As more and more former B-boys and B-girls find jobs in hip-hop outside of the spotlight — as label heads, video directors, stylists, journalists — a trend is making itself apparent: The jobs with the shortest tenure are the most visible ones. Nearly everyone in hip-hop, from hot young mogul Puffy Combs to me, should outlast the rappers themselves. That’s because of the Hip-hop Slide.
The Slide is the probability that after an aesthetically influential, attention-grabbing debut album, each successive release will decrease in quality and receive less attention. Unlike in jazz or rock, where artists often follow highly revered debuts with ongoing careers and wide explorations of their potential, in hip-hop the debut album is too often a career zenith.
Sliders include East Coasters Brand Nubian, Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth, Das EFX and Poor Righteous Teachers; West Coasters Digital Underground, Paris and Cypress Hill; old schoolers Eric B. and Rakim, Big Daddy Kane and Slick Rick; and new schoolers Arrested Development. The Slide doesn’t always work itself out nicely: De La Soul have produced better albums with each release — concluding with their much-overlooked masterpiece, Bubloone Mindstate (1993) — but received less attention for each one. And some hip-hop giants may not have slid straight down, but after classic first, second and/or third albums, Jungle Brothers, Ice Cube, LL Cool J and Public Enemy have, in the past few years, released product far inferior to the work that first distinguished them.
The Slide can be blamed, in part, on artists’ losing their connection with the street and satisfying the hunger that drove them as hopefuls with something to prove. But the nature of hip-hop carries an extra hurdle: Once your album comes out, your style — that is, all your vocal and musical innovations — is absorbed by artists and fans. In hip-hop it’s always essential to make it new and very hard to renew the rush of first sonic love.
This is especially true because of the heavy pressure hip-hop puts on an MC’s voice. Even among those who can flow, there are few with a God-given vocal quality that is compelling enough to allow more than short-term success as an MC. Unlike fans’ reactions to their favorite rock and pop singers, the vocal familiarity of rappers often breeds contempt and boredom in the hip-hop community. That’s why Black Sheep suddenly seem like a marriage that has run its course.
In 1991 rapper Dres and producer Mista Lawnge burst out with A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing and two large hits: “Flavor of the Month” and “The Choice Is Yours.” Non-Fiction shows that Lawnge has matured as he laces tracks with interesting musical ideas like combining sharp percussion and high-note piano on “Let’s Get Cozy” or letting an antique-sounding piano dominate “Summa tha Time.” Though Dres is a good rhymer, he isn’t worthy: His voice has neither the authority nor the cool to hold the ears Lawnge is tickling. A few years ago, while Black Sheep’s singles were hot, we got a large dose of Dres’ voice. That seems to have been enough.
With Dare Iz a Darkside, Redman, too, shows he has hardly grown since introducing the heavy funk style that characterized Whut? Thee Album. Despite a handful of good songs, Dare often drags and seems largely a regurgitation. The album’s first single, “Rockafella,” samples Leon Haywood’s “I Want’a Do Something Freaky to You” and George Clinton’s “Flashlight,” two of the most sampled songs in hip-hop. Redman also remixes “Tonight’s da Night” and gives us a second version of “A Day of Sooperman Lover,” but the entire album is like a Whut? Thee Album redux as he mindlessly plugs in to the funked-out formula that got him paid last time.
Of course, some hip-hoppers defy the Slide. A Tribe Called Quest, Gang Starr and Dr. Dre have all, over measurable careers, influenced their peers and succeeded commercially. Now add Chicago’s Common Sense to the list of anti-Sliders.
Common’s first album (Can I Borrow a Dollar?, 1992) passed by with little notice, but his sophomore effort, Resurrection, has won the attention of serious hip-hop fans — some of whom have even called it a classic. Like a poor man’s Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth, Common flows over finely detailed, jazz-informed tracks, rhyming about hip-hop history (“I Used to Love H.E.R.”), hanging out (“Nuthin’ to Do”) and himself (“Thisisme”). For the album’s last song, Common passes the mike to his father for free-form talk on Chicago, basketball and peace. The song’s raw honesty, tempered emotionality and heavy familial overtone make it seem like another take on the idea of Rock and Smooth’s “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.),” as well as a beautiful way to salute your father.
Whether or not Resurrection is a classic will be decided in the future, but for now it’s indisputable that Common Sense has succeeded in creating that rare thing: a solid hardcore hip-hop album. Hardcore not for the verbal body count but for the confluence of phat beats, smooth flows and dope rhymes. Resurrection belongs among the best recent hardcore albums: Illmatic, by Nas, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), by Wu-Tang Clan, and Ready to Die, by the Notorious B.I.G. Of course, by this time next year, even those three may have joined the list of hip-hoppers on the Slide.