Thursday, November 10, 2005

Juelz Santana – What the game’s been missing (track by track review)

Dipset is art. A contentious statement for both loyal fans who want nothing to do with that artsy shit and for Hiphop purists for whom The Diplomat’s new era rap music is the antithesis of the comfortable high-art Hiphop they approve, from neo-soul snooze fests to Def Jux noise rap. The truth is self evident however, Juelz Santana’s What the Game’s been Missing is the most interesting Hiphop album to emerge from New York this year and while it’s far from perfect, it’s got more interesting ideas in its 22 overly long tracks than nearly any other CD you’ll pick up this year.

Don’t get me wrong, What the Game’s been Missing is in all actuality a swing and a miss. Juelz clearly was aiming for this album to be important, classic and any other term you want to apply to a complete work of Hiphop but it falls short for a couple of reasons. First of all, Juelz hasn’t yet decided what he wants to be when he grows up. Schizophrenically switching from Pac influenced honesty to southern rap ignorance to post Bootcamp NY thuggin doesn’t quite work for young Juelz and a more cohesive vision would be appreciated. Secondly, this causes the album to be way too long and to run out of ideas halfway to the end: trimming 5-6 tracks would help the album’s flow immensely. Until these issues are addressed, Juelz will probably remain an artist best appreciated in mixtape form, but that doesn’t mean his more adventurous moments available only in LP form aren’t worth a listen.

To reject this album due to its weaker moments would be a grave mistake, seeing as the high points are surprisingly interesting from any way you want to look at them whether musically, artistically and as clues to where Hiphop is heading. The Intro features Juelz conversing with his 5 year old nephew. It’s a hilarious slice of life but it’s also pretty scary if you think about it: five year olds shouldn’t be yelling Dipset bitch and even Juelz realizes this. The black comedy is a dire warning about youth in the ghetto that’s hard not to take seriously in riot inflected times. By the time Juelz’ self aggrandizing album title is repeated a few times, we’ve segued in Rumble Young Man Rumble, as explosive a track as you’re likely to find in 2k5, mixing Juelz’ bravado with the kind of ghetto motivational speech that rap has been moving towards with Young Jeezy and Lil Wayne (more on them later). It’s a powerful way to start the album and lends weight to the important vibe set off by the intro. Never mind that Juelz isn’t exactly saying anything at all: the song’s very attitude carries it like Punk rock. Unfortunately, that energy and momentum is wasted on Oh Yes (Mr. Postman), a misplaced flip on the classic Motown song. Don’t get me wrong, the track (last seen on mixtapes) is smart, contemporary and an excellent look at how Hiphop can re-appropriate 60’s naivety into something sinister, but it’s completely wasted coming off such a dramatic opener. It’s a sign of things to come as stellar material is awkwardly placed throughout the album. At least, in the song’s defense it’s still one of the brightest moments on the album despite its awkward sequencing.

Shottas gets things back on track rather quickly: by now anyone who’s anyone has heard the Sizzla assisted ode to Jamaica and its gangsters but if you haven’t: believe me, this is the kind of music that will get your grandmother in the mood for murder. There in lies Dipset’s ultimate appeal: the aggressiveness is the end in itself and anything to achieve it is a viable means from Motown to Reggae to…Clockwork. Indeed, you expect sparse clicks and tocks from Tom Waits and not from Juelz, yet that’s exactly what that track offers. The lyrics range from crack to ass shaking but it’s the music which gives it the needed weight and drama turning the simple lines to something on the right side of poetic. It’s a shame that kind of click-clacky track will be reused up to four times later on the album… Kill Em brings things back to earth with a musical track more in line with what we expect from the Dips, but Juelz and Cam’ron continue to crank the energy level up to 11 and it’s hard to hate on competent material.

