Rap needs saviors. The genre lionizes certain individuals beyond artistry and to the point of spectacle, whether it's the dead (Tupac and Biggie); the mad (Ol' Dirty Bastard); the disaffected genius (Dr. Dre); the crossover star (Will Smith and Lauryn Hill); or the Johnny-come-lately ascendant (Nas and Jay-Z). Rap's greatest weakness as a genre, and as a community, is that very same need. Often, in times of artistic void, the hope for the Next Big Thing eclipses any real possibility of it. At these points, certain artists wear the tag with ambition (Canibus, Noreaga), only to find it to be a burden down the road, preventing their career from developing naturally.
This is one of those times. Meet Beanie Sigel, Next Big Thing.
The Philly rapper first appeared on record with hip-hop progressives and fellow City of Brotherly Love natives, the Roots, on a song called "Adrenaline." Up against Roots' MC Black Thought's organic intellectualism, Beanie came off as the hardened thug, savvy about the street corners and quick to react, not think, when the situation called for it. His aesthetic didn't exactly mesh with the Roots, but Jay-Z heard the future in Beanie's words and flow, and quickly signed him to a deal -- even though Beanie had no formal music industry experience, no demo and no finished songs, only a loose collection of mix-tape drops and radio freestyles.
"The Truth," his first record, has been highly anticipated over the past year. Hip-hop magazines have endlessly hyped the arrival with teasers, profiles and advance reviews. Blaze put him on the cover under the cautionary pull quote, "Ain't nothing on my album hearsay." The Source ran an extensive article that overlooked his real name, but included the markings of a major profile like quotes from his mother and recent rumors that his crew had beat down a bootlegger. They also give him the lead review and 4.5 mikes (stars) out of five, a score usually reserved for superstars. Even Rolling Stone got in on the act, also giving Beanie the lead review with an uncharacteristically high (for rap) four out of five stars. It's fulsome praise for a rapper without a major commercial single and whose only regular MTV or radio appearance has come as the lead rapper on Jay-Z's last single. Times is hard.
It's not that Beanie doesn't deserve the accolades. He's a gifted rhymer with a brusque, well-timed flow. His talents are certainly evident on "The Truth." On the first radio single, "Mac Man," Beanie likens the music business to a series of video games. The rhymes flow over the wakka-wakka effect from the original Pac-Man arcade game ("I cop power pellets and y'all call them bricks" and so on). On "Mac and Brad," Beanie tests one of the genre's finest storytellers, Scarface of the Geto Boys -- and makes his partner mold to his style.
On "What Your Life Like," Beanie drops one of the more potent prison reminiscences in recent memory -- "You gotta wash out your drawers same water you shit/You gotta brush, gargle and spit the same water you pissed" -- while on "What a Thug About," he reworks one of his old mix-tape verses in a jiggy style with a dash of humor: "I want everything, not just some of the shit/Got niggas coming home at night, like, 'You son of a bitch!'"
But the most crucial aspect of Beanie's appeal is his flow and his careful rhyme structure. Sounds match at the end of lines as often as in the middle, creating entire sentences and verses that play off similar cadence schemes. Rather than detract from creativity, the redundancy (often, words are repeated within a verse to maintain a theme) adds impact to his delivery. Witness the following verse from "Playa" (and mothers, hide your kids):
"When I step in the club, bitches know my name
I don't do a lot of talking, bitches know my game
I don't gotta buy a lot of drinks, bitches know my aim
[They] lift up skirts, take off shirts
Find babysitters, take off work
Lose their jobs, panties, shoes and bras
Niggas mad at us cause they lose their wives"
It's not sensitive stuff exactly, but it's delivered with uncanny timing and wit. With almost a dozen different producers behind him, he's forced to stretch his style in a variety of directions, almost uniformly successfully. It's those qualities that have endeared him to listeners, even though his corpus is narrow. All great rappers share those qualities, and Beanie's twist is fresh and modern -- hence the Pavlovian media response.
Nevertheless, Beanie's style is an ephemeral thing, particular to this time in hip-hop and therefore dependent on the fickle nature of radio and the pop moment. The real question is whether he can evolve, or use his skills to create a grander personality, one that matches the current buzz. Otherwise, the burden of expectation will force him out of the narrow spotlight, and out with a legion of rap coulda-beens. And that, folks, is the real truth.