A couple of years ago, I wouldn't have believed I could hear so many "what-whats" on a Rawkus record. But here they are. On show all over the place. "Girls, rub on your titties", "shit on a nigga" ... as a whole "Internal Affairs" is an exact halfway point between the Conscious emcee and the Hot Boy, but it's the emphasis on the latter that is most striking. Even if it wasn't intended an attempt by Rawkus (who, since 1997, have dominated what Simon Reynolds refers to as "undie" and become perceived as keepers of the flame of which Ruff Ryders and Cash Money are feared as the extinguishers) to reach the audience that would normally see them as overtly encoded and historically aware, then it certainly seems like it.
If Rawkus vs. Cash Money is the Stax vs. Motown of 2000 (and the comparison is almost too obvious) then it tells us much about how times have changed. Where the divide seemed once to be merely about the split between a certain "raw", "unfettered" Southern vocal style and the more "sophisticated" Northern urbanity of Motown (and if this is Rawkus's bid for "the streets", then The Temptations' Norman Whitfield-inspired "psychedelic soul" period - "Cloud Nine", "Ball of Confusion" etc. - was Motown's bid for the audience who were increasingly coming to see them as overtly showbiz-aspirational and middlebrow) now it seems to be about two totally different worldviews coming into confrontation, which have wildly differing attitudes to identity, morality, politics and even life itself (this isn't a sentimentalisation of the 60s, just a recognition that it has reached a whole other level of conflict that would have been inconceivable then). "Internal Affairs" is as close as we're likely to come to a reconciliation.
In his thoughts on the current hip-hop divide (http://members.aol.com/blissout/faves99.htm), Simon Reynolds is right to identify "Simon Says (Get The Fuck Up)" especially as Rawkus's bid for "street" impact (pleasing to see that, even in these globalised, standardised, somehow inexpressive times when individual words and phrases, detached from their initial context, simply don't have the wider cultural impact they once did, pop music still thrives on isolated screams of anger / frustration / physical release - "Get the fuck up" or "I hate you so much right now" - to define moments, and encapsulate the release from all bounds of deference and politeness which pop expresses best). And "Simon Says" is one of those rare (so all the more precious) singles that seem to have an incredible impact from the first listen. Just that first "awesome grunge-grind" (in Reynolds's unbeatable description) has you addicted.
As a halfway point between "street" and "undie" (a debate which has also flowered recently in new york london paris munich at http://www.netcomuk.co.uk/~tewing/singlesb.html), I'd actually say this record (at least the first 11 tracks) is a superior example of mind-blowing "outness" in its production values to any of the records Reynolds cites - it's an infinitely more aggressive sound than Mos Def's "Black on Both Sides", which is, effortlessly brilliant as most of it is, held back in places by a certain amount of smokiness, "authenticity" and sonic referencing back to the likes of Otis Redding. Take the Busta Rhymes collaboration "The Next Shit" - there's nothing to it lyrically, it's the sound that counts, beginning, like Johnny and the Hurricanes' "Reveille Rock" (http://www.elidor.freeserve.co.uk/johnny.htm), as a mock-march, and continuing to play with and subvert ideas of "regulation", "order" and "beat" in music. it spends 3 minutes and 20 seconds falling over itself. The shouts in the chorus are removed from most "conventional" ideas of human expression, indeed they're lost. The brutal workout that is "The Next Shit" makes any DMX track you care to mention sound calm and polite.
Then there's the uncontrollable "Rape", with its chorus "They ain't fucking it right, they ain't fucking it right, they ain't fucking it like ... me". Much of this album is made for the feeling that you're riding, in control, the winner, unstoppable, and I've never liked it this much previously. There's "Hell", where Canibus has some of his harshest, most powerful rhymes yet. There's the MOP collaboration "No Mercy", which runs from an elegant flute intro to an assault course of the mind, apocalyptic (that flowing, icy wind of a sample) which never lets up. I've never felt so tempted to sound like Tim Westwood. While "Right Here" overdoes the call-and-response chants and "what what"s, and is lyrically the weakest moment, the bassline is perhaps the most startling production touch on the whole album.
The last three tracks (before the concluding remix of "Simon Says") are more your Conscious conventionality, and very fine they are. "The Light", "God Send" (with Organised Konfusion) and "The Truth" (with Common and Talib Kweli) have gorgeous string samples, better lyrics than anything else here, still the sound I'd choose most of the time. But I think "Rape" and "The Next Shit" are more remarkable, as they have enough, and yet not too much, of the "street" about them to finally have me on that side. Keep at it, Pharoahe. Keep up the intelligent grunting.
Robin Carmody, 9th April 2000
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