The Game of Eightball

Suave House/Universal

Eightball might not be a kinder, gentler reality rapper, but he certainly is more easygoing. Of course that's assuming "reality" rap still exists. Just as "alternative" rock was destined to lose its cachet as soon it acquired a specific label ("alternative") and imagery (Eddie Vedder on the cover of Time), the reality of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G.'s murders was a bit too "real" for many "reality" rap fans to handle. The record-buying masses--who are capable of transforming a regional and/or cult act into platinum-plus product--generally regard the nigga-bitch-gat crews the way they would panthers in a zoo: Their menacing power is awesome to behold when properly confined, but for god's sake don't let them run free in just anybody's neighborhood.

Right now Eightball is one of the hottest exhibits on display, primarily because he's a nonthreatening, but still credible, commodity. He's already ascended to the top five on Billboard's rap, R&B, and pop charts with his double CD Lost, and he's been officially sanctioned by the hip-hop media. Only followers of English rock are as fickle, and by extension, prone to the Pavlovian din of the media buzz as rap fans. In that sense the four-mic review accorded Lost in the latest issue of that rap bible, The Source, is even more commercially potent than a rave for a Bristol quintet in the pages of NME. It also doesn't hurt that the rotund, black rapper has no geographical allegiance in the East-West war that engulfed 'Pac and Biggie, a neutrality made plain on the cover of Lost, which depicts Eightball leaning against his ride beneath an intersection of arrows pointing north, south, east, and west.

Like that other reality rapper currently looming large, New Orleans's Master P, Eightball hails from the South, in his case the relatively small (by rap standards) city of Memphis, Tennessee, nestled within a rural corner between Arkansas and Mississippi. More than once on the album, the Lord and religion are invoked without irony as a source of strength. And this sense of "Southernness" is all but imbedded in the record's grooves. Compared to urban, coastal manners, black Southern culture has often manifested a more laconic temperament, an attitude historically reinforced by the climate and the Klan. You hear it in Eightball's smooth, rolling flow; it makes sense that he and his crew are hooked up with the Tony Draper production group known as Suave House.

Confident enough not to assail us with his ample skills, Eightball almost always implies that there's plenty of time and room to roam. Lost justifies its two-CD length (there's also a bonus disc of cameos, mostly by other Suave House artists) with a pace and internal logic best suited to a broad canvas and a long ride--a far cry from rap's origins as a frenetic, singles-oriented music. Most of Eightball's rhymes are simple couplets that employ inventive yet straightforward wordplay. When he wants to turn up the heat, he goes to his boy MJG, or one of the many guest stars (including Busta Rhymes and Redman from the East, Goodie Mob and Master P from the South, and Spice 1 and E-40 from the West).

Just as Eightball occupies a common ground among his divergent crew of guests, he does a pretty fair job of reconciling his live-and-let-live attitude with the verities of the reality-rap genre. Accounts of drug dealing are offered without apology or braggadocio ("Can't you see/The way we live/The world wouldn't exist/Without gangsta shit," he raps on "If I Die"). Yet while there is plenty of violent imagery on Lost, Eightball often declares his microphone skills as his real means for mayhem (à la KRS-One).

The music on Lost leans toward a mixture of Southern and West Coast funky hip hop, with ethereal Tubular Bells-like keyboards frequently dangling above the bumpin' bass lines. As with the lyrics, the tunes bleed together and seep into your consciousness, gradually separating with repeated listening. What stands out first are the narratives, which have always been as integral to rap as hooky melodies are to pop. "Time," the best track on either CD, benefits from a gorgeous cinematic soundscape and recounts a tale of three high school classmates, concluding with one trying to rob another while the third sits in prison. "My Homeboy's Girlfriend" captures the guilt and mixed emotions of sleeping with a good friend's lover. "Pure Uncut" is a posse track with Master P that adds a Rahsaan Roland Kirk-ian horn train to the aforementioned tubular keyboard lines, and Busta Rhymes kicks in a typically bent and hilarious screed on the necessity of money, titled, what else, "Get Money."

There are swirling Marvin Gaye samples and throw-down party jams. And even if this two-hour tour involves a handful of clunkers, they'll in no way disrupt your traveler's reveries. If you're looking for an easier way to get where you're going, get Lost.

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