by SASHA FRERE-JONES
Rap’s drug obsession.
Issue of 2006-12-25 and 2007-01-01
In September, the magazine W announced that cocaine is again a fashionable vice. In pop music, cocaine never went away. Even if some people cluck disapprovingly, most accept the tendency of pop stars to use drugs—to fuel creativity, calm nerves, and liquidate record-company advances. When Keith Richards fell out of a coconut tree in Fiji last April and injured his head, the incident was greeted by jokes about whether there was much left inside his skull to harm. TV shows like VH1’s “Behind the Music” thrive on stories of musicians on drug binges, snorting lines off recording-studio consoles. This fall, Eric Clapton, who has been sober for years, decided to reinstate “Cocaine,” the louche hit song from his 1977 album “Slowhand,” in his live set.
What is a life-style choice in pop is a livelihood in hip-hop. Almost every m.c. raps about selling cocaine, whether he’s a veteran like Jay-Z, who likes to invoke his stint as a teen-age dealer, or a newcomer like Rick Ross, who built his 2006 début album, “Port of Miami,” around the conceit of being the biggest coke dealer in town. Two hip-hop acts, Clipse and Young Jeezy, rap about dealing more than about anything else, and their music has prompted critics to christen a new subgenre: cocaine rap. Clipse is Gene (Malice) and Terrence (Pusha T) Thornton, a pair of brothers from Virginia, whose brilliantly terse and abrasive second album, “Hell Hath No Fury,” came out last month; Young Jeezy is a twenty-eight-year-old from Atlanta, whose woozy and uneven second album, “The Inspiration,” was released last week. These m.c.s boast of their skill as salesmen, not of their lives as partygoers.
In the early nineties, rappers tried to placate moralists by trotting out set pieces about pitiable crackheads, a gesture about as effective as hanging a “No Smoking” sign outside an office building. Clipse and Young Jeezy don’t bother with cautionary tales, though the Thornton brothers do apologize for their lawlessness on a skipping track called “Momma, I’m So Sorry.” The song is punctuated by whimsical puffs of a chord organ and a reference to the drug-busting detectives from “Miami Vice”: “Momma, I’m so sorry I’m so obnoxious. I don’t fear Tubbs and Crockett.”
Drug dealing is a cryptic presence in cocaine rap, alluded to by dozens of synonyms and euphemisms but rarely by name. Many listeners will grasp the meaning of “snow.” (Young Jeezy’s nickname is the Snowman. When his logo, three stacked spheres, began appearing on high schoolers’ T-shirts last year, anti-drug groups complained and school districts banned the shirts.) But what about “keys” (kilos of cocaine); “trap house” (a place where cocaine is cooked into crack); “fishscale” (uncut cocaine); “triple beam” (a scale used to weigh the drug); “work,” “weight,” and “birds” (terms for parcels of cocaine)? In these songs, bricks, squares, pies, stones, and yams are coke, and the cooking, mixing, and weighing required to prepare the drug for clients becomes the inspiration for often inscrutable wordplay. As the Thorntons rap on a track called “Wamp Wamp,” “Mildewish, I heat it, it turns gluish. It cools to a tight wad; the Pyrex is Jewish. I get paper, it seems I get foolish. Take it to Jacob and play, ‘Which hue’s the bluest?’ ”
Hip-hop has always been driven by an imperative to employ the most vibrant words possible; cocaine rap takes this command to an inventive extreme. Young Jeezy and Clipse want to boast about flouting the law and at the same time protect themselves from potential prosecution. (“Take it out the wrap; then I put it on the scale, but keep that on the low, ’cause I ain’t tryin’ to go to jail,” Young Jeezy raps on the track “Keep It Gangsta.”) The result is complex poetry: songs that simultaneously broadcast and hide their meaning.
Young Jeezy became popular in 2005, eventually selling 1.7 million copies of his major-label début album, “Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101,” according to Nielsen SoundScan. “Go Crazy,” a song with verses about “cooking them o’s”—ounces—was the album’s first single. If you were teaching a high-school English class and looking for examples of metaphor and simile, “Go Crazy” would do nicely. The act of processing uncut cocaine inspires a riff on O-shaped objects: “Like Krispy Kremes, I was cookin’ them o’s. Like horseshoes, I was tossin’ them o’s.” In the chorus, Jeezy sings about making the “dope boys go crazy”; he could be boasting about his music’s effect on his fans, describing competitiveness among drug venders, or resurrecting the eighties meaning of “dope” as slang for “good.”
On “The Inspiration,” Jeezy raps over thick, simple music generated by synthesizers. It’s heavy on strings, and much of it suggests the score of a melodramatic shoot-’em-up in the style of Michael Mann. The songs quote music from the eighties—the title track samples Diana Ross’s “Muscles” (swapping out a consonant to become “hustles,” naturally)—and the album generally reproduces the decade’s aesthetic of grandeur on the cheap.
Establishing criminal bona fides is virtually a required move for a rapper, but the relentlessness of Young Jeezy’s boasts is wearying, and ultimately makes him sound insecure. “I’m the motherfucking realest; they liars, they phonies, they fakes; these niggas ain’t ever touched the weight,” he chants in “The Realest.” His hoarse voice is his most appealing asset. He sings with a charismatic swagger but conveys the impression of being slightly lost and worn out. He stretches words out across several beats, turning light interjections, like “yeah” and “that’s right,” into ominous announcements. The more Jeezy croaks, the more it sounds as though nothing will ever be right in his world.
The Thornton brothers concentrate more on writing arresting couplets than on finding new ways of delivering them. (Pusha T recently told allhiphop.com, a rap Web site, “This rap [today] is very cheap. It’s all about charisma more so than lyricism.”) The brothers’ first hit single, “Grindin’ ” (2002), established them as grave and exacting artists. Technically, the music—which is provided by the Neptunes, an influential pair of pop-music producers—isn’t always music. The harsh drumbeat is punctuated by the sound of what might be a car trunk being slammed, and the only hint of melody is a pinging noise that could be somebody playing a very fast game of Pong. The Thornton brothers rap in forceful monotones, delivering careful, clever lines.
On “Hell Hath No Fury,” there is barely a gratuitous word or noise. The album is only forty-nine minutes long—many rap CDs are seventy minutes—and, like a slap of rubbing alcohol, it is invigorating and impossible to ignore. “Ride Around Shining,” one of the album’s most bracing songs, features a small drum pattern that could have been lifted from an early-eighties rap record, and what sounds like an object being dragged across the exposed strings of a grand piano—as if John Cage had wandered into the studio. “While I’m shoveling the snow, man, call me Frosty,” Pusha T raps.
“Dirty Money” is as close to a summation of cocaine rap as we have. The lyrics, apparently about a drug dealer whose girlfriend is giving him a hard time about his occupation, defends his ill-gotten gain: “Long as I’m nice with the flame and the flask, I don’t mind keeping you up on the must-haves. Peep-toe pumps, Gucci slouch bag—now tell me, is that dirty money really that bad?” It’s not much of a defense, but the lyrics are so playful and unexpected that it hardly matters. The drug dealer in the song is trying not just to reassure his girlfriend but to cook crack and count money, too: “3-D faces on them crisp new billies got Benjy looking all googly-eyed and silly.” We may never know what the Thorntons really think about cocaine’s effect on the world, but we can hear what it does to their words