For Meth and Red, Blackout! 2 comes almost exactly 10 years after their collaborative debut Blackout! (if we ignore 2001's How High soundtrack, which we always should), and each rapper's mediocre solo albums in the meantime have only confirmed how much they need the other in order to thrive. At least they have a loving record label in Def Jam, unlike Busta (on his third label in 8 years), whose albums have steadily worsened since 1998's E.L.E. (Extinction Level Event). His last record, the gangstafied The Big Bang (2006) courtesy Dr. Dre and Aftermath, could be re-titled "The Loud Fizzle". Another Dr. Dre project (and now reliable cash cow), Eminem, will be Relapse-ing twice this year (Relapse 2 is slated for a Fall/Winter release). Unfortunately this relapse is more literal than figurative, as Em seems to be indulging his worst mid-aughts habits instead of the millennial madness that won us over around the time of The Marshall Mathers LP.
Em’s not the only one peddling retro product this week, though. All four of these artists are faced with the fairly epic challenge of re-conquering a game they haven’t seen the top of in at least five years. And as the recent sales and street-cred ratings of LL Cool J will attest – he still puts out albums, by the way, even though everyone stopped listening – the pinnacle of mainstream hip hop is especially treacherous for returning climbers. Busta, especially, seems stuck in a do-or-die situation after his last ascent failed so spectacularly. On The Big Bang (whose lead single “Touch It” featured 50 Cent leftovers like: “Now that's the way that it goes/ When we up in the spot the shit be flooded with hoes”) Busta was put through Dr. Dre’s rusty star-making machine, which basically makes every Aftermath artist (except Eminem) into an obnoxious, talentless, steroid-inflated gangsta rapper. Fans were left wondering what had happened to the charming, (huggable, even) entertainer who always cut violent and clichéd braggadocio with parody and self-deprecation. The days when Busta delivered lines like “Fuck around and you can really get tossed/ Ken Griffey flow, call me ‘Alaska’ 'cause I be the king of the frost,” on 2001’s deliriously silly single “Pass the Courvoisier,” had never felt so distant.
Busta seems to have sensed our disappointment, but even after leaving Aftermath his latest transformation retains way too much of Dr. Dre’s sleazy gangsta mogul model. Now living somewhat more comfortably at Universal Motown, his new record Back on My B.S. features a lopsided mix of his jester and gang-banger personalities. The latter wins out with tracks like the trashy lead single “Arab Money,” which imagines some kind of tokenistic jet-set elite of rap stars and oil moguls united in their absurd and conspicuous wealth. (What brought the two worlds together remains a mystery; a chance meeting at the private jet dealership, perhaps?) Clueless, Busta spits: “See now I take trips to Baghdad dummy/ where I use stacked chips and count Arab money.” Similarly tactless gestures resurface on another early single, “Respect My Conglomerate,” where Lil’ Wayne’s amazing guest verse underlines how lousy Busta sounds these days. The comparison is especially interesting because, really, isn’t Weezy a contemporary version of Busta at his best: an unpredictable lyricist with a terrifically musical flow and a seemingly endless stock of nonsense rhymes? A vintage Busta line like “Shit I spit'll slice you all up in your main artery/ for the simple fact we didn't grow together you ain't a part of me” from “Hot Shit Makin’ Ya Bounce” off E.L.E, would fit seamlessly into any Weezy mixtape verse. Wayne’s career may have peaked this past winter, but Busta’s best days are way behind him.
Eminem, on the other hand, seems to be back in the worst possible way. Relapse, as its title announces, is all pills, drug-induced delirium, violent sensationalism and dumb pop culture references from three years ago. The ridiculous flow is still there, but Em rarely puts it to good use, and even then his lyrics remain stubbornly careless. Tracks like “Stay Wide Awake” and “Bagpipes from Baghdad” sound great – Dr. Dre handles all the production so there are some incredible beats, it’s true – provided you don’t listen to the lyrics too carefully. To his credit, I guess, nobody but Eminem could make rhymes about Mariah Carey and Elton John delivered in an approximated Scottish accent sound half-decent. There’s also something to be said for the massive and elaborate meta-performance that Em’s life has become. Listening to this album – more so than any of his others – feels a little like standing in the hall of mirrors at the end of Touch of Evil. It’s impossible to tell which distorted vision of Marshal Mathers (if any) is real, but they’re all rather terrifying. His daughter might make a really great and similarly insane rapper one day.
