Da Game Is to Be Sold, Not to Be Told
By Franklin Soults
When Public Enemy's Chuck D called hip-hop the black CNN, he hit on a metaphor whose meaning could be appreciated by anyone with even a passing interest in rap. And yet so many hard-core hip-hop fans seem not to appreciate a nuance he probably didn't intend back in 1987: that like CNN, hip-hop can't always tell the whole truth, that its reportage is compromised by the complex interplay of street, artist, and industry. At one point even Mista Chuck himself--the medium's most uncompromised commentator--backed away from the equation, confessing that the music too often resembles the Cartoon Network.
Still, the idea that hip-hop speaks for the street must hold at least a modicum of truth. It's certainly no coincidence that gangsta rap came to dominate hip-hop shortly after the crack scourge started devastating America's inner cities, and it's probably no coincidence that only now, as unemployment, crack use, and murder appear to be down in most inner cities, are we finally seeing major developments outside the gangsta fortresses. Whatever the cause, the reemergence of tough, self-reliant, and open-minded hip-hoppers, from the Fugees to Missy Elliott to Puff Daddy, has taken on the force of a movement. Trendspotting media from the Village Voice to Rolling Stone have already given it the obvious tag: the hip-hop renaissance.
By all indications, however, the street also accounts for the rise of a renaissance man who turns the concept on its head--Master P, an independent label owner, record producer, rap star, and filmmaker who has done more to sustain hardcore gangsta rap than anyone since the Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur walked the earth. In just a few short, blurry, bloody years, P has overrun the weakened, feuding lords of the east and west from a direction no one ever expected--the bleak wasteland of the Calliope housing project in New Orleans.
Born there 28 years ago as Percy Miller, this frustrated college-basketball hopeful led a life caught up in "the street game" until he gathered together a small bankroll just big enough to buy a record store outside Oakland, California. (Ten grand came from a malpractice settlement following his grandfather's death; P's coy about whether it took more and if so where it came from.) Today that initial investment has grown into the empire that is No Limit Records, P's Louisiana-based multimedia corporation, which has produced 20-odd albums and three feature-length movies and is conservatively estimated to be worth $100 million. Not only has P vanquished other gangsta-rap contenders, he's become a contender among the big boys: Currently No Limit has ten albums in Billboard's top 200 and six of those are in the top 100. On August 4 the label released the latest album from Snoop Dogg, Da Game Is to Be Sold, Not to Be Told, which debuted at number one.
Yet if this makes Master P the ultimate self-starting entrepreneur, he couldn't have achieved his success without the street behind him. Both the media and the major labels are generally crucial in alerting hip-hop's vast white middle-class fan base to a new player, but Master P achieved early popularity without the support of MTV, radio, or Hollywood, and with no major-label deals except a pressing and distribution contract with Priority that surrenders no stake in the company. Master P's very first feature--the crude, cliched "semi-autobiographical" gangsta vehicle I'm Bout It--went straight to the video stores, yet it's reported to have outgrossed 101 Dalmatians. All of which suggests, however improbably, that P came straight up through word of mouth (and word of print in the rap zines), building on a rep that jumped from ghetto to ghetto across America. And he knows it. As he tells other rappers in the improvised spoken-word fade-out on "Let's Get Em'," a track from his most recent solo album, MP da Last Don: "Y'all fake-ass niggas. Y'all think about it--rappin' for them muthafuckin' white folk. We independent black-owned niggas! Ghetto niggas! Real niggas and bitches unite!"
Released in late spring, Da Last Don marked the opening of what would become the summer of Master P, a period when he raised the stakes one more notch and finally registered on the larger national consciousness. For starters, the double CD was released with a media hook that beat anything Garth Brooks has mustered recently: Master P says it's the last solo project he'll ever make. Since he'll continue to rap on everyone else's records, no one is shedding any tears, but something obviously moved his fans to buy four million copies in the first ten weeks after the release.
