Monday, September 28, 2015

album review: 'deeply rooted' by scarface

I've said before it's hard to talk about legends, artists with careers that span decades and have made history in their respective genres. But you know when it becomes the hardest? I'll tell you - when you invest the hours of work to go through an entire lengthy discography of one of these legends... and realize most of it wasn't all that great.

And yeah, I'm talking about Scarface, member of the Geto Boys and legend of Houston hip-hop. On his own, the man has put out around a dozen albums of material and I went through every single one of them, including the double albums. And when I started, I was excited - Scarface throughout the first half of the 90s may not have seemed to do much outside of the gangsta rap formula, but he brought personality, strong wordplay, and a selection of pretty damn solid old school funk and soul to his beats, and I'll still hold that his album The Diary is damn close to a classic, taking the depression that has crept through all of his work to underscore his bleak insight. But going beyond that, there's a gap of about ten years where the albums were mixed to say the least. Quite frankly, there's only so many places Scarface could take his brand of gangsta rap, and it got repetitive in a hurry. Coupled with an influx of weaker guest stars and production that could be hit-and-miss, and you're left with a lot of filler, enough so that I understand why despite his longevity and his presence in the underground as a figure of southern hip-hop, his name doesn't always come up. Really, consistent quality only began to return by records like Made or Emeritus- after the latter of which Scarface announced that he was retiring. And really, I was okay with this- go out on a high note, nothing wrong with that.

And that's why the announcement of a new record threw me off-guard, and you have to wonder what it was that pulled Scarface out of a solid eight years of retirement that was only really split by a mixtape in 2010, one of the closest things to a significant departure in from hip-hop that wasn't caused by prison or drug addiction or death. But to be fair, the guest verses I've heard from Scarface over the past decade have been solid, especially when he worked with Freddie Gibbs on Pinata, so did Scarface come back with something worth caring about?

Well, he came back with a Scarface album, for better or for worse. To some extent, you get what you always expect from the guy on his 'comeback' record and while it definitely is solid, I'd argue it's not really great. And the frustrating thing is that it's not one big factor that prevents this record from being among the star-making comeback releases but a scattered pile of nuisances that I'm surprised were never really addressed earlier and led to me not quite liking this record as much as I wanted, like with Pinata last year.

But let's start with the one element that works consistently well and does reflect a high standard of quality: Scarface himself. The guy has a voice for hard-edged gangsta rap that's expressive and commanding and capable of grit, yet also versatile enough to show emotive complexity when you start digging into the darker moments on this album. And while there are moments that go for more of a modern sound, Scarface doesn't force himself to conform to any choppy trap flows or anything that would initially make it look like he's fighting for relevance - he's been in the game so long, he's long been confident of his place in hip-hop. And that place is of the deeply depressed, occasionally suicidal gangsta who has simply been through so much hell that the lighter moments on this album are viewed as moments of respite. And while there are more lines than I'd like about his flagrant disregard towards women - including in the middle of the gospel-inspired 'All Bad' to completely break the tone and the album lowpoint of 'Anything' - this record does take enough time to delve into Scarface's broken relationships on 'Keep It Moving' and 'Voices' to add a surprisingly vulnerable context to the damaged man on the microphone - the hardest gutpunch of this album is when the facade cracks on the latter track and Scarface says in a disbelieving tone 'I think I finally failed at something'.

But those are only the first humanizing moments, because Scarface doesn't shy away from the storytelling that used to be the rule in gangsta rap rather than the exception, from the crooked arrest on 'The Hot Seat' that includes prison rape, to the blacked-out suicidal horror of 'Steer' to the stark loss of religion on 'God', where he goes high concept to examine what he would do if he took that role, if it's even a role to fill. And while I don't love the majority of the hooks on this album - more on this in a bit - John Legend absolutely kills this plea to see proof of God's existence with the sort of gravitas Hopsin wished he could have brought to 'Ill Mind 7'. And on the topic of guests, I'd be remiss to mention the two guest verses on 'Do What I Do', first from Rick Ross who actually isn't bad and brings a decent level of detail... until Nas sweeps in and steals the entire track. Hell, between this and his verse on Fashawn's 'Something To Believe In', maybe a new Nas project might be worth it in the future. But really, you come to a Scarface record looking for bloody takedowns of enemies and snitches, vivid imagery, and a nihilistic view of life on the streets that comes with Scarface knowing he's damned already, and he delivers. The closest thing to modern he comes is on the more trap-inspired banger of 'Dope Man Pushin', but beyond that there's 'Rooted', the extremely hard hitting 'No Problems', and unfortunately the low point of 'Fuck You Too', which could have worked if it wasn't for the casual homophobia and a diss to Lil Wayne that frankly came out of nowhere and honestly feels about two years late. And calling him a nerd? No disrespect, but if we're looking for rappers who play in that set in the modern age, there are far easier targets than Lil Wayne's borderline has-been current status. 

But look, with all of what I mentioned, you'd think this would easily fall among Scarface's best records, right? Well, here's where we run into a big issue I did not expect for this album: instrumentation, production, and hooks. Despite the ominous pianos of the intro and outro or some of the organ hits and rougher beats that call back to soul, this record really doesn't have that soulful texture or feel in the beats and synths - they feel shockingly clean and polished, with barely any grit to cultivate a darker atmosphere. There are moments that get close - the washed out bass against the organs and keys on 'Rooted', the old-school shimmering cascade of 'The Hot Seat', the more funky bass against the slightly sharper cymbals of 'Anything', the wheedle of the guitars on 'Do What I Do' - but for some reason Scarface tries to embrace more electronic tendencies and they feel only a shade less clumsy as when Eminem does it with hard rock. 'Steer' started with some decent blurry melancholic tones before the symphonic vocals started clashing with the choppy, thin waves of electronics, and 'Voices' had a good acoustic line before more symphonic vocals were brought for a hook that really overwhelmed the song, and not in a good way. That's the other thing: Scarface brought in a slew of R&B and hip-hop singers to handle the hooks, and while John Legend and Cee-Lo do fine and Papa Reu does shockingly good on his two features, the rest are not nearly as soulful or textured as a record likes this needs to maintain a darker atmosphere, the worst probably coming from Rich Andruws on 'Anything' or Avant on 'Keep It Moving'. And look, I get Scarface wanting to keep up instrumentally with the times, he's always aimed to do that - and hell, both 'Dope Man Pushin' and 'No Problems' show his rougher tones can work against harsher, more abrasive production... but when you counter it with the far cleaner gospel of 'All Bad' or 'God' or the more symphonic moments, it feels like this album is reaching for bombast while neglecting the finer details and grit. Hell, if there was a record screaming for a feature from Aloe Blacc or even the gospel-inspired post-punk and noise Algiers - and incidentally, it's only a matter of time before that group gets either sampled or contributes production to hip-hop, mark my words - it's this one.

So in the end, I went into this album and indeed Scarface's entire discography looking to find some killer gangsta rap... and while I will say Deeply Rooted probably does fit pretty close to the upper end of the scale for Scarface records, I really wanted to love this album more than I do. I'm not saying it's bad - as a project, it does have moments of soul and emotional impact, and Scarface has a way with imagery that does stick in the brain... it's just a shame that everyone else around him can't quite rise to that level and makes me wish that Madlib and Scarface could team up like Madlib did with Freddie Gibbs. But for this, it's a solid 7/10 and a recommendation, especially if you're a Scarface fan. If not, it's some solid gangsta rap from an old G, and at the end of the day, you've got to respect that.

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