Soldiers of Fortune
Like so many anti-social punks that have come before him--from Iggy to Ice Cube--New Orleans hustler Percy Miller had a dream: to invent the ugliest music imaginable. Christening himself Master P, he planned to devise a virulent, no-budget strain of bargain-basement hip hop that finally granted detractors the grunting, slobbering, crotch-grabbing sociopaths and the tinny, drum-machine drone they'd been vilifying in absentia for two decades.
Yet P's ineptitude thwarted his ambition; try as he might, he couldn't descend below common mediocrity to reach the truly exhilarating depths of bad taste. Luke Campbell he wasn't. Undaunted, our hero revised his vision slightly. If he couldn't create the absolute worst music, why, then he would simply release more bad music than any other hack in the history of mass-marketed banality.
Nothing succeeds like excess, and with all quality control eliminated and production sped up to wartime rates, Master P's No Limit label (bolstered by EMI's enabling distribution) released a slew of stunningly successful albums, beginning with P's own late-'97 smash, Ghetto D. In just over a year, its bankroll and roster have ballooned to incorporate enough interchangeable "No Limit soldiers" to guard Fort Knox. No Limit's travel and real estate divisions are in full bloom, the Miller-owned 'Bout It jeans are on the racks, and the label is up to two releases a month, each increasingly more profitable than the classic Cali gangsta tracks they've jacked and supersized.
The latest comes from Silkk the Shocker, who (not counting Cali refugee Snoop Dogg) stands as the label's flagship G, following the boss's "retirement" from the solo game last year. (P, who reportedly earned $56.5 million in 1998, has spent recent months playing backup guard for the CBA's Fort Wayne Fury and is now trying out for the Charlotte Hornets.) On 1998's Charge It 2 Da Game, Silkk the Shocker seemed like your standard-issue gangsta: He glamorized dealing; threatened his foes; pleased his hos, and tallied his assets. But as it turned out, Silkk wasn't just any bloodthirsty, money-hungry thug. He was a bloodthirsty, money-hungry thug determined to explain what made him that way, and his just-out Made Man offers the muddled street-corner sociology to prove it, all drawled in a manipulative sob that that he hopes will elicit empathy.
Ever since Ice Cube first glimpsed reality through the crosshairs of a gat, cultural studies apologists have spouted a one-note justification of the gangsta epistemology: Ghetto-spawned homicidal insanity, so prevalent theory goes, is an implicit critique of economically institutionalized racism. Like all half-truths, this one is most convincing when you don't explicate it too thoroughly--a proposition apparently lost on Silkk. Our mutual friend the Shocker wonders if classy chicks can "get serious wit'...somebody like me," while melodramatic piano flourishes tinkle in the distance. He muses on the difficulties of staying true to your ho. He ponders the fragility of life to the tune of the Commodores' "Easy (Like Sunday Morning)." And he surmises, "Any man that hustle 'cause he like to, he's a fool/Any man that hustle 'cause he got to feed his family, that's a real man." So where does that leave a man that keeps rapping about hustling after making it out of the hood? Guess he's just a self-determined businessman.
Made Man is at its most listenable when it trades in such heavy thoughts for heavy beats. The No Limit production crew, Beats By the Pound (how's that for truth in advertising?), have honed their clutzy signature sound--a compulsive metronomic high-hat augmented by a few off-kilter keyboard twitters and desultory bass pumps--to a boisterous kind of minimalism. And, unsurprisingly, Made Man works when Silkk is abetted by the one No Limit MC capable of terrifying the producers into beefing up their assault, a deranged, homicidal, deep-throated bellow that goes by the name Mystikal.
Anyone committed to charting the vagaries of popular music must have faith that the many profitable lapses in mass taste inflicted upon them will eventually yield some vital contribution to our collective culture. Mystikal is that belief made flesh. Possessed by the sheer joy of unchecked hatred, he transforms "Microphone check, check one, check two" into a declaration of war. "I'm the round out the tank," he boasts on the lead cut off his third album, Ghetto Fabulous. The line perfectly typifies his explosive aesthetic.
Too often, No Limit soldiers live up to the metaphor suggested by the diamond-encrusted tank that serves as their logo: Sheer blunt force will ensure victory. But Mystikal is a full-out assault, spewing lyrical shrapnel and lobbing nonsense and wit with equally giddy imprecision. Mystikal takes the world as a personal affront, and he splutters with a rage he never once pauses to justify.
Not that Mystikal shuns biographical detail. On 1997's Unpredictable, he bitterly eulogized his murdered sister. On Ghetto Fabulous, he tells of how he was kicked out of school, and complains about the "tight-ass pants" he was forced to wear in ROTC. But the Mother's Day card "Life Ain't Cool" from the same album is a study in contrast. Producer P cribs diligently from old Tupac tracks. Guest star Silkk's voice drops to the obligatory sob. In between, Mystikal drops a few notes of genuine filial affection--amazingly, without altering his belligerent bark.
In other words, though he comes off like a force of nature, Mystikal eventually reveals a variety of human dimensions, including an expansive and absurd sense of humor that adds gaudy color to his cartoonish persona. Though he isn't as self-consciously buffoonish as duet-mate Busta Rhymes (Myst's line, "Mystikal to Busta Rhymes like Dolemite to Red Foxx," excepted). He's capable of interrupting an intense rant about how he escaped from a burning building with the zany "I can't see! I'm blind! Oh, fuck, I'm all right. I just had my eyes closed the whole time. Oops."
Noise annoys, I know, but I wouldn't deprecate the pleasure P's fans take in his senselessly groaned "uhhh"s, caveman grunts as playfully defiant as an armpit fart from the back row of the classroom. But it's more challenging to transform one's beloved squall into an expression of something that can be mistaken for liberation. Mystikal has done that for three albums now, each an improvement on the last. He's almost enough to make the most unregenerate Bolshevik believe that some invisible hand can indeed pluck artistry out of the maw of commerce.
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