Pete Tosiello taught Trey Anastasio how to play guitar.
Being a Bone Thugs fan is like rooting for a sports franchise gone to seed under squabbling second generation ownership. It’s to accept and excuse prolonged mediocrity. There are countless solo albums and side projects comprised of endlessly recycled hooks and verses. So much recorded material falls into the hands of tiny labels and rogue engineers that even the group members themselves can hardly distinguish official releases from illegitimate ones. Online message boards crop in which thousands of users assess mixtapes by barely affiliated acts and speculate as to who Layzie Bone was dissing on some forgotten non-album track. There are concerts where ticket holders can never be sure which of the Thugs will show up. There’s Wish Bone, the hapless, rhythmically illiterate fifth wheel, who just seems happy to be there.
Why do we keep coming back when history suggests we’ll be disappointed? The answer is complex and beyond the scope of this review, but I suspect it’s similar to the one that would be given by fans of Kiss, Phish, and Wu-Tang. In the rare event that they’re firing on all cylinders, there’s nothing like the Ouija-playing, THC-addicted, apocalypse-heralding Wasteland Warriors from Cleveland. Fans get out what they put in, and the soap opera is part of the appeal.
A case in point is “Hold On To Ya Soul,” a six-and-a-half minute epic reminiscent of Bone’s turn-of-the-century dramatic peak and the opening track on Krayzie Bone’s new solo offering Chasing the Devil. It’s the same end-of-the-world nonsense he’s been reheating for two decades, but it’s introspective, inspirational, and musical. It’s spiritual without being preachy.
Chasing the Devil is the first Krayzie Bone album in over a decade, but he’s sated hungry fans with a few years worth of Z-Ro impersonations on the Fixtape series. If not the most purely talented Thug, he’s easily the most versatile, a capable singer and the most technically astute rapper and lyricist of the quintet. He carries a solo album far better than Bizzy Bone, who’s given to red-eyed pulpit ramblings. To say nothing of the Brothers Howse, Layzie Bone and Flesh-N-Bone, who are perfectly competent but not as compelling. Krayzie’s best solo album is probably 2001’s Thug on da Line, but by far my favorite is Thug Mentality 1999, a wondrously bloated double LP featuring everyone from Snoop Dogg to Mariah Carey to Big Pun. (Fun fact! Did you know Krayzie Bone is the only rapper to appear on record with Biggie, Pac, Eazy, and Pun?)
Chasing the Devil is a weird assembly of songs about moralism and resisting temptation. One of the most interesting things about Krayzie was always that even when he rapped about home invasions and drive-by shootings there was a sense that he just might be a good guy beneath it all — unlike, say, Flesh-N-Bone, who regularly pulls assault rifles on his neighbors. Krayzie can be vulnerable without begging for commiseration, unlike the tragically scarred Bizzy Bone.
Unfortunately, where the mature, reflective Kray should be compelling, he’s rather boring. I hate to say it, but when he’s not addressing heartfelt ballads to marijuana or rapping about killing people, he comes off as severely depleted.
The album’s first two acts are forgettable save for “Hold On To Ya Soul” and the emphatic “Like Fire,” which itself is indistinguishable from 2006’s “Fire” which appeared on Thug Stories, the first of two Bone albums featuring a three man lineup. The production is too sparse and while Krayzie’s triple-time flows and textured vocals are impressive, they’re nothing new for him.
Happily, Chasing the Devil is saved by its final twenty minutes, beginning with “Send Me an Angel” and “What If,” both wholehearted pieces of introspection with fantastic if subdued production (ed. note: this all depends how much you like Skrillex and The Scorpions). Bizzy shines in his guest spot on “Brand New Everything,” and “Ride for Me” is a weighty and meditative closer, the song which best synthesizes the album’s themes.
There’s no reason for the layperson to stray beyond the canonical Bone Thugs-N-Harmony group discography. Now in their forties, Krayzie, Layzie, Bizzy, Wish, and Flesh are still largely unstable overgrown teenagers (at least half of them were victims of severe, documented child abuse). But they’re never quite the cartoon characters they appear at first glance.
Jadakiss’s problem is the opposite of the one facing the Bone Thugs. By most accounts, he’s one of New York’s more important rappers. He was a Ruff Ryder and a Bad Boy, appeared on Life After Death and Ja Rule’s “New York,” and has been consistently relevant for nearly two decades. Yet outside of mixtapes and D-Block stuff, his solo releases are few and far between, and each wears its age visibly.
For all his significance, Jada’s always been something of a blue collar hometown favorite. Nas is more ponderous, Jigga is less grouchy, Ja and Fifty are more musical, Prodigy and AZ are more articulate, Ghost and Rae are funnier. That he titled his new record Top 5 Dead or Alive is a little much even for folks squarely in his corner. In 2004, he rapped on “New York,” “I’m not cocky, I’m confident, so when you tell me I’m the best, that’s a compliment.” It’s hard to imagine his face chiseled on any rap Mount Rushmore save for a Mount Lox-more with his old pals Styles P and Sheek Louch.
Like Sadat X was to Grand Puba and Lord Jamar, Jada was the glue that bridged Styles’s smooth professionalism with Sheek, who kind of just yells at you impressively. Jada and Styles were both rap A-listers for the 106 & Park generation—Styles at least had “Good Times” and “Locked Up.” Styles has aged with surprising grace. He quietly releases a workmanlike album every year or so, is capable of self-awareness and self-parody, and owns a chain of juice shops. Despite Def Jam’s misdirected efforts no one’s ever cared about Sheek, who apparently just released Silverback Gorilla 2, a sequel to his biggest album which no one cared about.
T5DOA would have been a huge album in 2008. It’s filled with collaborations and features Diddy, Akon, Weezy, Jeezy, Ne-Yo, and Nas. There are lukewarm, dated-sounding productions from Ty Fyffe, Swizz Beatz, and Just Blaze. But all the stars lend the effect of a Jadakiss benefit gala. Is there a chance a rapper as accomplished as he can’t carry an album?
Jada is essentially himself here. There’s a lot of grumbling and mean-mugging, not any more or less than he produced as a young rapper. His appeal is that he’s always maintained close touch with the streets and doesn’t ever feel the need to glamorize. He’s never been a kingpin or a street philosopher pining for an escape, and he’s never worn suits or jewelry. He looks like a giant baby and has the worst name in rap.
The best track on the album’s first half is “Kill,” a Bangladesh-produced Lil Wayne duet. It’s Jada at his most violent and energetic, but Wayne spoils the party with another slew of horrific post-Carter III punchlines. “Man in the Mirror,” one of two songs on the album without a guest, is surprisingly effective as Jada reflects on his past wrongdoings. T5DOA would have benefited from a lot more of that.
“Synergy” featuring Styles is a throwback to the Ruff Ryders-era Lox sound thanks to Just Blaze’s swirling violins. The Jeezy collab “Critical” and “Realest in the Game” with Sheek and Young Buck are decent, but “Confetti” and “Cutlass” are woeful stabs at club tracks.
Jada’s fate may be that of Busta Rhymes, Fat Joe, and Noreaga, rappers more well-known for their fame and personae than their bodies of work. That’s not a bad thing—they’re appreciated regardless of their actual output. But to be remembered for more than his cackle, Jada needs an album that’s as big and good as he is. T5DOA isn’t memorable, but saddest of all is that Jada’s performance isn’t either.