'Street' Stories

What is gangsta? Four rappers have different answers.

"The street" isn't what it used to be in hip-hop. Once, it signified a place of action; now it's become a metaphor for a wider playing field. Take 50 Cent, who according to Ebony magazine is responsible for a resurgence in gangsta rap. But unlike N.W.A. or Ice-T, he doesn't bring a sense of drawling menace, race revenge, outrage, or anger, just amoral mechanical hard-thugging quietude; not an explosion of violence, simply its ongoing threat and presence. Over time, those things moved from an arena to be explored to simply being a backdrop. With N.W.A., the violence and thuggery was supposed to shock you; with 50, it's not shocking, and it's not meant to be. 50 cloaks himself in a shadow of the past, a hard-nosed puritan reaction to the shiny material excess of the P. Diddy- Bad Boy Records school and the gloopy sonic overflow of the Murder Inc. camp.

Another place "the street" doesn't mean what it used to was this summer's Joe Budden marketing campaign. Budden may be "the Streets' #1 Draft Pick," as the rapper's deathless promo poster put it, but this isn't the criminal-minded streetjust some corner next to a neighborhood basketball park in Jersey City, where teenagers are checking out the latest jams on a mixtape somebody's cousin picked up in New York. Joe Budden (Def Jam), his debut, is more arena rock than arena raphis big frontloaded beats are more Queen than Queensbridgeand round, silly, simple rhymes spit real slow, with a little accelerando punch at the end of each line. Budden is a third-wave post-Puffy party MC, whether or not a record company "manufactured" him.

He's also pretty confounding. On "Real Life in Rap," he "hates y'all dudes who get real life and rap confused," and insists he only spits what he lives. Then he worries that people try to be harder than they are, then pretends to be harder than he is, then complains that people who say they're hard aren't hard enough. Or try "Fire," a complaint about MCs who rely too heavily on tight production that Budden spits . . . over the hottest beat on the album! (That's OKguest star Busta Rhymes still shows him up.) But beneath the satisfying bounce of the vocal lines, drawn out like a rubber band and snapped upward, Budden's breath control is weak, his syllables run off their beats, and he elongates his words to compensate for the poor meter of his rhymes. Even on the ubiquitous summer single "Pump It Up"whose Just Blaze beat is a perfect showcase for Budden's elastic drawl and staccato flowthere are still awkward breath breaks and pauses, line after line starting the same way, as if he ran out of words and ideas halfway through writing the track.

The sense of moral equivocation and crisis brought by early gangsta rap has settled deeply in the South. David Banner's antiwar anthem "Bush" kicks off with just that sentiment: "Why y'all think we gon' kill and just don't give a hot fuck/Devil that's how you made us, lock us up in the pen/Man we came out blind, that's why we going back in." By the end, Banner has reached an apocalyptic, sexually conflicted epiphany: "God, you my pimp, so let's start exposin' these hos."

On Mississippi: The Album (Universal) Banner emerges with the most trustworthy voice since Snoop, and with assistance from Lil' Flip's goofball boasts, Bone Crusher's howling woof, and J Da Groove's urgent quaver, among others, provides the most distinctive and compelling set of personalities on a hip-hop debut since Wu-Tang Clan's Enter the 36 Chambers a decade ago. Sonically, Mississippi arranges a dialogue between the Jim Crow South and the post-OutKast New South: blues samples riding sipping-on-sizurp slow-crawl crunk on top of '70s electro-funk. But lyrically, the album's overriding theme of sexually violent religious salvation has a lot more in common with the slave-era Old South.

Banner has also released Mississippi: The Chopped and Screwed Album (Universal), remixed by Michael Watts of the Swisha House crew. In some ways, it's even better than the original; dubbed-out, pretty, soothing, it essentially sounds like the same disc with some bits slowed down, mixed over other bits slowed down even moreperfect for late-night listening when your brain is wired at half-speed anyway, or backyard barbecues when you reach your third pitcher. Like Burning Spear's reggae classic Marcus Garvey and its dub-mixed companion, Garvey's Ghost, Banner's two Mississippis are flip sides of the same coinin both cases, the vocal disc's themes (retribution and deliverance) come through more strongly on the remix album's treatments.

Take Mississippi: The Album to a different extreme, and you get the Three 6 Mafia, who are less comfortable and more demanding. While Banner's gangstaisms come from a position of rhetorical strength, Da Unbreakables (Columbia) offers no justification, no mission, and no higher purpose than Three 6's big dicks, big guns, and big carsall the better to kill you with. Their invidious antisocial destructiveness permeates every sample, every beat. "Ridin' Spinners," the lead single, is ostensibly about rims, but it's hard not to hear it as a horrific, absurd allegory; you stop and the wheels don't, obeying some inhuman internal logic and force. The "don't stop" vocal sample is scratched, sped, and suspended, only to resolve in the wrong key while nasty bass pounds out a death-star fanfare below. "You ball 'til you fall/'Til a player aged 90."

On "Put Cha Dick in Her Mouth" these dudes can't even take pleasure in a simple blow job, making the macabre demand, "Give me head 'til I'm dead," over what appears to be the soundtrack from Jason Goes to Hell. Three 6 hate women just about as much as the Taliban, care just about as little for life, and might even share their disdain for "music." Crunchy Black (the one with the simple, harsh rhymes who looks like he's pushing 40) is an active gang member. I'm scared shitless of these guys, but at least they're less idealistic than Al Qaedathey seem a lot more likely to confine their antilife principles to disc.

Seattle's 151 is miles away from Three 6, both literally (Three 6 live in Memphis) and stylistically. Code of Tha Street, on C-BO's proudly independent West Coast Mafia label, is a far more humanistic album than Da Unbreakables. Rightwhat isn't? But on The Mobfather, C-BO himself has neither learned nor forgotten anything since 1994straight, if slightly choppier, G-funk beats; no players, no haters, no bling, pure straight chopping, clocking, hot blocking. On Code of Tha Street, though, 151 has forgotten just enough to make him interesting. In particular, he's forgotten what it means to live or be any other way. On the best tracks, the narrative flow is suffused with a sense of movement and place, zooming in to the slightest actions of a moment, panning out to reflect on the course of his life. From "All Began": "It all began holding my heat/Patrolling my street/I'm saying who move the yea'/ Controlling who eat/Just kick back, rolling, smoking my leaf/Who really want beef/I serve it up/Clips get touched/Niggas get murdered up." "Clips get touched" is as impartial and passive a description of murder as it gets: Nothing is promised, nobody is blamed. Stories with no actors, no victims, just narrators. And as narrators go, 151 is one of the most striking around.

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