Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Lady of Rage's "Necessary Roughness"

Sometimes it feels like hip-hop is a sausage party.  When the G.O.A.T. (greatest of all time to you non-rap nerds) conversation comes up, it is inevitably dominated by male artists.  Rappers, producers, heads of labels - these populations are largely made up of dudes.  In preparation for this post, I asked a friend of mine to name me five female MCs off the top of his head and he was able to do so with ease.  I then asked him to name five female MCs that he actually listened to and he was stumped.  Not to single my pal out here—when I posed the second question to myself, I couldn’t come up with five female rappers that I listen to either and I listen to a lot of rap with a wide variety of styles.  This is not to say that my friend or I have anything against women rappers; personally, I greatly appreciate a talented woman MC and always find it a treat when say, Jean Grae pops up on my iTunes.  This fascination with my own personal lack of exposure to female rappers came to a head last week as I was listening to Tha Dogg Pound (and consequently The Chronic and Doggystyle) and I realized that my favorite songs—quite possibly my favorite verses—were contributed by the Lady of Rage.  I decided to listen to her first and sadly only album, Necessary Roughness, and I’m especially happy that I did.  It now ranks among my favorite hip-hop albums and Lady of Rage is now one of my favorite rappers.

Despite the predominance of males in the genre, there have been a number of notable female hip-hop artists throughout rap history going back to the early days of the artform.  MC Sha-Rock was a member of the Funky Four Plus One More, the first rap group to appear on Saturday Night Live.  Lady B was the first solo female rapper to release a single, 1979’s “To the Beat Y’all” (which is fucking awesome).  In the late 80s/early 90s female acts such as Salt-n-Pepa, MC Lyte, and Queen Latifah each scored hits while closer to the turn of the century Lil Kim, Missy Elliot, and Lauryn Hill achieved commercial and critical acclaim.  Contemporarily, Nicki Minaj has a devoted fanbase and has seen a great deal of cross-over success.  All of these individuals managed to gain respect within the hip-hop community despite bringing doughnuts to the sausage party.

Necessary Roughness was released on Death Row Records in 1997 during the waning years of the label’s dominance over rap.  Lady of Rage had joined Death Row in its infancy and recorded several verses for Dr. Dre’s The Chronic.  She was originally slated to be the second artist to release a record for the label following Dre’s 1992 magnum opus, but saw her own album pushed back in the wake of Snoop Dogg’s popularity following his breakout appearances on the “Deep Cover” single and The Chronic.  Lady of Rage featured on subsequent Death Row releases such as Doggystyle, Dogg Food, and had a single on the Above the Rim soundtrack, “Afro Puffs,” but her own full length solo release was consistently sidelined.

The opening title track marks this album as a major departure from what one would typically expect from a Death Row release.  It is markedly un-gangsta with a sound that is decidedly not g-funk, the hallmark sound of West Coast hip-hop; in fact, the opening song was produced by Easy Mo Bee, easily best known for his work with East Coast artist Notorious B.I.G. on his seminal album Ready to Die.  The production on this track, in fact on the bulk of the album—even on the many songs produced by Dogg Pound member and Death Row in-house producer Daz Dillinger (formerly Dat Nigga Daz)—has a very boom-bap sound most associated with New York artists.  This was an intentional decision as Rage revealed in an interview:  “most of the tracks that I like are East Coast, like I said I like samples, so that’s a East Coast thing.”  In fact, she later goes on to explain that she appeared on a number of Dre-produced tracks (including “Afro Puffs,” her biggest hit and arguably her trademark song) where she was not particularly fond of the music as it had a very West Coast sound.  In addition to Easy Mo Bee, DJ Premier (of Gang Starr fame) and Kenny Parker (Boogie Down Productions member and brother to KRS-One) produced tracks on the album and further cemented the New York sound that is ever present on Rage’s debut.  I personally found this quite surprising as I had assumed prior to researching this post that Rage, due to her presence on Doggystyle and The Chronic, was a native Californian.  A cursory glance at her Wikipedia page revealed that Lady of Rage hails from Virginia and spent time in New York prior to moving to L.A. at the invitation of Dr. Dre to join Death Row and work on his debut album.

Throughout the album Lady of Rage does not seem to be remotely interested in the rivalry between the East and West Coasts that had been raging throughout the 90s and was ostensibly ended just a few months prior to the release of her debut album with the shooting deaths of 2Pac and Biggie.  If anything, in the great hip-hop tradition, she places herself above and beyond all rappers regardless of their origin.  See for example the hook for the third track, “Sho Shot:”  “It’s that sho shot shit I release/MCs from the West and the East get a motherfuckin’ piece/cause it ain’t where ya from it’s where’s ya gat/and the lyrical attack is where my ammo is at.”  Rage has no need for literal gunplay when she can rip you apart with her fierce battle raps regardless of your crew affiliation.

Lady of Rage is a phenomenal and well-rounded rapper.  Not only does her vocal delivery boom over and perfectly complement her beat selection, but her lyrical content and intricate wordplay are extremely masterful.  There were several times that I unconsciously found my jaw on my knees as I tried to follow the pathways of her polysyllabic rhymes such as this bit from “Super Supreme:”  “Now I get sick like chlamydia from here to Syria/drip burnin lyrics like venereal diseases/strategic procedures done at my leisure/more flavor than Khadeija, inject you with my anesthesia/break them down to one cell like an amoeba.”  In the book How to Rap: The Art and Science of the Hip-Hop MC by Paul Edwards, Rage says the following on the subject of lyrical content:  “I don’t wanna hear the same old thing, I wanna hear something that’s gonna blow my mind!  [Did] you put some thought in there, did you take the time, did you really sit down and think about that?  I just like different, thought-provoking stuff—I’m a lyricist, so I like lyrics.  Lyricists and MCs, that’s their main thing—who’s saying the dopest shit, not the simplest shit.”  For further proof of Rage’s skills, please take a moment to listen to the DJ Premier assisted freestyle below.

The album ends on a high note with the epic track “Confessions.”  In it, the listener is privy to Rage’s personal prayers to God where she asks for forgiveness for her transgressions wherein it is implied that she may have sold her soul to the devil.  She further speaks about dealing with depression and self-mutilation since she was a teenager and speaks frankly about the doubts that she has had with her religious conviction.  It’s pretty heavy subject matter backed by an ominous track reminiscent of Snoop’s “Murda Was the Case,” complete with church bells and mentions of demons.  By the way, I want “Murda Was the Case” to play at my funeral.  I just want to be remembered in death by the way that I lived.

The song is only five minutes long, not ten...

So did I enjoy listening to Necessary Roughness and will I listen to it again?  Oh, most definitely.  Sorry, think I spoiled the end to this post in the first paragraph when I said that this was one of my favorite rap albums.

For my next post, I will be doing something a little different.  It will be the beginning of an intermittent series I have dubbed “The Grammys Said I Should Listen to This” in which I will listen to albums that have won the award for “Best Rap Album.”  Some of these records I look forward to (never heard a Naughty by Nature LP or Fugees’ The Score), while others…well, not so much (I’m looking at you Lil Wayne, Puff Daddy, and Drake).  The idea for this series came about as a result of a text message from a friend who recommended the Macklemore album after it won the award this year.  Having heard a few of the singles and being unimpressed, I can say that this is one of the albums that I’m not especially looking forward to hearing.  My friend characterized it as “fun,” “feel good rap,” and “not at all unpleasant.”  We’ll see about that next week when I cover Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s The Heist.

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