For now, though, Relapse’s 20 lengthy tracks feel big and empty – all look with no style, lots of substance abuse but no substance. Em seems to have come full circle from his sophomore opus, The Marshall Mathers LP. Legend has it that when Eminem was done recording that album, Dr. Dre called in dismay complaining that the record was too serious. Em spent the afternoon writing a flighty pop tirade, and that’s how we got “The Real Slim Shady.” Too bad Dre wasn’t moved to make the opposite call this time around, requesting something seriously angry instead of a patchwork of dialed-in drug jokes and murder fantasies. At his best, Em moves eerily between thrilling, furious and introspective political raps (“The Way I Am” off Marshal Mathers), silly but infectious pop culture commentary (“Square Dance” from The Eminem Show’s incredible opening third) and some sort of social subconscious monster parody (“’97 Bonnie and Clyde” off The Slim Shady LP). With Relapse, though, we may have lost one of pop music’s most astute satirists and political commentators. The album’s only genuine moment has Em getting melancholic on “Beautiful,” where he muses: “I just can't admit/ or come to grips with the fact that I may be done with rap (…) but I just can't sit back and wallow/ in my own sorrow, but I know one fact, I'll be one tough act to follow.” Well, actually, folks like Lupe Fiasco, Black Thought and Brother Ali have been rapping circles around him while he was in “rehab,” so here’s hoping that the second Relapse leaves a more lasting impression.
Method Man and Redman’s second Blackout!, meanwhile, benefits from all the positive associations and frenzied anticipation of an incredible first impression. In the ten years since the original, neither artist has released a compelling solo album, though Redman’s efforts always feature reminders of his potential for greatness and Meth has continually stepped up as Wu-Tang’s leading lyricist. Still, of the three major rap releases this week Blackout! 2 is the only one that feels motivated by (this will sound cheesy and naïf) a love of music rather than money. Like their first album as a duo, their sophomore effort is a fun, catchy, unpretentious mix of gritty club bangers (“How Bout Dat”), meandering smoking songs (“A Lil Bit”) and infectious lyrical volleys – “Dangerous MCs”, boosted by an awesome Erick Sermon beat, is like this outing’s equivalent of “Da Rockwilder” on Blackout!. Even the over-produced electro club track “I Know Sumptn” (produced by King David with an odd auto tuned chorus by Poo Bear) works thanks to an exceptional and especially breathless Method Man verse. Mostly, though, Blackout! 2 succeeds because Red and Meth reproduce the original’s incredible chemistry while adapting to the production codes of the day.
Between Mathematic’s booming vocal sample on the outstanding opener “BO2,” Pete Rock’s retro piano and trumpet composition on “A-Yo” and Rockwilder’s afro-futurist odyssey on “Hey Zulu,” Def Jam’s dynamic duo never seem out of their element – except maybe on “Mrs. International,” which is like a second-rate version of Jay-Z’s “Girls, Girls, Girls.” Otherwise, though, Blackout! 2 finds the MCs achieving the balance of humor, pop and hard hip hop that their respective albums always lack. Red plays the role of the jokester, which gets old in his solo projects and used to come off like a second-rate Busta Rhymes shtick. That comparison doesn’t really hold anymore, obviously, and Red delivers those trademark defiant prankster rhymes in his unmistakably percussive cadence that meshes so well with his colleague’s voice and subject matter. Whereas it’s nearly impossible to take Redman seriously, Meth’s raspy, breathy delivery gives his harder subject matter the air of lived experience. And as before, their chemistry only gets better with guests. Tracks featuring Raekwon and Ghostface (on “Four Minutes to Lockdown,” produced by Bink! doing his best RZA impression), Keith Murray (on “Errbody Scream”) and Bun B (on “City Lights”) are among the outstanding album’s most enjoyable moments.
Maybe, in the end, Red and Meth benefit from having the smallest of this week’s huge releases, and the one most in sync with the new school of rappers. They never achieved the level of superstardom that Busta Rhymes and Eminem reached in the rap-mad late 90s and early aughts. Now that blockbuster rap isn’t really sustainable anymore, they’re left in a more adaptable position with a devoted fan base (from Blackout!, Wu-Tang, Def Squad and maybe even How High) that won’t be outgrowing their sound anytime soon. Em and Busta, meanwhile, are faced with the daunting task of competing for massive shares of an increasingly fragmented market whose biggest spenders might not even remember their heydays. Put another way, they’re reaching for sales records that aren’t feasible anymore, whereas Method Man and Redman can afford to keep matching successes with disappointments and know that the same audiences will keep listening. Tellingly, Red raps on “A-Yo”: “I network on MySpace real late/ hoping my album make me another Bill Gates.” This mix of new tech-savvy music business fluency and outdated, ironic aspirations to 90s super-wealth is exactly what makes me think that Red and Meth will be fine going forward (and that Busta and Eminem’s inability to do similarly will prove their downfall). Since these artists’ heyday, the rap world has become smaller and arguably more talent-oriented (rather than image-driven). As mainstream hip hop shifts away from the violence of the last fifteen years towards a funnier, more self-conscious mode reminiscent of De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Brand Nubians and the like, it’s fine to want to be a billionaire, as long as you can laugh about the fact that you’ll never actually be one.