Monday, January 22, 2007

2006: Year In Downloading -- Part 3

Think 50 Cent regrets kicking Game out of G-Unit? If you were to ask his ego, it'd probably say "no"; if you were to ask his business savvy, it'd probably say "no comment" and tell you to refer to his ego. The West Coast MC who refused to be enemies with people simply because 50 wanted him to showed no signs of a sophomore slump, releasing a quality album (more on that next time) without help from his former friend (50) and his "I-thought-you-were-my"-friend (Dr. Dre). Meanwhile, '06 wasn't quite as kind to 50 and his Unit (no homo) -- only two albums released from the camp, and I'll start by telling you which ones they weren't.

Olivia, G-Unit's female rapper/songstress/Amil, was blessed with a radio-ready single with a guest verse from 50, yet her album never came out, and while I'm not a "bettin' man" (my last trip to Vegas proved that), I'm confident that it never will come out. M.O.P., who signed around the same time Mobb Deep did, have yet to put anything out, other than an independent album and a guest spot on AZ's '06 release, The Format, which I haven't listened to but if it's anything like any of AZ's past albums, it's likely good for a few quality tracks (and for the record, this is the same AZ who 50 said put out "bullshit joints" not too long ago); clearly, 50's plan to try to market two of the ugliest dudes in hip hop to the masses is to wait as long as possible and hope they start to look less frightening. Up-and-comers Spider Loc and Young Hot Rod are likely being kept waiting in the wings until after 50's next album (due later this year) gets the G-Unit name popping again, while Tony Yayo, whose lacklaster debut Thoughts Of A Predicate Felon was what pretty much started this slump, will likely be relegated back to "hypeman" status soon enough, if not already.

On recent 106 & Park and Howard Stern appearances, when asked what the hardest thing was about running your own record label, 50 said something along the lines of "not knowing when to stop putting money into promoting an album that the public doesn't want to buy anyways". Somewhere off camera, Lloyd Banks and Mobb Deep embraced in a group hug, crying on each other's shoulders, convincing each other that they tried their bests. For Havoc and Prodigy, such was not the case, though -- Blood Money was as lazy an album as I've ever heard. For Banks, though, Rotten Apple was a bit more inspired, but poorly-produced (Exhibit A being "Iceman") and not topical at all (it comes off more like a mixtape, in fact). I'll admit that it shows Banks as being an improved rapper, as songs like the opening title track f/ 50 Cent and Prodigy, "You Know The Deal" and "Make A Move" have him less dependent on throwing witty punchlines in every lyric to get his point across. Unfortunately, his "point", if you can even call it that, rarely strays from him trying to prove that he's rich, iced out, fucks a lot of models, and so on and so forth. Here's another lesson I'm sure 50 learned from running a record label -- you can put bullshit in a CD case and sell a few copies in the first week, but eventually, word is going to spread about the smell.

Poor record sales not only plagued 50's G-Unit Records, but pretty much all of the releases under Dr. Dre's Aftermath umbrella. Busta Rhymes' The Big Bang wasn't all that bad in my opinion (then again, what do I really know), but even with about four music videos and Dre's name all over the place, it failed to catch much of a buzz. I'd say that in this case, Busta's marketing machine was in overload and worked against him, and showed the rest of the hip hop world some promotional techniques not to follow -- i.e. wearing T-shirts with your album's name printed all over it whenever you make an appearance (wish I had a picture, it's pretty embarrassing) and the way-too-long remix featuring more names than can actually fit on the TV screen.

Then there was the only prominent album release from Eminem's Shady Records, also under Aftermath -- Obie Trice's second album, conveniently titled Second Round's On Me. Lyrically, Obie has improved leaps and bounds over the MC he was on his '03 debut Cheers, which was a stellar debut in its own right. He's a lot more versatile this time around, surprisingly rhyming in double-time on several tracks. Where this album lacks is in the production department -- no Dre or Timbaland, but a LOT of Eminem beats (eight of the 17 total songs), none of them very impressive. Obie as a rapper and Em as a producer turn out to be a lop-sided tag team -- at times both hold their own (like on "Violent" and "There They Go" f/ Big Herc & Eminem), but most of the time Obie is forced to carry the weight ("Lay Down", "Ballad Of Obie Trice"), and sometimes that weight proves to be overwhelming ("Everywhere I Go", which can't even be saved by a 50 Cent chorus, and "Jamaican Girl"). When the production is on point, though, the results save the album from mediocrity, on stand-outs like "Out Of State", "Cry Now", and the as-heard-on-Entourage track "Wanna Know". Once Obie is able to combine the best qualities of his two releases, he'll hopefully release the classic album that he's capable of making. Whether more people will notice, though, is hard to tell.

So, is there a way to not sell that many records and still not feel disappointed in yourself? Yes -- the answer is to go the independent label route, and '06's best example of succeeding in this department would belong to Ice Cube (who's Laugh Now, Cry Later went gold mainly off of word-of-mouth and the fact that he was once great) and the almighty Dip Set (Dip Set! Dip Set! WHAT!). Being on a label like Koch Records, a rapper like Jim Jones makes something like $8 for each unit sold (much more than any major label), so a 100,000-records-sold opening week for his '06 release Hustler's P.O.M.E. (Product Of My Environment) banked him close to a cool million. A few more weeks on the charts, and what you have there is, in fact, BALLIIIIN' in every definition of the word. The Dips are probably so rich from pimping out record companies that they could give less than a fuck about what you think about the quality of their music, so I won't even take the time to critique Jones' album (other than that "Reppin' Time" is a swell "Hustlin'" rip-off, and the intro might be the best track on the entire album), Cam'ron's Killa Season (other than what I said here, and that "I.B.S." is actually quite ill, in more ways than one), and JR Writer's History In The Making (other than that at 20 songs deep, it was about 15 too long).

Then, of course, there's the underground rap scene, which has lost much of the attention that I used to pay to it. Part of it is due to the fact that a lot of the groups whose cult-like followings I found myself a part of either don't make much music anymore (Living Legends), no longer are together (Non Phixion), or seemingly fell off the fucking face of the earth (High & Mighty). A couple noteworthy releases worth noting (hooray for redundancy!) are Murs' Murray's Revenge, his 2nd collaborative effort with Little Brother member/producer 9th Wonder, Mr. Lif's Mo Mega, produced almost entirely by hero-to-independent-music El-P, and the Juggaknots' Use Your Confusion, which stars Breeze Brewin, one of the most uniquely-talented MCs of recent memory (and unfortunately, his two lesser-talented crew members). And kudos to Murs specifically, who will be looking to lose the labels of "overlooked" and "underrated" with his recent signing to Warner Music Group, the label which played some role in E-40 getting some long-awaited attention this past year (more on that next time, too... damn, these transitions are solid).

[Part 4 coming soon]