A People’s History of Hip-Hop: Scarface-Old Joy

Abe Beame is back. It’s been said that sorrow is nothing but worn out joy. If so, this is the thin line Brad Jordan that has walked for over a decade. Sadness is often overlooked in...
By    November 18, 2010


Abe Beame is back.

It’s been said that sorrow is nothing but worn out joy. If so, this is the thin line Brad Jordan that has walked for over a decade. Sadness is often overlooked in analysis’s of rap’s history. Granted, its becoming increasingly relevant in contemporary hip-hop, with frequent hang-wringing over the perils of fame, but Scarface expresses an entirely different type of melancholy. Like rap’s Dennis Wise, Scarface has dialed back the nihilism he once gleefully promoted, to examine life in the afterglow of the money, sex and the violent hustle. Few can rival Scarface’s anger and cruelty throughout his 90s work (and even occasionally now), but there are none who have reflected as thoughtfully on the consequences of their actions.

Is Scarface the greatest rapper of all time? If we’re checking resumes and not just handing it to Biggie on raw ability, there are only a few who can compete. Over 20 years, Brad Jordan has 11 solo albums to his name and one mixtape. There are no weak contributions to speak of. Impact? Scarface was a rapper from Houston before rap existed in the South (relax, I know) and the idea of someone trying to rap outside of New York or California got you laughed at. Before being a Corporate Rapper was cool, he ran Def Jam South. Many contemporary Southern artists  contain Scarface’s deranged fury or grizzled sadness, particularly Devin The Dude, (when he’s out of bud and has a reflective moment), Z-Ro and Trae (who have Scarface’s co-sign as well as his genetic makeup–I find Z-Ro’s cover of “Never Seen a Man Cry” particularly instructive).

When you take a cursory look at the Geto Boys’s body of work, it should theoretically be dismissible. Starting with the name, the group was the equivalent of a CB4-like boy band. They were a thrown together collection of misfits rapping over production eerily reminiscent of N.W.A, fronted by a midget who sounded suspiciously like Eric Wright. Yeton their best early work, the Geto Boys brought a twisted maniacal glee to Ice Cube’s politically-charged gangster rap. But that was just the beginning.

It’s a stretch to call Scarface’s catalogue schizophrenic, but in his post-millennial albums there is a clear dichotomy. There’s Brad Jordan, the weary veteran of the streets, morose and filled with regret — still full of the violence and menace that made him the proto-gangster on classics such as The Diary. Aside from The Fix and possibly Emeritus, there is rarely a thematic cohesion to his records. Still, sifting through Scarface’s prolific output of the last ten years, you might find a handful of bad beats (production is usually handled by Scarface and longtime collaborators Mike Dean, N.O. Joe, Mr. Lee and Tone Capone). Even when he reverts to the snarling Scarface of his youth, there’s a dignity to the way he frames his threats. His warnings amount to the promise that he will defend himself at all, telling opponents to stay in their respective lanes or else. His brand of hustler feels like something from another era: Don Corleone or even one of Kurosawa’s samurais. A man of principled violence who cherishes omerta above all other things (See: Emeritus’ “Unexpected”).

But the Scarface I’ve come to appreciate the most (more than what many consider the legend of gangsta rap he was) is the world-weary husk of a man he’s become. In this mode, there’s little left but regret for the past and dismay at the world he’s had to endure. Scarface always sounded old, but he’s come to sound positively ancient. He raps in a quivering register that appears to be on the verge of bursting into tears of rage, filled with resignation and loss. When he’s in story-teller mode there are few better: tales of house fires and lost love take on an almost biblical quality in his tired hands. His “love” songs give us portraits of desperate, immoral, uncouth whores (“Only Your Mother”). He’s even better when he’s reflective, examining a failed government or school system (“The N Word”) and the lost generation that’s succeeded him.

Still pioneering at age 40, the untouchable one has a new album around the corner. In Third Coast, Roni Sarig suggests that Speakerboxx/Love Below was the first Adult Contemporary Hip Hop album. I find that album, with Big Boi’s stripper talk and braggadocio with a dash of introspection (he’s recently perfected) and Andre’s bizarro failed experimentalism, fairly juvenile in comparison to Scarface at his best. In the last decade, rap’s brilliant uncle found moments to discuss the pain and sorrow found when the crowd dies down and the lights dim.

Being the last man standing isn’t a badge of honor, but a hell on Earth. Trapped in a room full of ghosts, Scarface shows us his battle scars without pride,. Yet on what was arguably his biggest song this decade, Scarface gives us one tiny moment of reprieve. “On my Block” gives “Be Real Black for Me” a tempo and Scarface takes a moment to smile. He looks back on the terrible history. The 70s, the 80s, the kids encased in concrete, then concrete and iron –the chalk outlines, the crack smoke, the gun smoke, the heart ache, and finds solidarity with the comrades who suffered through it all with him. He says “It’s like the world don’t exist/we stay confined to this small little section we livin in/On my block, I wouldn’t trade it for the world cause I love these little boys and girls, born and raised on my block.” And it’s moments like these, taking a step away from the darkness we’ve been sold so fervently over the last 20 years, that love for the life he’s lived, the warmth and compassion for the lost ones, is the root of his profound depression which lies just below the surface of his music. That makes for Brad Jordan’s beautiful struggle.

ZIP: Scarface-“A People’s History’s ‘Best of Scarface in the ’00s” (Left-Click)


1. The Fix
2. Recognise
3. Beanie Sigel- Mom Praying
4. Z-Ro- Man Cry
5. Can’t Get Right (ft. Bilal)
6. Rick Ross- Dear Lord
7. The N Word
8. Geto Boys- Leanin On You
9. In Cold Blood (G-Unit Remix)
10. Soldier Story (ft. The Product & Z-Ro)

11. Only Your Mother (ft. Devin The Dude)
12. Safe
13. Sorry for What
14. Unexpected (ft. Wacko)
15. Jay-Z- This Can’t be Life (ft. Beanie Sigel)
16. The Suicide Note
17. Geto Boys- I Tried
18. The Ghetto Report (ft. B. James & Monk Kaza)
19. Make Your Peace
20. On My Block
21. Fixed

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