Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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On July 14 and July 21, four major New York hip hop debuts hit the stores--Noreaga's N.O.R.E. The Album on Penalty and John Forté's Poly Sci on Ruffhouse/Columbia one Tuesday, Cam'ron's Confessions of Fire on Untertainment/Epic and Sunz of Man's Sunz of Man: The Last Shall Be First on Red Ant the next. All deserved the respect their distinct command of hip hop aesthetics gunned for, and all were guaranteed to chart, too. But this didn't mean any of them was foreordained to kick in as high or hold on as long as Big Punisher's Capital Punishment, which bum-rushed SoundScan at No. 5 in May and climbed 18-15 in its ninth week, much less Sandpaperr the Shocker, a/k/a DMX, who debuted at No. 1 a few weeks later. Nor was it likely that any of them would end up as crucial as hotly anticipated back-to-school releases by fellow New Yorkers Canibus and Fat Joe. And thus it was also unlikely that they'd attract serious notice from anybody outside the enormous yet insular hip hop domain.

At some level this disregard is plainly unjust--fearful, ignorant, structurally racist. The boom in New York hip hop deserves recognition for the renaissance it is. For years, generations of older locals--Flash and Run, PE and BDP, Tribe and De La, Nas and Jeru--struggled to make themselves heard against how-low-can-you-go Cali dogma, which was where the money went after New York's domination of the expanding rap market ended around 1990. And although this crusade, which needless to say was more materialistic than idealistic, fell short on the charts, young hip hop fans here kept listening, and kept networking too. Sure they boomed The Chronic out their systems, but insofar as they had musical aspirations, which given the constraints on other forms of advancement many thousands did, they continued to relate to the neighborhood crews and production infrastructures they had some way of getting to. Add RZA and Puffy, innovators well-equipped to prime the pump when G-funk ran dry, and a flood of young talent was ready to stream through the sluice. Add RZA and Puffy, innovators well-equipped to prime the pump when G-funk ran dry, and a flood of young talent was ready to stream through the sluice.

If none of these great pretenders would think of dropping a release sans pop hooks, they're all true New York beatnuts--not one of them trucks with simplistic L.A. G-funk or N.O. bump. Their music is varied both internally--moving from street-corner Earth, Wind & Fire to Asiatic plectra like the Wu Tang-associated Sunz of Man, from Mase to DMX like Biggie protege Cam'ron--and in its individual vocal and sonic signatures, with current trends that include chanted live choruses and melodic hooks that stray far from well-tempered scales and timbres. And because they insist on tracks that are spare and/or strange, there isn't an album here that won't make your ears perk up.

Beyond this formal hallmark, however, it's tough to generalize about them. They span several high-turnover hip hop generations--Noreaga and Cam'ron say they're 20, while the Sunz, John Forté, and Big Pun are clearly older. They're notably pan-African as well: Forté Trinidadian, Pun Puerto Rican, Noreaga half African American and half Puerto Rican ("most people call me a mutt," he rhymes). But as far as their bios are concerned none of them grew up even middle class, which may be, although Forté did a Phillips Exeter bid and Noreaga's Lefrak City turf is equal parts Strong Island and Queensbridge no matter how much prison time he served. And while only tough-talking Noreaga and trash-talking Cam'ron exploit the tired lie that equates ghetto with street with crime, every one of them name-checks the thug life, if not as autobiographical boast-confession then as tale-spinning metaphor--a distinction that, like all rappers, they obscure on principle.

A decade or more after Criminal Minded and Straight Outta Compton, the gangsta metaphor has become inescapable in hip hop, and not for exclusively terrible reasons. Because dealing is a made-to-order career path for enterprising adolescents dead-ended by Reagonomic indifference and neoliberal arrogance, the many hip hoppers who've never hustled dope themselves know and respect loads of people who have. And the suspect rationalization that violence is as American as apple pie feeds off a cultural fact that predated murder ballads and pervaded the male adolescent music known as rock and roll long before "Rapper's Delight." So when Big Punisher announces right off the bat, "I'm calling out any rapper that I doubt/Smack him in the mouth, throw him in the [???] boom, then I knock him out," or when the Sunz of Man shake their javelin up in your abdomen, they're just making sure you don't look at them funny. Indeed, beyond music the signal triumph of this New York hip hop is the way it respects gangsta ghettocentricity without stooping to the dehumanizing exhibitionism flogged by Suge Knight and Master P. Thus, the clearest way to explain what these young artists are about is to lay out their positions on crime.

Noreaga, temporarily minus his still imprisoned collaborator Capone, is the only gangster: "Sold drugs wasn't proud about it/That's just what I gotta do." He's got principles--"Never blaze when we see babies," that's something--and I believe he craves "The Change." But I don't trust his rationalization that "Everybody's a thug, you heard, you just do it in different ways," and pray that his investment advisors steer him toward something clean, like Libyan oil wells. Cam'ron reports he turned pimp after Giuliani ruined the drug game, but he'll say anything for a laugh: "make your brother eat your mother out," like that, and he's good enough at it--whining pitifully when Death pays a call, extracting a mush-mouthed rap from his moms--that you grant him his grain of salt.

Beyond those two, things lighten up. Big Pun wants "to live a life of glamour like my man Tony Montana" and says he's "broken every law" ("You know the deal, we steal from the rich and keep it"), but he's too into breath control to rhyme much about it--the great moment of the true-crime "Twinz" comes when he enunciates "then in the middle of Little Italy little did we know that we riddled to middlemen that didn't do diddly" in five seconds flat, hold the caesuras. "Trying to free our minds of all the drugs and crime," the Afrocentric Sunz of Man explore a world of "drug dealers who used to be pyramid builders." "Can't you see my love even though we be with thugs?" they implore, and more than with other sons of the Wu I can--while wishing they didn't believe the double-edged legend that "real Jews was black" or swear to "run these devils off my motherfucking land." And over on the respectable end, John Forté slickly but also credibly balances a more distanced love-hate for the ghetto by showcasing his Nutzbaby crew ("We all shine as individuals, ex-criminals") while coming down on street pathology: "Fuck being hard/Niggas died out my window."

I'm not privileging negativity here--these artists are genuinely obsessed with escaping the so-called street. No matter how trapped they really are or aren't (and for sure even Forté and former ball phenom Cam'ron weren't what you'd call advantaged), this is a theme hip hop is charged with working out. Having said that, I'm not encouraged that Noreaga's resolution hit the charts at No. 3 while Forté's was down at 84. And if the niche provides artistic focus and food for thought, it's also a burden--the main reason the taste police can't bear the verbal torrents and musical acrobatics of this renaissance. Inner-city breakdown is every American's problem (and responsibility), but most citizens prefer not to look it in the face, while the violence-prone white male adolescents in hip hop's domain would prefer Noreaga to John Forté even if Forté mustered as much heart.

Which is to say that even Noreaga, who I like least (and who will probably blow up biggest of the five), has not just talents but moral attractions. Only the Sunz of Man, who despite their mystagogy win my heart by popping up RZA and sidestepping Wu sexism, score a complete winner this time out: Forté's too suave and lite, Pun too into his dick, Cam'ron too big a ho. But taken as a whole, this single outburst of music is enough to give a fella an embarrassing case of civic pride. And there's plenty more on the way.

Village Voice, Aug. 4, 1998