Master P and Snoopy's cartoon rap
By Franklin Soults
AUGUST 24, 1998: When Public Enemy's Chuck D called hip-hop "the black CNN," he hit on a metaphor whose meaning can be appreciated by anyone with even a passing interest in rap. Of course, that metaphor ignores the complex interplay among the street, the artists, and the industry that compromises hip-hop's claims of true reportage. At one point, even Mista Chuck himself -- the medium's most uncompromised commentator -- backed off from the equation, confessing that the music too often resembled "the Cartoon Network."
Still, the idea that hip-hop speaks for the street must hold at least a modicum of truth value beyond its substantial mythic weight. It's certainly no coincidence, for example, that gangsta rap reached its zenith around the same time as the crack scourge. It may also be no coincidence that only now, when the rates of unemployment, crack use, and murder appear to be down in most inner cities, are we finally seeing major developments away from the gangsta fortress. Whatever the cause, the appearance of tough, self-reliant, and far more open-minded hip-hop merchants, from Puff Daddy to Missy Elliot to the Fugees, has taken on the force of a movement. Trend-spotting media from the Village Voice to Rolling Stone have already given this move from locked-down castle to variegated marketplace the obvious tag: the hip-hop Renaissance.
From all indications, however, the state of the street also accounts for the rise of a Renaissance Man who turns the concept on its head -- Master P, an independent label owner, record producer, rap star, and filmmaker who has done more to sustain hardcore gangsta rap than anyone since the Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur walked the earth. Although some have tried to include P in the roster of Renaissance renovators, it's tempting to fine-tune the medieval metaphor and say that this 28-year-old, self-described ghetto soldier is that pre-Renaissance playa of his age, Genghis Khan.
In just a few short, blurry, bloody years, P has proven himself the ultimate self-starting entrepreneur, overrunning the weakened, feuding lords of the East Coast and West from a direction no one ever expected -- the barren wastes of the Calliope housing project in uptown New Orleans. Born there 28 years ago as Percy Miller, this frustrated college-basketball hopeful led a life of "street-hustling" until he gathered together a small bankroll just big enough to buy a record store outside Oakland, California ($10,000 came from a malpractice settlement following his grandfather's death; whatever else it took, we're left to guess at). Today, that initial investment has grown into the empire that is No Limit Records, P's Louisiana-based gangsta-rap and underground-film company, which has released 20-odd albums and three feature-length movies to gross an estimated $100 million or more (probably more). Not only has P vanquished other gangsta-rap contenders, he's become a major contender among the big boys: currently No Limit has nine albums on the Billboard 200 album chart. On August 4, he released the latest album from Snoop Dogg, Da Game Is To Be Sold, Not To Be Told, which debuted at #1 in Billboard. And there's no threat of Master P's "selling out." Like Genghis, he makes no alliances, whether with friends or foreigners.
But the metaphor doesn't altogether hold. Unlike Genghis, who probably wasn't too popular with the folks he was pillaging, P couldn't have achieved his success without the street behind him. Yes, both the media and the major labels are crucial to attracting hip-hop's vast white middle-class fan base, yet Master P's albums and straight-to-video films have achieved phenomenal popularity without any MTV, radio, or movie-industry support, and with no major-label deals (except for a pressing and distribution contract with Priority that surrenders no stake in his company). His very first feature -- the crude, cliché'd "semi-autobiographical" gangsta vehicle I'm Bout It -- was released directly to video stores, yet it's reported to have outgrossed the sales of 101 Dalmatians. All of which suggests, however improbably, that P came up straight through word of mouth (and word of print in the rap 'zines), building his empire on a street rep that jumped from ghetto to ghetto across America. And he knows it. As he tells other rappers in the improvised, spoken-word fade on "Let's Get 'Em," a track from his most recent No Limit solo album, Da Last Don: "Y'all fake-ass niggas. Y'all think about it -- rappin' for them mutha-fuckin' white folk. We independent black-owned niggas! Ghetto niggas! Real niggas and bitches unite!"
Appearing in late spring, Da Last Don marked the opening of what has become the summer of Master P, a period when he has raised the stakes one more notch and finally broken the larger national consciousness. For starters, the double CD was released with a media hook that beat anything Garth Brooks has managed recently: it's the last solo project Master P says he'll ever make. Since he will continue to rap on everyone else's records, no one seems to be shedding any tears. Even so, that's certainly helped the disc move four million copies in the 10 weeks since its release.
