Music

The Afterlife of Hip-Hop’s Brownsville Jesus

A posthumous album from Sean Price continues in the Brooklyn rapper’s audacious tradition

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The last time I interviewed Sean Price — three years before the Brooklyn rapper passed away at 43 in his sleep on August 8, 2015 — he answered the phone by declaring, “Sean’s Pizza, how can I help?” He affected a terrible Italian accent and kept up the pizza-spot charade until I asked if he delivered. “The fuck outta here!” he boomed, before letting out a guttural laugh.

It was classic Sean P. He was an MC whose verses cut glowering brags and outlandish threats with an uproarious sense of humor, and his steely Brooklyn rhymes as half of the duo Heltah Skeltah, and also with Boot Camp Clik, helped define the rugged era of Nineties New York City hip-hop. He flexed his talent as a punch line pugilist on solo albums like 2007’s Jesus Price Supastar and 2012’s Mic Tyson. Now that legacy is furthered by the posthumous Imperius Rex, released two years from the date of Sean’s passing by his longtime label, Duck Down Records.

“I felt it was the right time because I’m trying to shift energy,” says Sean’s widow, Bernadette Price, who first met Sean in the Brownsville housing projects when she was 13 years old. “Instead of August 8 just being a day of his passing, it can also be a remembrance of his album being released. I felt he’d appreciate it.”

Bernadette says Sean left behind a trove of unreleased vocals, along with “an order of projects he was working on” that she will adhere to over the coming years. For Imperius Rex, Bernadette is credited as executive producer. “I knew what Sean would and wouldn’t like because when he was doing his past projects he’d always ask my advice,” she says. At Manhattan studio Pro Town USA, she helped pair a cappella verses to beats by producers including Harry Fraud, Nottz, and Marco Polo, and sequenced features by artists like Prodigy, Styles P, and members of the Wu-Tang Clan. Stitching together the album was an emotional experience that left her in tears “every other day.”

Working on posthumous hip-hop albums can be a complicated business. After the Definitive Jux rapper Camu Tao passed away in 2008 from lung cancer (a condition he kept hidden from his family and peers), he left behind an incomplete, boundary-pushing album titled King of Hearts. El-P resurrected the project in 2010 to fulfill his friend’s last wish. It’s a harrowing listen, like hearing ghosts whisper in your headphones: Songs play out with spaces left for never-finished verses, while sketches and fragments of ideas come and go. Fascinating, but not something to necessarily enjoy. On the other end of the spectrum, commercial forces have chipped away at the legacies of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G. with projects that seem more marketing meeting–generated revenue streams than opportunities to let fans in on the final thoughts of their idols.

Imperius Rex is different. It was engineered by Dan the Man, who was behind the boards on Sean’s three previous solo projects, and it comes across as a continuation of that work. “Sean knew what he wanted to sound like,” Dan the Man says. “He wanted it to be as tough as the bars. He used to come in and say, ‘Get it right or get punched in the face!’ ” Those involved in the release were truly close to Sean — along with Bernadette, Buckshot of Black Moon and Boot Camp Clik is an associate producer, as is Duck Down’s co-CEO Dru Ha. Dan the Man says they went all out to “make sure it wasn’t one of those albums where the artist has passed away and it sounds forced, like you’re mixing and matching.”

There’s nothing scattershot about Imperius Rex. It’s a barrage of heavy bars from a rapper who never tolerated trends, let alone chased them. The brooding but funky title track, produced by Alchemist, includes Sean commanding, “Bow down to the world-renowned Brownsville Jesus.” The line is audacious, assertive, humorous — classic Sean P. Then on “Rap Professor,” Sean spits about dining with Bernadette at the Dominican restaurant La Casa Del Mofongo in Washington Heights, cracks a joke about farting, and condenses his hip-hop essence in a poignant fashion: “I make nice rap shit/Great life, straight fight, ape-like tactics, P!”

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