Gangsta rap isn't dying easily. The lion's share of critics have long since tired of its formulas, most major record companies (cowed by the Charlton Hestons of the world) are doing their best to distance themselves from lyricists deemed irresponsible by everybody from Christian rightists to radical feminists, and inventive and increasingly popular hip-hop acts such as Spearhead and the Fugees are inching away from street stereotypes even as they're pushing their music in new and intriguing directions.
But a glance at the Billboard charts proves that hardcore outfits are a long way from extinction. The press is portraying the latest platters from R.E.M., Pearl Jam, Nirvana and the Beatles as the big kahunas of the holiday record-buying season, but that's a Caucasian-centric view of the industry. When sales totals are tallied at the end of 1996, there's a better-than-even chance that recently issued platters by Snoop Doggy Dogg (Tha Doggfather), the late Tupac Shakur (The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory, credited to Makaveli, a Tupac pseudonym) and the Westside Connection (Bow Down) will have stomped the hell out of Michael Stipe, Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain and given Paul, George and Ringo a run for their money. Gangsta groups remain shrimps when it comes to touring; in fact, Denver's largest promoters passed on the upcoming local date by the Westside Connection, featuring Ice Cube, Mack 10 and WC (see Feedback for more details). But when it comes to moving units, gangstas are still among the biggest players in the game.
The reason for the continued allegiance of a sizable number of music buyers to this form has little to do with artistic development, however. While Tha Doggfather, The 7 Day Theory and Bow Down often make entertaining listening, they don't take gangsta rap to a new level. Far from it: These three manifestos exemplify the creative cul-de-sac in which hardcore currently resides. If there's a way out, these artists haven't found it.
The best candidate for a birth year for gangsta rap is 1987, when Boogie Down Productions released the album Criminal Minded. On the album's cover, KRS-One, who subsequently evolved into one of the most conscious of rappers, posed with a gun--and throughout his lyrics, he used it. The cut "9mm Goes Bang" is only one example: In telling about a double murder, KRS-One barks, "They fell down on the floor but one was still alive/So I put my nine-millimeter right between his eyes." Straight Outta Compton, the 1988 album by N.W.A. (the group that gave us gangsta superstars Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Eazy E), took this imagery one step further. "Fuck Tha Police" was such an explicit call for revenge against the repressive Los Angeles Police Department that the FBI actually investigated the band, while "Gangsta Gangsta" found Ice Cube spouting an especially startling brand of ghetto wisdom: "Do I look like a motherfuckin' role model/To a kid lookin' up to me?/Life ain't nothin' but bitches and money."
From the beginning, the middlebrow masses found this type of verbal warfare hugely offensive--which, of course, it was intended to be. But there was more to the gangsta wave that swelled in N.W.A.'s wake than mere exploitation. Indeed, hardcore was, at least in the beginning, as aesthetically defensible as it was purposeful. The men who became gangsta rappers were quite literally disenfranchised: They were raised in an atmosphere of hopelessness, crime, addiction and poverty that gave them little reason to see America as the land of opportunity. But instead of capitulating to despair, they recast the iconography of the street--weapons, booze, weed, prostitutes and so on--as talismans of power.
This was a bold and adventurous ploy. Suddenly, the very elements of underclass life that came in for the most vigorous harangues from society at large were given a positive spin. In the view of these revolutionaries, dope dealing was an admirable profession; treating women like dirt was an indication of masculinity; mindless violence was a perfectly understandable response to life's disappointments; spending one's day swilling liquor and smoking dope was something to be proud of; and fighting the powers was more important than following the rules. Moreover, Martin Luther King was a sap. Malcolm X became the philosopher of choice, and his most famous aphorism--"by any means necessary"--the movement's driving force.
In short, gangstas turned their anguish into a very personal mythology. But as time wore on and hardcore rap became more prevalent, it became clear that most apostles of the genre didn't realize that myth is a narrative form that demands shape, structure, consistency and internal logic to make it work. They understood melodrama but fell short when it came to anything more significant than glorifying that which is routinely snubbed by the defenders of the status quo. Furthermore, a majority failed to invent fresh themes or lyrical concepts that would have allowed them to expand the scope of their sonic universe. Hip-hop production techniques became ever more innovative (whatever you think of Dr. Dre, you've got to grant that he has a great set of ears), but the words--the very foundation of the music--stayed mired in cliches.
The gangstas had declared their independence, all right, but few of them had any idea what to do with it. Worse, too many rappers who emulated the behavior they championed in song fell back on self-pity when swatted down by the long arm of the law. Shakur was particularly guilty of this sin: The title of 1995's Me Against the World, issued while he was in the midst of a typical legal crisis, would have seemed more appropriate on a long-player by, say, Helen Reddy--and its banality was only compounded by a mopey, poor-me cover photo that seemed torn from a high school yearbook.
The cover art for The 7 Day Theory (a painting of Tupac nailed to a cross) is, if anything, even worse--and the claim, printed on the jacket and ascribed to Shakur, that the portrait is in no way "an expression of disrespect for Jesus Christ" weakens it further. Nonetheless, the blatant pitches for unearned martyrdom emanating from Death Row Records (run by unrepentant goon Suge Knight) have done their job. Reviewers are already dabbling in critical revisionism; in a gushy essay published in a recent issue of Rolling Stone, for instance, journalist Mikal Gilmore comes across like exactly what he is--an aging, out-of-touch white guy pathetically desperate to seem hip.
In the meantime, legions of Shakur fans are busy plumbing The 7 Day Theory's lyrics to find clues that Shakur, who was gunned down in Las Vegas this past September, is still alive. According to the easily suggestible, evidence to support this hypothesis abounds. After all, didn't the real Machiavelli (who penned the political allegory The Prince during the sixteenth century) state that simulating your demise was a good way to gain the upper hand against those who oppose you? Isn't it suspicious that the album is larded with references to the number seven, which is said to symbolize perfection? And didn't the disc's liner notes include the tantalizing phrase "Exit--2Pac: Enter--Makaveli"?
