Last night, I was leaving the taping for Jay-Z’s episode of VH1 Storytellers (long story, one I’ll tell when the show gets closer to airing), jammed in with a crowd moving glacially toward the door, and someone barked out “Beanie!” About four feet in front of me, an enormous guy turned warily around and warily raised a hand in acknowledgment before escaping into an elevator full of presumable VIPs. I wanted to say something, but I froze. The only time I’d ever been in the presence of Beanie Sigel before last night, it was at Jay-Z’s “I Declare War” show at the Continental Airlines Arena (soon to be the Rocawear Arena?) a couple of years back. Jay spent a couple of seconds teasing a special guest before the epic rumbling synths from “Do It Again (Put Ya Hands Up)” blared out, and Beanie burst through the fake-Oval Office stage-doors to snarl out his characteristically bloodthirsty club-rap verse. Up in the upper-deck arena-seats, Beanie’s presence was powerful enough to give goosebumps, and he got a bigger reaction than Kanye or Diddy or Teairra Mari or any other non-Nas guest that night. Now he was right next to me and I couldn’t talk, even though I had a whole lot I wanted to ask him. Probably for the best: He didn’t seem especially happy to be recognized. Of course he didn’t. He’s had a turbulent couple of years. Since Beanie put out The B.Coming, his last album, almost three years ago, he’s been to prison, been released, been acquitted for attempted murder charges, seen his stepfather brutally murdered, been shot during a robbery attempt, and publicly questioned his most successful labelmate’s sexuality. He probably doesn’t like surprises too much. It was not at all a sure bet that Beanie would get another shot at fame. He’s supposedly a guest on American Gangster, but I was disappointed when Jay never brought him to the stage last night. Still: there he was, indisputable evidence that he’s cool with Jay right now. Earlier in the week, I got an email from his publicist that his new album would finally be out, on Roc-A-Fella, in December. Just as awesome, Roc-A-Fella also has Free At Last, the long-delayed sophomore album from Beanie’s flame-spitting Philadelphia compatriot Freeway coming out in like a month. All of a sudden, it looks like Jay-Z is getting the Roc-A-Fella gang back together, and I’m getting excited.
Back in 2002, Roc-A-Fella was getting a little too comfortable in its hegemony, signing M.O.P. and Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Noreaga and Joe Budden and anyone else they could get their hands on. Usually when vanity rap labels start making fantasy-baseball deals like those, the label is nearing the end of its dominant period: No Limit with Snoop Dogg, Cash Money with Mack 10, G-Unit with Mobb Deep and M.O.P. and Mase. But no rap label ever got as drunk with power as Roc-A-Fella; it got to the point where Twista was flashing a Roc chain in an Elephant Man video even though he had like five albums left on his Atlantic deal. And no label ever flew to pieces as quickly as Roc-A-Fella did. Jay and Dame Dash are clearly nowhere near being cool with each other still, and there’s some chance I was there the last time they were in the same room together: the closing-arguments day of the Irv and Chris Gotti money-laundering trial. Jay’s done OK since then, and Kanye West has flourished, but the intervening years haven’t been so kind to Beans and Free, once the Roc’s two most reliable foot-soldiers. Between 2000 and 2005, Beanie released three solo albums for Roc-A-Fella, and Freeway released one. Beans and Free are both vastly more limited rappers than Jay, but all four of those albums are nearly as satisfying as the records Jay was putting out at the time. Nobody this side of Scarface does righteous spite and weary resignation like Beanie, and nobody this side of Ghostface does urgent, adrenal emo-rap like Freeway. And yet both of these guys have been on the shelf for way, way too long. It’s totally unrealistic to hope that these knuckleheads ever had a chance at the kind of pop audience that Jay and Kanye have managed to find, but they’re both niche-rappers par excellence. Many of this year’s more successful rap albums have come from veteran rappers with built-in audiences like Common and UGK and Talib Kweli. As Noz wrote on an old XXL blog-post that I can’t find, this is probably the final moment that album-oriented rap from old-head favorites will be even a little bit lucrative, and it’s just enormously heartening to see Jay taking a flier on these two. The fall has already seen a huge album from Kanye, and there’s another Jay thing coming out in a couple of weeks, but it won’t feel like a unified Roc-A-Fella moment until these guys return to the fold. So the flood of new Beans a Free material feels like a gift from God. I’m half-expecting to hear about a prospective Peedi Crack album any day now.
None of this would mean much of anything if the new songs from these two guys weren’t any good, but thankfully that’s not a problem, at least not yet. The new Beanie songs are a bit weird, but they’re still recognizably Beanie songs. “All of the Above,” the single, features R. Kelly, of all people, and both it and the leaked track “What They Gonna Say to Me” come with clubby, synthetic beats, not exactly the best look for Beanie. But as much as I’d rather hear him rap on the grainy soul-loops he used on The B.Coming, Beanie does know how to massacre those clubby beats (see: “Do It Again [Put Ya Hands Up]”). And on both of these new songs, he’s almost terrifyingly vengeful: “Stop rhyming / Your life’s based on a popped condom and bad timing.” They might not be exactly what I want from Beanie right now, but they’re no less exciting for it. The new Freeway songs, on the other hand, are exactly what I want to hear from him: strained, desperate, angry raps over wistful, time-unmoored beats. “Big Spender,” the Broadway-sampling Jay collab that came out this summer, was a little dubious, but everything since then has been monstrous. “Paper Gangsters” jacks Nino Rota’s Godfather theme while Free screams at anyone trying to take his style. On “It’s Over,” he aims some possible slick-talk at Kanye, who understandably seems to be avoiding these guys, over a riotous series of horn-stabs. And on “Step Back,” Free and Lil Wayne terrorize a Don Cannon track; Wayne, whose style couldn’t be more different from Free’s, ratchets up his urgency about fifteen billion notches and just manages to hang. If those release dates don’t get pushed back, it’s going to be a cold winter.
(There’s apparently also a new Memphis Bleek video out there, but who gives a fuck.)