No artist in hip-hop has gone as criminally unsung as Scarface. For well over a decade, the Houston native has been delivering chilling ghetto fables,>"/>
No artist in hip-hop has gone as criminally unsung as Scarface. For well over a decade, the Houston native has been delivering chilling ghetto fables, both solo and as a member of the hugely influential Geto Boys. However, like most artists who come from somewhere other than New York or Los Angeles, his talents have always proved locally viable, if not nationally recognized apart from the odd Yo! MTV Raps breakthrough.
The Last of a Dying Breed (Rap-A-Lot/ Virgin)
Back for the First Time (Def Jam)
The fact that Scarface currently owns the cover of The Source is less a testament to the potency of his most recent (and allegedly final) solo album, The Last of a Dying Breed, than the repaying of a karmic debt to the man. Now that No Limit and Cash Money own mainstream radio in the big city, institutions like The Source are scurrying to play catch-up and nod to long-overlooked Southern legends.
It's a shame, though, because as a solo artist, Scarface is long past his prime. The Source photo shoot, featuring shots of him alternately cradling a newborn child and bedecked in heavy old-age makeup, seems to implicitly acknowledge the man's glide into early retirement. Moreover, his album couldn't be any more aptly titled. A decade ago, Scarface's brand of stark narrative defined what it was to be a Southern gangster. In the bling-bling economy, though, his checking account looks mighty thin.
And unfortunately for Face, he does little to help himself on this latest album. The fire and deep vision that defined his earlier, paranoiac rhymes are largely absent here, replaced instead with crummy storytelling, idle suspicion, and even idler boasting. It's easy to forget that Face was putting guns in his mouth long before Biggie Smalls ever had suicidal tendencies. But it's only on two tracks that the pain still smarts: "Sorry for What," a chorus-free death-march meditation where Face laments, "I took too many sleeping pills/ I drunk too many Miller Lites/And I can feel the Reaper near so please forgive me for my sins"; and "In My Time," where he seems to be biting DMX's confessional style—"We start crying 'cause we can't accept that we born dying/Am I losing my edge?/I'll be a nigga 'til the end/But there's more to life than me and my Benz S . . . I stare into space while I'm driving/praying God will erase my sins."
Dying Breed is also the first album where Face is obviously outclassed by his guests. Jay-Z upstages him on the nimble "Get Out," Devin the Dude and Too Short have him clearly outmatched in the ho game on "In & Out," and Face's mellow gold is no match for the gangsta frenetics of Jayo Felony, Daz, and Kurupt on "O.G. to Me" or of fellow Houstonites UGK on "They Down with Us."
In all fairness, though, not all of Face's energies of late have been devoted to rapping. After issuing a bizarre press release about renouncing many of his worldly possessions in favor of a more ascetic lifestyle, he then took on the decidedly unmonklike post of heading up Def Jam's new Southern division. Accordingly, the Face that pops up poolside at the end of the video for first-signee Ludacris' first single "What's Your Fantasy" isn't Face the morose existentialist but rather Face the savvy label don.
Ludacris, a loquacious former Atlanta radio jock, is quite the opposite of Face as a rapper—he's chipper, sex-crazed, and he makes a point of crystal-clear enunciation (which is about as common in the South as Confederate flags are up North). Unlike Face, Ludacris sounds like he raps for fun, not as therapy. Back for the First Time, a slightly updated version of his regional debut Incognegro, is littered with tawdry sex jams and token thug blasts, opening with the downright criminal "U Got a Problem?" Over bubbling bass, rapid strings, offbeat piano hits, and looped vocal stutters, Ludacris jests, "I'm nastier than thinking about your parents sexing each other," and claims, "Self-explanatory/I'm ass valedictorian/I bring 'em back to the future like a '85 DeLorean."
As charismatic and witty as Ludacris may be, it's not for those charms that he got signed. Rather, it was the insistent bounce of his Southern club hit "What's Your Fantasy?" that earned him a trip to the majors. Here, in addition to the lusty original ("in the public bathroom or in the back of the classroom"), there's a females'-revenge remix, featuring Trina ("I wanna man that's gonna feel my needs/keep my body trembling and buckle my knees"), Shawnna ("I wanna do it on the canopy/I wanna do it where your girl gonna see and get mad at me"), and the long-lost Foxy Brown ("36Ds, Prada on the breasts/fast send him home, NaNa on his breath/how you think a bitch got my rep?"). It's not much of a political improvement over the original, but it's in keeping with a long-standing pop-rap tradition of gendered one-upmanship, putting the seedy details of the bedroom on display for all to see. It's just the type of rap Scarface would have let slip by 10 years ago without notice. But now, in the early October of his career, such shenanigans are the only game in town. Why drink alone in your room when there's liquor flowing freely by the pool?