Brian Carenard entered the recreation yard at Napanoch’s Eastern Correctional Facility and braced himself for a battle with a fellow inmate named Hakim. The former was serving a sentence for first-degree assault after shooting at someone in a bar; the latter had been locked up for murder. But that day, their duel was verbal. Rhyming under the name “Catastrophe,” Carenard had forged a reputation via blustering raps like, “I got two or three shooters on record/If you don’t believe me, you can go and check it/So when I tell you it’s hectic, you better respect it.” But as he remembers, “Hakim pretty much embarrassed me that day” by reciting rhymes packed with positive messages and “words I never heard of.”
That defeat helped instigate Carenard’s personal rehabilitation: He re-christened himself “Saigon” after reading Wallace Terry’s book about the Vietnam War, realigned the content and upped the vocabulary of his raps, and took the advice of a prison lifer named BJ: “There’s no right way to do wrong.” After witnessing a petty dispute between two inmates that ended with one “getting a rug-cutter and splitting this kid’s face open,” Carenard knew: “I need to get out of here.” He set a course for redemption through rap.
Freed from prison in 2000, the rapper dropped mixtapes with the goal of scoring a record contract and releasing the debut album he’d already started, to be titled The Greatest Story Never Told. He signed with Atlantic Records in 2004, but despite the co-sign of super-producer Just Blaze, guest spots from Kanye West and Jay-Z, and a hushed reverence surrounding what Carenard himself declared to be the greatest rap record in 20 years, the label repeatedly balked at setting a release date.
From there, Never Told became a dour, self-fulfilling prophecy—for the next seven years, Carenard effectively became a high-profile rap star, but one without an actual debut album. There were magazine covers, a physical beef with the rapper Prodigy, back-and-forth MySpace missives with Just Blaze, a night of drama outside a Chelsea diner that left him stabbed in the temple with a broken bottle, a recurring role playing himself on the hit HBO show Entourage, and even claims that he had quit rap. By the time 2011 rolled around, most hip-hop fans were resigned to never hearing the record, until news came of an unlikely alliance between Orange County’s pro-marijuana punk-rap group the Kottonmouth Kings’ Suburban Noize label and Just Blaze’s own Fort Knox imprint. Understandably, the now-32-year-old rapper describes the record’s release (finally official last week) as more the lifting of “a black cloud over my head” than cause for uproarious celebration.
Looking back on that painfully prolonged gestation, Carenard says he’d realized as early as two months into his Atlantic deal—brokered by DJ-turned-A&R-man Sickamore—that there were problems. Sitting in a bar and grill on 106th Street and Amsterdam, he recalls how his early excitement at signing to the same label that “had so much history with black music, like Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles” was quickly dampened when they suggested he record a radio-friendly song with Pretty Ricky, the Miami-based r&b quartet best known for the salacious ditty “Grind With Me.” Carenard, meanwhile, was writing lyrics about the hypocrisy of financially motivated religious figures (“Preacher,” the first song he brought to the project) and pre-emptively warning kids about prison-sentencing guidelines (“The Invitation,” featuring Q-Tip). He recalls a meeting with an Atlantic executive who told him, “We need our three singles, then you can bust your artistic nut on the rest of the album.” He wasn’t willing to compromise.
Only a year after signing, Carenard had his lawyer ask for a release. “They signed me knowing the kind of music I was making, but then they try and change the direction,” he reasons. “What happened to those meetings where y’all said you loved me?” But it didn’t prompt a clean break: The label instead offered a few stipends, leading him to believe they’d still eventually put the record out. They never did. Carenard suspects they wanted to make sure he didn’t take the material elsewhere and benefit from the buzz he’d created, not least through Entourage. While locked in this limbo, he cut a number of street albums and mixtapes, but they didn’t so much keep his name out there as fuel speculation that Never Told would never materialize.
In May of 2008, Just Blaze announced Carenard’s release from Atlantic. Carenard says he’s never been given a definitive reason why they refused to release the album, although on the song “I Believe,” he raps, “They rather me pretend to be something I’m not/I’m the new Public Enemy, I’m different than Young Joc.”
Finally listening to The Greatest Story Never Told is a curious experience—it’s hard to free the music from the specter of its seven-year incarceration. But what really strikes you about its 17 tracks (only two failed to make the final cut due to sample- and guest-artist-clearance issues) is Saigon’s sincerity. Rap redemption stories usually involve an artist moving from claiming to have lived a criminal life to only rapping about it; there’s little admission of culpability or regret, and little in the way of proactive advice. But on “Clap,” Carenard proclaims, “Clap your hands if you’re tired of hearing gunshots/Or hearing news about who got popped,” and on “The Invitation,” he vows, “I am the truth/I ain’t one of these kids to lie to the youth/I’m living proof.” He intends to back up those words: When performing “Invitation,” he plans to hand out party invites with sentencing guidelines on them, “to show kids exactly how many years you get for touching a handgun”; he also runs a foundation, Abandoned Nation, that assists kids with parents in prison. The Greatest Story Never Told will finally sate long-suffering rap fans, but its real legacy may be preventing others from following Carenard’s own path to absolution.