Reviews

We tell ourselves stories to survive," Joan Didion once wrote. She could have been remarking on the rise of hip-hop's Big Willie, that felonious, diamond-drenched Versace vision clamping a fat cigar between gold teeth.

Brooklyn, N.Y., rapper Jay-Z and the Brooklyn-Queens conglomerate the Firm - made up of Nas, Foxy Brown, AZ and newcomer Nature - tell Big Willie stories to survive. At their best, these MCs conjure a whole world and shoot it up with all the tragedy and comedy it can hold. But those stories also have a flip side: Often, the rappers' fantastic, blaxploitation-style adventures have all the spirit of an empty film canister.

Such is the promise and letdown of In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 and The Firm - The Album. Both records take Nas' years-old observation "Sometimes this rap game reminds me of the crack game" (sampled on Lifetime's "Rap Game/Crack Game") and blow it up cinemasize. The Firm use a wide-angle lens, loosely following the group as it pulls heists and ducks the heat in a world full of gangstas, guns and ho's. GoodFellas is The Firm's biggest movie inspiration, from the good-times cool of "Firm Fiasco" (which samples the film) to the jig's-up resignation of "I'm Leaving." Dr. Dre produced most of the tracks, providing Nas and company a haunted backdrop filled with longing strings and silky-funk samples that steam like summer asphalt.

In My Lifetime pumps with more raw practicality, bumping with ominous synths, scratches and sweet '70s samples. A highlight is "I Know What Girls Like," which sets the sound of sharpening knives over a "We Will Rock You" backbeat while Jay-Z trades sex notes with Lil' Kim. Where the Firm get theatrical, Jay-Z telescopes, zooming in on the grainy details of his hustler's world. In the midst of the Cristal popping, he lets himself get lost in the ambiguities - the stress of street life and stardom. "If I shoot you, I'm brainless," he raps on "Streets Is Watching." "But if you shoot me, you're famous."

But like the Firm, he's usually locked in an impossible character - just waving his muthafuckin' guns in the air. And then the stories don't sound so much like triumphs of imagination but rather like tired inventories of gangster clichés. (RS 775)

NATASHA STOVALL



 

 

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