More surprising is how Da Last Don raised the artistic bar at No Limit. It may just be that P's busy stable of in-house producers has broken through a creative wall via sheer overexertion. Or perhaps the collectivization into the aptly named production crew Beats by the Pound helped. Whatever the cause, the characteristically numb and tinny No Limit sound suddenly has a fuller bottom, a clearer midrange, and an expanded array of signature tempos. This doesn't quite push Da Last Don past the level of crude competence at which Master P has always functioned--his lugubrious delivery, lunkheaded raps, gratuitous brutality, and embarrassing vocal imitations are as bad as ever, if not worse. But the breakthroughs did set the stage for Snoop's album, which is thoroughly competent and then some.
A few early reports on Da Game Is to Be Sold complained that it was more of a No Limit album than a Snoop Dogg album, but that's giving Snoop Dogg too much credit. On his own, this odd superstar has never managed to be anything but confused and slightly pathetic (check out his last bomb, Tha Doggfather). Only under the guidance of a firm father figure have his nimble yet laconic tone and chillingly casual way with malice taken shape. Back at Death Row Records, they served as the perfect pipe for Snoop's producer and mentor Dr. Dre to pack with his doped-up blaxploitation grooves. And since No Limit has always sounded like a crude, minimalist Death Row, P's production team had to retool its sound only marginally to evoke Snoop's glory days.
The kick comes right from the start with "Snoop World," a catchy smoove groove that forefronts some wah-wah guitar and a descending chime figure in counterpoint to an unusually active bass funking up the 808 drum sound. It's followed swiftly with an "interpolation" of an old Loose Ends song, "Slow Down," refashioned as a brag session with No Limit's only female rapper, Mia X. From there, the 79-minute disc starts spacing the full-bore production numbers every few cuts: there are confident revisions of old hits ("Gin & Juice II" and "Still a G Thang"), a couple of gangbanger love songs ("Show Me Love" and "D.O.G.'s Get Lonely 2"), and some fast-paced work-ups ("Ain't Nut'in Personal" and "See Ya When I Get There," both with Master P playing Tupac, which actually works for once). Occupying the spaces in between are pretty standard No Limit raps, built around hard-chanted choruses and booming beats. None of it digs that hard, but with different guest rappers and a broader than usual variety of rhythm tracks, almost none of it feels like filler, either. And Snoop handles the worst of it almost as well as he does the best, giving dumb tag lines like "I like to hustle and ball" the same knowing spin he would if the line were actually clever.
Yet despite all this impressive effort, the album ultimately fails to excite, or shock, or outrage, or do anything beyond vaguely annoy as it wears down to the 21st track. Cut by cut, it's a winner; as a whole, it's stupefying. Nearly every time Snoop lets out a long "Biiiitch!" he follows it with a smart-ass "trademark," and that's the key: trademarks are not "real" or "street" or anything but signs of commerce, and Master P has never pretended to be anything more than a businessman who buys and sells gangsta. How could there not be something cold and artificial about Snoop's careful return to form? The problem is no longer leering misogyny or indifferent brutality: objectionable as they may be in other contexts, they're just part of the affectless surface noise here. The emptiness is most evident in "Doggz Gonna Get Ya," a cover of Boogie Down Productions' great 1990 single "Love's Gonna Get 'Cha." For the most part, Snoop plays it smooth and detached, with the hint of a sneer, draining the story of any force and turning it from a heartfelt fable about the natural allure and inevitable consequences of gangbanging into another throwaway fantasy peppered with bullets.
This phoniness is what the whole CNN-Cartoon Network debate is about. What P has learned to exploit is that even the most horrible, shocking news, when repeated often enough, turns into a cartoon, a form of surreal entertainment. Since the moral implications of dealing crack cocaine don't seem to bother Master P (check out I'm Bout It to see how he brushes the question aside), there's no reason pushing black-on-black violence and sentimental tough-guy fatalism should either. For him, it's enough that he's "being real," which to him means merely being black and breaking the law. He's created a shady business enterprise with a shadier product and he pushes it as hard as he can. As with every snow job, he calls this giving the people what they want. Funny how the very idea has ended up being as fake as mass entertainment can possibly get.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): portrait/ album cover-uncredited.