By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
The life of a hip-hop vet in 2003 isn't much different than the travails of your typical Bushonomics-afflicted job seeker. Résumé notwithstanding, there's no guarantee you won't be eating ramen for months while waiting for that elusive phone call from HR (or A&R). In the meantime, you have to plug away at temp assignments and put aside your future plans just to make rent. Some people call it "selling out"--but those people don't get envelopes with "third notice" stamped on them.
Prince Paul might have seemed set for life in 1999, when his epic classic A Prince Among Thieves made critics and hardcore heads giddy. But Tommy Boy didn't hear a single anywhere in the sprawling conceptual narrative--ergo no promotion, no radio play, no sales. Though the dispute over Thieves' marketing eventually fueled a shocking split between Paul and the label he'd been with since the late '80s, it was simply the latest in a series of frustrations that had befallen his career, from the dismissive "hippie" tag critics hung on his work following his production of De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising, to the unjustly poor reception given to his horrorcore group, Gravediggaz. On his latest release, Politics of the Busine$$ (Razor & Tie), you can hear the smart-assed bitterness he's acquired over those years. This time, the message is stamped in red ink: Fuck This.
As far as I can tell, the Fuck This in question has a wide range of And Fuck You, Toos: label heads, A&Rs, biters, bootleggers, promoters, radio stations, lazy-assed jiffy-beat producers, your mama, flossers, glossers, nagging significant others, critics and, above all else, "hip pop." I'd be tempted to suspect Paul of cranky-old-man-ism if an entire underground hip-hop ethos hadn't already been built on the Fuck This mindset. Still, unlike most members of hip hop's "underground"--a title which might as well mean "never sold crack" nowadays--Paul's retaliation on the majors is a matter not of counterweight, but of mimicry. Vowing to "give the people what they want"--or at least the "people" as defined by Clear Channel Nation--Politics is an exercise in nudge-wink pseudo-kowtowing to the mainstream. There're no Steely Dan samples or obscure funk breaks on this record, just a series of flat, boring, listless, half-assed jiggy-lite loops.
Maybe Prince Paul set out to make pop rap just to prove that he could. But unlike this year's earlier faux-chart pisstake, the Majesticons' Beauty Party, Politics of the Busine$$ doesn't reveal the appeal behind the music it deconstructs. The album's beats are a clumsy approximation of radio-friendly production, delivered like a half-informed retort to circa-1997 "jiggy." No bhangra funk, no chipmunk soul, no Luda-crunk, nothing but Swizz-alikes and, if you squint your ears, something that could be Playskool Dr. Dre. It's baffling that someone who was always been on point with his satire and ahead of his time with his beats can't seem to combine the two talents here.
Granted, it's not for want of co-conspirators that Paul's project falls flat. The guest list is so expansive--Erick Sermon, Masta Ace, Guru, Beatnuts, Kardinal Offishal, Jean Grae, MF Doom, Chuck D and Ice-T (in soundbite cameos), to name about half--that it's a bit easier to see a real groundswell behind the album's No Sell-Outs mantra. But hearing these MCs strain against the suffocating beats is like trying to hear a conversation in a subwoofer-packed Civic: You can vaguely catch Sermon shout about how much he rocks on "Make Room," or Kokane issue complaints about boring braggarts on "So What," but it seems only half-relevant in the presence of Paul's didactic "ain't these beats awful?" harangue. There are some skits, naturally, and these are the moments where the joke actually works: Dave Chapelle's riotous turn as a bottom-line label goon bookends the CD perfectly, and the bit where Paul is accosted by a desperate MC begging him "whatdoIgottadotogetintheGAAAAAME?" stands out as one of the rare peak moments of the album. But so much seems lost in the scuffle--including Dave (of De La) and Truth Enola's compelling love-or-work tug of war on "Drama Queen" and Kardinal Offishal's uptempo verse-rattling on "What I Need"--that Paul's latest effort feels like a '70s all-star disaster film where each role is a walk-on that's quickly interrupted when the ocean liner capsizes and kills everyone.
Problematic as Politics is, I don't want to take anything away from Prince Paul here: The fact that the major label system at large can wreck you before you blink can't be overstated. And Paul claims in his liner notes that spending so much time feigning pop-ness this time around has only inspired him to go even further underground for future projects. Maybe he just needed to get the stress of conformity out of his system, Metal Machine Music style. But even if, to paraphrase Lou Reed, his weak is better than your year, his capabilities extend far past this disappointing mess. That's the real punch line: Politics may be a difficult listen, but it's supposed to be. In a way, the album succeeds through its failure--the fact that it resonates in every way except through the actual music is proof that selling out is still a very real danger. Just think of how irritating this album would be if it weren't a joke.