Such speculation, as those of us with a fairly firm grasp on reality know, is nonsense: Shakur is no more likely to pop into a neighborhood Burger King than is Elvis Presley. Moreover, the only thing that The 7 Day Theory proves is that Tupac was never that intriguing a performer in the first place. The CD begins with the usual self-aggrandizing introduction, complete with boneheaded threats and gunshots, but the subsequent blend of jive-laden boasts ("Bomb First"), Bible-influenced noodling ("Hail Mary") and flaccid throwaways ("To Live and Die in L.A.") serve primarily as reminders that Shakur was, first and foremost, an actor--a performer who was better at striking various poses than he was at convincingly revealing much of himself. His delivery is sloppy, his rhymes are frequently ham-fisted and his dalliances with metaphors generally laughable. An example of the last flaw is "Me and My Girlfriend"; a love song from Tupac to his gun, the ditty is a ridiculous exercise in juvenilia that pales in comparison to "I Gave You Power," a track on the recent Nas album It Was Written that anthropomorphizes a weapon to much better effect. As for the references to The Prince, which Tupac read (according to his record-company biography) "more than once," they display all the depth of a second-grader's book report. In "Against All Odds," the concluding number here, Tupac insists that the recording is filled with "the truest shit I ever spoke." If that's the case, it's as damning an indictment as anyone could deliver.
On Tha Doggfather, Snoop Doggy Dogg (recently cleared of an accessory-to-murder beef) shows that he's a slicker talent than Tupac was, but he doesn't rate much higher on the honesty-and-credibility scale. The CD is kicked off by an intro that's a near clone of the one on The 7 Day Theory; following a series of faux news reports intended to establish Snoop's cojones, the man himself says, "This is dedicated to the niggas that said gangsta rap was dead: Fuck y'all." But what comes after this bit of bravado is schizophrenia: Half the tracks bubble with the brand of pimp rolling that exemplified his debut disc, 1993's Doggystyle, while the rest seem intended to show that Snoop's become a wiser, deeper, more responsible thinker. The contradictions between these opposite poles often result in unintended grins. A case in point is the juxtaposition of "Freestyle Conversation," in which Snoop boasts about his cash flow, his Rolls-Royce and the women who throw themselves at him (he gladly takes on two groupies at the same time, but warns them that he's not the kind of guy who'll pay child support), and "When I Grow Up," in which he advises a kid who worships him to work toward becoming a doctor or a lawyer and then sends him off to school. "Thanks, Snoop," the tot replies gratefully.
Fortunately, sops to William Bennett like the aforementioned snippet don't dominate Tha Doggfather. The disc is filled primarily with laconic funk grooves put together by DJ Pooh, an Ice Cube associate brought in to fill the vacuum left by the departure of Dr. Dre. Quite a few of his mixes--"Doggfather," "Up Jump Tha Boogie" and "Gold Rush" among them--are pleasing, and the presence of Teena Marie and Charlie Wilson (leader of the Gap Band, whose "Oops Up Side Your Head" is reimagined as "Snoop's Upside Ya Head") results in an idiosyncratic lineup that brings back memories of Parliament-Funkadelic circa the late Seventies. In addition, Snoop's vocal approach--a uniquely lazy purr--is as sly and successful as ever. But too many of the cuts are flabby (Tha Doggfather runs for 74 minutes but should be half that long), and the raps as a whole are both overly familiar and relentlessly vapid. When Snoop's not kissing his own behind, he's dropping played-out references from The Godfather and numerous Martin Scorsese movies onto his own ghetto fables. The nadir comes on "Downtown Assassins," which features Joe Pesci-in-Goodfellas dialogue delivered in the manner of a Cheech & Chong record.
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By most objective standards, Bow Down should seem just as hackneyed as the lamest moments on Tha Doggfather. Throughout it, Ice Cube, who once seemed likely to evolve into South Central's most eloquent and trustworthy chronicler, traffics in virtually the same blather that he's been using for nearly a decade now, with precious little sign of superior insight. On the contrary, he even rips off his younger self: On "Gangsta's Make the World Go Round," he asks, "Kids, when you grow up, who the fuck you wanna be?" His answer? "Like me, ya black superhero."
Yeah, it's stupid. But at least the anti-intellectualism at the heart of Bow Down isn't tempered by capitulations to moms and pops who need reassurances before allowing CDs with a parental advisory sticker into their suburban ranch homes. There are no apologies to the Man on Bow Down. Rather, Ice Cube and his associates gleefully tow the gangsta line on ditties such as "All the Critics in New York," "Do You Like Criminals?," "King of the Hill" and "Time Felons." The result is something like the hardcore equivalent of a Ramones record: It sports a dozen versions of the same song--but it's a pretty good song.
Of course, the lack of imagination that characterizes Bow Down is the very thing that will eventually narrow gangsta rap's appeal; no matter how much someone likes the stuff, he's going to get sick of it in time. Already, the chief gangsta consumers are teens who are more interested in pissing off authority figures than they are in finding music that addresses the issues of the day in a smart or provocative way. In a sense, then, the greatest enemy of Ice Cube and Snoop isn't censorship--it's the passing of time. Eventually, they'll be left to decide between growing up or dying. Given the legacy of Tupac Shakur, it won't be an easy choice.
Westside Connection, with Too Short & the Dangerous Crew, E-40 & the Click, Deuce Mob, Arapahoe Trues and Mo' Cash. 7 p.m. Tuesday, November 26, Denver Coliseum, $34/$47/$62, 830-