More surprising is how Da Last Don raised the artistic stakes at No Limit. It may just be that P's busy stable of in-house producers have broken through a creative wall through sheer overexertion. Or perhaps their collective organization into the aptly named production crew Beats by the Pound helped. Whatever, the oddly numb and tinny No Limit sound suddenly has a fuller bottom, a clearer mid-range, and an expanded array of signature tempos. This doesn't quite lift Da Last Don past the level of crude competence at which Master P has always functioned -- among many other problems, P's lugubrious delivery, lunkheaded raps, gratuitous brutality, and embarrassing vocal imitations are as bad as ever, if not worse. But the breakthroughs did set the stage for Snoop's album, which goes beyond competent and then some.
A few early reports on Da Game Is To Be Sold complained that it's more of a No Limit than a Snoop album, but that gives Snoop Dogg too much credit. On his own, this odd superstar has never managed to be anything but confused and slightly pathetic (check out his last bomb, The Doggfather). Only when guided by a firm father figure has his nimble yet laconic tone and chillingly casual way with malice taken shape. At one time, these served as the perfect rolling paper into which Snoop's producer and mentor Dr. Dre could pack his doped-up blaxploitation grooves at Death Row Records. And since No Limit has always sounded like a crude and minimalist Death Row, the new production team had to retool the label's sound only marginally to suggest the aura of Snoop's early glory days.
In fact, not only do they suggest those glories, they very nearly recapture them. The kick comes right from the start with "Snoop World," an ear-catching smoove groove that forefronts some wah-wah guitar and a descending chime figure as a counterpoint to an unusually active bass funking up the label's trademark 808 drum sound. It's paired neatly with an "interpolation" of an old Loose Ends song, "Slow Down," refashioned as a smooth brag session with the label's only female rapper, Mia X. From there, the 80-minute disc starts spacing the full-bore production numbers every few cuts: there are confident revisions of old hits like "Gin & Juice II" and "Still a G Thang," a couple of gangbanger love songs in "Show Me Love" and "D.O.G.'s Get Lonely 2," and some fast-paced work-ups like "Ain't Nut'in Personal" and "See Ya When I Get There" (both with Master P playing Tupac, which actually works for once). Filling the spaces in between is a full dose of standard No Limit raps built around hard-chanted choruses and booming beats. As usual, none of it digs that hard, but with different guest rappers and a variety of rhythm tracks, almost none of it feels like filler, either. And Snoop handles it all almost as well as the high-gloss stuff, giving dumb tag lines like "I like to hustle and ball" the same knowing spin he would if the line were actually clever. Like he says, every time he lets out a long "Biiiitch!", it's his "trademark."
That's also a key to why, despite all this impressive effort, the album ultimately fails to excite, or shock, or outrage, or do anything beyond vaguely annoy as it wears down into its 21st track. Cut by cut, it's a winner; as a whole, it just stupefies. The problem is that "trademarks" are not "real" or "street" or anything but signs of commerce. Master P has never pretended to be anything more than a businessman who sells gangsta. And -- as I'm sure he'd be happy to agree -- Snoop is just his latest salesman. It's almost guaranteed, then, that there would be something cold and artificial about this careful return to form. The problem is no longer Snoop's leering misogyny or indifferent brutality. Objectionable as they may be in other contexts, they're just part of the affectless surface noise here. The emptiness is perhaps most evident in "Doggz Gonna Get Ya," a cover of BDP's great 1990 single "Love's Gonna Get Ya." For the most part, Snoop plays it smooth and detached, with a hint of a sneer, thereby draining this story of any force, turning it from a heartfelt moral about the natural allure and inevitable consequences of gangbanging into another throwaway fantasy peppered with guns and death.
Indeed, this phoniness is a key to the whole CNN-versus-Cartoon-Network
debate. Since the moral implications of dealing crack cocaine don't seem to
bother Master P (check out I'm Bout It to see how he brushes the
question aside), there's no reason pushing black-on-black violence and
sentimental tough-guy fatalism should either. For him, it's enough that he's
"being real," which merely signifies being black and outside the law. He lives
this credo by creating a shady business enterprise with a shadier product, then
pushing it as hard as he can. As with every snow job, he calls this giving the
people what they want. Funny how the very idea has ended up being as fake as
mass entertainment can possibly get.
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