So after all of that…are you ready for a sensitive self-analysis? Seriously, This is Me finds Juelz back in reflection mode over a low key sonic backdrop. Acting almost as a short interlude, the song is far more honest than you’d be lead to expect after the past 15 minutes of stylized carnage but far less positive than anything say…2pac would have written. If Juelz is the voice of a new generation of African American youngsters than lord help those who oppose them because grit and determination is all that you can squeeze out of him. And that’s on a nice song. Unfortunately Make it work for You ruins whatever he had going for him on the previous track. An utterly average southern 808 track with Young Jeezy and Lil Wayne, it serves no purpose other than to showcase Juelz’ friends. It’ll probably be a huge hit but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. Whatever you wanna call it is a much more natural collaboration with Diplomat associate Hell Rell over an epic piano based beat. Competent material at best again but it’s a welcome relief from the uncomfortable train wreck of the last track. Things dip back down again for Gangsta Shit though. I can’t remember who first made the statement, but I don’t think there’s ever been a GOOD track with the title Gangsta shit. The name radiates generic west coast boredom and that’s exactly what’s delivered here even if interestingly loud kick drums and Juelz’ rapping save it from a total failure. Lil Boy Fresh is far more interesting as Juelz tells a third person crime story that’s not quite Kool G Rap or Ghostface but its well done and interesting if only because of the spoken outro explaining the moral of the story. Damn America is twisted.

We’re at the album’s half way point. If you can’t tell by the amount of words I typed, it’s fucking long. He really should have trimmed it down.

Good Times is a token back in the days reminiscing track but it’s a good one. Freaky is a token club track but it’s a bad one. Juelz is much better at the kind of simple honesty on the former than the booty motivating toasting required for the later. Nothing will prepare you for Murda Murda though: 3 months after Damian Marley’s Welcome to Jamrock hit airwaves Juelz flips it as a sonically dense G-funk anthem to death. Much of Dipset’s appeal has always been in their militant gang imagery from their appropriation of terrorist and political titles (Diplomat, Taliban, The Senate) to their color coded garb. This song is an example of that machismo at work and you’ll either be fascinated or disgusted with the results.  Jamrock was one of the more threatening songs to hit commercial radio in recent times but this dub version hits another level by the time Juelz is done and Cam’ron enters with his banana-fana-rama style silliness. And by silliness I mean scariness: the man somehow manages to make 5th grade nursery rhymes sound like satan.

Gone repeats the storytelling motif from Lil Boy Fresh in enough detail that I won’t break it all down here, but suffice to say it’s well written and backed by a slamming beat. Unfortunately, you know the drill and what comes up must come down with Kid is Back and Changes; the first being a terrible attempt to remake Juelz’ kiddy anthem S.A.N.T.A.N.A and the later being  a bearable if sappy R&B track explaining that Juelz has a kid and he has to eat. The words are nice, but the beat just robs them of any relevance. I Am Crack brings the album back full circle with a Rumble Young Man Rumble like boast fest.

But the album just goes on.

The Whistle Song is more terrible minimalism that makes one beg for Clockwork again. Violence is interesting in its specific endorsement (seriously) of well…umm…violence and Daddy is a tender look at how Juelz is coping with fatherhood: an incredibly honest song that highlights Juelz’s endearing clumsiness with words. There’s also the smash hit Mic Check tacked on sans naughty words at the end but you know it by now and I’m tired of writing.

Juelz Santana is the bastard child of Rakim era NYC crack dealing 5% lyricism and Scarface/2Pac style emotional cries for help with a dash of southern bounce thrown in for good measure. This makes for a lot of interesting tracks ranging from damn near emo moments to purely aesthetic murder tracks, but it also makes for a mixed bag when he overreaches or spreads himself too thin. Obviously purchasing his own studio has afforded Juelz the ability to take his time and labor over his music and while the album feels a whole lot more personal than the kid’s debut, its still not the kind of polished success that he’s capable of and a little A&Ring could help him immensely. Of course, Dipset isn’t known for listening to label execs (specially not one S dot Carter) so that won’t happen, but I’ll continue hoping for the best. In the meanwhile, there’s at least a few moments on this 22 track CD that’s bound to have anyone remotely open-minded going Wow…this is really…different.

Vanguard thuggin.

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