Born-Again Gangstaz

There are two periods in the history of hip-hop that fascinate me.  The first is the period in the late ’70s where various musical and cultural influences came together in the Bronx to create the stuff.  I read today (on Wikipedia, so take it with a grain of salt) that the New York blackout of ’77 hastened the spread of hip-hop from the Bronx because of all the looting:  kids who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford the equipment were able to boost turntables, microphones, and other gear that let them start running their own street parties.  It’s a fascinating theory, even if there isn’t any proof.

The second is the shift that happened right around the time I started forming my adult musical taste, when the mainstream of hip-hop went from pop-rap (MC Hammer, LL Cool J, Young MC) to hardcore.  Suddenly the hit rap songs I was hearing about were songs my radio station wouldn’t play.  I don’t think “Nuthin’ but a G Thang” ever made it onto WCFX-FM in Mt. Pleasant.  (Maybe it hit the local college station.)  This was only a couple of years after Nirvana slaughtered Poison.  Suddenly, all music was hardcore.

I said I was preparing a post about why I thought Bo$$’s Born Gangstaz was such a good album.  In my brain, that post assumed dissertation status.  It involved a short history of Lichelle “Boss” Laws’s career, including her #1 rap single, “Deeper”; a breakdown of her potent rhythmic and rhyming skills; an exploration of her inversions of hip-hop’s gender tropes; a section on her use of violence as myth and reality; and a chapter on the function of her sidekick, Irene “Dee” Moore, who compared to Boss is more acutely psychotic and also more immature–Vader to Boss’s Sidious.  This is weighty stuff for a one-hit-wonder’s not-quite-gold album that in 47 minutes features 280 F-bombs, many of them on the final proper track:  “I Don’t Give a Fuck.”

I’m too lazy to write it, so I’ll get to the point:  Born Gangstaz is such a great album because it both embodies that seismic shift in hip-hop and comments on it.  Because despite Boss and Dee’s repeatedly insisting that “that’s the way the shit really is, G,” that this is “how I live,” Laws puts the lie to it herself with the intro and outro:  answering-machine messages from her parents, who object to the snippet of “I Don’t Give a Fuck” that serves as her greeting and explain exactly why.  Turns out Laws, who poses on the album art with guns a-plenty and guns down friend and foe alike over the course of 12 of the hardest raps ever, spent 12 years in Catholic school, took tap-dance lessons, and even went to college for three years.  In short:  she’s faking it.

Laws was eventually outed as a fake by that renowned bastion of street cred, the Wall Street Journal.  How exactly you out someone who’s already outed herself, I don’t know, but suddenly Boss dropped off the radar.  Born Gangstaz sold almost 400,000 copies, but her follow-up was rejected by her record label.  Read the story here for more details.

Boss is the hardest rapper I’ve ever heard.  “Catch a Bad One” ranks up there with Black Fork’s “Silicone Wetnurse” and Babes in Toyland’s “Handsome and Gretel” (obviously I’m taking a broad definition of “punk” here).  But she’s not keeping it real at all.  It’s all fake.  And when she tells you it’s all fake, she also turns her street narrative into American myth.  There are as many references on Born Gangstaz to paranoia and mental disturbance as there are to killing people or smoking chronic.  It seems entirely possible that all the murder happens only in Boss’s head–especially because, in real life, it really was all in Boss’s head.

That’s not to say there’s no reality here.  “A Blind Date with Boss” is a revenge fantasy about men who don’t give Boss and Dee their due respect, but it follows “Recipe of a Hoe,” which is a riot-grrrl-esque criticism of the sexual politics of the rap industry.  “1-800-Body-Bags” is a skit that implicates not only black gangbangers and gangsta rappers for street violence, but also the white-run entertainment industry for encouraging the thug image and profiting off it.  And as to why Boss might want to display that image, listen to her father’s comment on the outro:  “By the way, baby, thanks for the Rolex.”

There’s also the myth, which comes from the origin stories Dee drops on “Catch a Bad One,” “Born Gangsta,” and “Diary of a Mad Bitch” and Boss’s own tales of hustling, violence, and paranoia.  This is the story of American outlaws.  One of the album’s skits is even called “Thelma & Louise.”  Boss is the gunwoman, Dee the getaway driver, and not even a squad of cops can stop them.  And finally, the relentless hardness of the raps puts the album over the top into satire.  No one could be as ruthless, as violent, as unremorseful as Boss is.  She’s parodying the image of a hardcore rapper by turning it up to eleven.  She has to, since she’s faking it–she can’t allow her credentials to be questioned for a second.  But she also makes it clear that hardcore can easily cross the line into cartoonish, and that you need some depth to make it work.

It’s like she predicted the last ten years of mainstream rap.  Once the hardcore persona becomes a component of the genre, there’s no more space for imagination or criticism.  A lot of the raps and party anthems of the past few years are recycling the tired cliches that Boss was already debunking in 1993.  Maybe I’m giving her too much credit, but even if I am, Born Gangstaz is a spooky, bloody, Kill Bill Vol. 1 of an album that still deserves to be heard.

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