Backwards. Forwards. Sideways.
The last time Scarface did anything that directly and forcefully impacted mainstream rap, it was the summer of 2004, and T.I. was mired in a long and bitter beef with Lil Flip. At the time, Flip was the more popular rapper, and it was anything but a foregone conclusion that T.I. would end up mopping the floor with him. Both of them were talking shit at any given opportunity. T.I. was, of course, calling himself the King of the South, a title he’d claimed for himself before anyone was paying attention to him. Flip, meanwhile, was calling T.I. a nobody and saying that Scarface was the real King, a tough claim to dispute. By that time, Scarface was as much folk hero as rapper; he’d gone a couple of years without releasing a proper album, he was as responsible as anyone else for the rise of Southern rap, and he had one of the greatest and most credible back-catalogs in the genre’s history. But he didn’t care about being the King of the South. On the Down with the King mixtape, T.I. included a phone conversation where Scarface said that he didn’t know Flip at all and that T.I. could have the King thing if he wanted it. Last week, T.I. headlined Madison Square Garden, and I think he might be the first Southern rapper ever to do so. (Did Nelly ever headline the Garden? Master P? Bow Wow’s from Ohio, so he doesn’t count.) With that phone call, Scarface did a whole lot to help T.I. overcome one of the major challenges in his career, and he didn’t even have to leave his living room or change out of his bathrobe to do it. Scarface might’ve never become a big crossover star, but he’s definitely had a seismic impact on the music. He revolutionized Southern rap, he developed the wounded emotional street-rap style that Tupac would soon ride to superstardom, and he signed Ludacris. Even in 2004, in semi-retirement, a recorded phone call from this guy was enough to alter the course of T.I.’s career. So any indication that Scarface might be returning to rap is a big deal.
Any news that comes from a rap website is dubious news, and a HHNLive report is all I’ve been able to find on Undisputed, the new album that Scarface will supposedly be releasing next year. But I’m really hoping all the information in that quick little clip is right. That news came along a couple of weeks ago, but it’s only now come to my attention, which makes me even more suspicious. But fuck it, I can’t not get excited about something like this. According to the report, Scarface has signed a one-album deal with Def Jam, the label that released the last proper Scarface album, The Fix, which he made during his brief tenure as president of Def Jam South. The Fix is an absolute monster of a record, maybe the greatest solo album to come from a career full of great solo albums, and probably the last album to get a legit five-mic review in The Source before that magazine went off the rails completely. A few reviews at the time called The Fix a rap Time Out of Mind, and I loved the comparison. Both albums find a mythic veteran digging into his past, wrestling ghosts and coming to terms with weariness and anger and disappointment. Both albums are bleakly, darkly beautiful, late-career masterpieces that cast a heavy shadow over everything that came before them. If The Fix turned out to be the last album in Scarface’s career, it would make for a great curtain call. Scarface himself sure seemed to think so; a year ago, he had this to say to SOHH: “The Fix was my last album. I’ll never record again. I’ll fuck with my group. Another solo album? No.” But rap retirements are never final, and I sure wouldn’t say no to a new Scarface album right now.
Ever since The Fix, Scarface has become a sort of low-profile enigma. Rap-A-Lot cobbled together a bunch of old verses and released a couple of unsanctioned solo albums, My Balls and My Word and My Homies Part 2. Scarface rejoined the Geto Boys to release a great unheralded reunion album, The Foundation. He also formed a new group, the Product, and released a pretty good unheralded debut album, One Hunid. He’s done the occasional guest-appearance and played a solo show with a live band in Houston that I would’ve loved to have seen. Earlier this summer, he was scheduled to play a promotional event for Olde English malt liquor with Black Moon and Twista in New York, but he never showed and no one onstage even mentioned his name. Most recently, he produced three of the best tracks on UGK’s Underground Kingz: “Life Is 2009,” “Still Ridin’ Dirty,” and “Candy.” The first two of those tracks rebuild and repurpose two older tracks; “Life Is 2009” fills out the stark 808 booms from Too Short’s “Life Is…Too Short,” and “Still Ridin’ Dirty” blows out the slow, woozy intro to The Fix to song-length. All three songs blend seamlessly into the heavy organic grain of Underground Kingz. On “Still Ridin’ Dirty,” he wails one line on the chorus “can’t explain the things I feel when I’m behind the wheel,” drawing it out and making it sound like a condemned man’s lament. As great as these songs are, I just wish Scarface would’ve rapped on him. His voice is the kind of weathered roar that only gains in authority and resonance as it ages, an inimitable, booming elder-statesman rasp. I don’t want to get my hopes up too much, but the idea of a whole new album of that voice is almost too much. If the news of Undisputed turns out to be real, I will be a happy guy.