quality to his delivery, and he always sounds like he’s rising right out of the warm, organic beats he always uses. His lyrics had some of the violent nihilism of N.W.A, but there’s more recognizable humanity to them. He raps about killing and dealing, but he does it with a massive, tangible sadness and regret, like he’s trapped in this existential dystopia and can’t help himself. And that sadness isn’t limited to the music; he’s always seemed vaguely disgruntled in the way he’s conducted his career. He served for a time as the president as Def Jam South; he gave the label one of its biggest moneymakers when he signed Ludacris. But then he quit, and it’s still not entirely clear why. He was one of the most powerful men in the rap industry, and he just walked away from it. I don’t think I’ll ever understand it.
So Scarface’s announcement that he no longer intends to make albums isn’t a huge surprise. It’s been three years since his last proper album, The Fix, which stands as one of the best albums of the decade. The Fix is the last album to get a legitimate five-mic rating from The Source, and it’s a direct precursor of the crack-rap trend that’s taken over Southern rap in recent years. It was a triumph on every level imaginable, but Scarface never followed it up. Instead, Rap-A-Lot released three separate albums of his odds and ends, putting his name and his face on the cover even though Scarface never participated in them. On Balls and My Word, they even manipulated one track to make it sound like Scarface was dissing 50 Cent; Face wasn’t happy. Right now, Rap-A-Lot is gearing up to release an album of duets between Face and Tupac, which is interesting since there’s a clear parallel between all the posthumous Tupac albums and all the Scarface albums since The Fix. Rap-A-Lot is digging up every Scarface track it can find in its vaults, putting beats on them, and throwing them out into the world, the exact same thing Death Row has been doing with Tupac for years. But Scarface isn’t dead; he just doesn’t feel like making an album. Last year, he got back together with the Geto Boys and put out The Foundation, a great work of uncompromising bleakness that never got the notice it deserved. Earlier this year, he released an album from the Product, a group he put together. The other members of the group, Will Hen and Young Malice, are OK, but Scarface is still the guy responsible for all the album’s great moments. It’s probably the closest thing we’ll get to another Scarface album.
“The Fix was my last album,” Scarface told SOHH today. “I’ll never record again. I’ll fuck with my group. Another solo album? No.” If he does eventually decide to go back to his solo career, he certainly won’t be the first rapper to unretire. But he seems comfortable staying at home and doing occasional live-band shows around Houston. In every interview he’s given recently, he comes across as being absolutely disgusted with the state of rap, with label chicanery and club-targeted novelty hits. If he stays away from rap, it won’t be his loss; it’ll be ours. We need him a lot worse than he needs us.