Prince Paul: A Prince Among Thieves

Prince Paul
A Prince Among Thieves
Tommy Boy

Consider this masterful hip hopera the very least Paul Huston owes us. Prince Paul's dubious legacy to the hip-hop nation, the skit, began innocently enough with the producer interspersing cryptic in-jokes and whacked-out scatology between the tracks on De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising. Little did he know that creatively challenged MCs, desperate to fill their 74 minutes of digital space, would use the skit to unleash countless approximations of humor unworthy of a BET stand-up routine, until this most egregious of segues became the most reliably tedious album filler since the drum solo.

For his revenge, Paul's 1996 segue satire, Psychoanalysis (What Is It?), dug elbow-deep into the pulp clichés of hip-hop "reality" that have accumulated in his wake over the past decade. On A Prince Among Thieves, he digs even deeper. Sort of a Tommy by way of Big Baby Jesus, this improbably weird story-record follows the fate of Tariq (Breezly Brewin), a would-be ghetto superstar who needs to scrape up a grand to finish his demo before an imminent appointment with the Wu. Enter Tariq's erstwhile mentor, True (Big Sha), a slick never-was who offers Tariq a hustling stint, sets him up, and cashes in on his tape. After True survives the inevitable, climactic shootout, the wily vet releases "A Prince Among Thieves," a sanctimonious "eulogy" for Tariq that reduces the story we've all just heard to the sort of one-dimensional farewell to a dead homie that currently clogs urban playlists.

Throughout these convoluted but tightly controlled narrative twists, Paul's characters drift between performance and exposition, song and speech, rapping and street dozens. But it's the wicked glee Paul takes in boiling his unwitting guests down to their stereotypical essence that sticks with you after you know how the tale ends. Great white hope Everlast is all too convincing as a crooked cop who growls streetwise slurs while boasting that the police force is "the most organized crime in Manhattan." Intergalactic pornographer Kool Keith (a.k.a. Dr. Octagon) appears as Crazy Lou, the gun supplier discharged from the Marines for "sexual misconduct with a deadly weapon." And Chubb Rock, playing underworld kingpin Mr. Large, declares "www.i'" while Biz Markie splutters beatbox support. Finally, there's Big Daddy Kane, turning in the performance of his career as pimp supreme Count Mackula, who intones, "If you got 36 prostitutes and 30 cents in your pocket, what do you got? Proof that hos come a dime a dozen" over a sinuous Willie Mitchell rhythm track.

Every character is a target of ridicule, including Tariq, a dreamy sloth who dryly narrates his ordeal with a put-on naiveté you can almost hear Paul chuckling at; with each turn for the worse, the kid laments, "My moms and my girl are gonna flip on me." He's so clueless a protagonist, he arouses little sympathy, and this distance allows Paul to employ, but never endorse, the heavy-handed moralistic clichés that the tale of a good-boy-gone-bad generates. If anyone high-minded enough to take Prince Paul seriously were to examine this album, they'd call him a nihilist. In fact, he's just an absurdist, immersing hopelessly flawed characters in a scenario so destructive that only a saint could rise above it, and so baffling only a fool would want it to make sense.

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