MP Da Last Don, by Pen & Pixel (1998)
Since I began these podcasts earlier in the summer, people have been asking for a No Limit retrospective which - OK, I guess I've never made any real secret of my love for No Limit records. I initially resisted the obvious impulse, not because I didn't want to do it, but because I knew everybody would love it and I didn't want to empty my holster all at once. But it turned out pretty good and it's got a great response, so chances are good that a sequel may just be in the works. There is no shortage of No Limit material to pull from: this is solely stuff I had sitting around at arm's length, I didn't even dig very deep.
I don't usually make a habit of this, but I have decided to provide some selected annotations for this mix, primarily because you can't really do classic No Limit without some kind of nod to the classic Pen & Pixel covers that so perfectly captured this strange era of hip-hop culture, and it looks nice to have a few words accompanying the images. Also, this will be my last post for the next little bit: those who follow my Twitter already know I'm in the process of moving, and as that absorbs all light and energy in a radius of three light-years, I will be busy for much of August. I might post some stuff here and there, but I wouldn't count on any serious initiatives.
Download the mix at Sharebee and Sendspace.
1. Master P - Da Last Don
Ghetto D is the album that really catapulted No Limit records into high gear, kicking off the "Golden Age" of late 90s post-Tupac gangsta excess. But MP Da Last Don - unbearable title and all - was one step further in the direction of total, unencumbered, absurd excess, decadence and balls-out oddity. There was a time, back before mixtapes and MP3s, back when things like officially released artist albums were a much bigger deal than they are now, when the greatest statement any rapper could make was the double album. Look back through the 90s early 00s and you see records like All Eyez on Me, Life After Death, Wu Tang Forever, The Art of War, Street's Disciple, The Blueprint 2, Speakerboxxx / The Love Below. To a disc these are all bloated, overlong, filled to the rafters with junk best left on the studio floor but shoveled on for the sake of filling space on a massive ego-boosting definitive statement sure to get five mics. (Note: these ego-inflating clearance sales almost never got five mics.) MP Da last Don wasn't just Master P's definitive statement, it was also his supposed final album, his last release before his supposed retirement - a retirement that lasted, all told, eighteen months, between the summer '98 release of MP Da Last Don and the fall '99 drop of Only God Can Judge Me.
But anyway: MP Da Last Don is fucking fantastic. Basically, if Master P and the No Limit Soldiers were already a parody of a parody, this is the album that turns it up to eleven: all the biggest cliches, all the gaudiest guest stars, all the shiniest beats and production, stretched to cinematic proportions. And you know what? It's pretty awesome, and this title track is a great example of why. Master P gutsily and without so much as a single scrap of humility reasserts his intention to be the direct heir of Tupac and Biggie, and in the process carry the standard for crusade to make the world safe for hardcore gangsta rap by railing against The Man, who has tried to suppress hip-hop since the heady days of NWA. It's pretty much straight-up fantasy wish-fulfilment right out of Scarface, aimed straight towards the id of suburban white kids across the country, hordes of whom had never heard of J.R.R. Tolkien but had their own preferred fantasy realm where transgressive minority figures could rail against the constraints of the society that, um, constrained them by having the gall to make them white. Instead of Galadriel they had Mia X. Fuck Billy Corgan - that fourteen year old kid buying MP Da Last Don down at Sam Goody is the real rat in a cage.
2. Fiend - The Rock Show
No Limit has been a punchline for so long that many forget - or perhaps never knew - that the label actually boasted a few good MCs. Although long overshadowed by fellow NL growler Mystikal, Fiend possessed* one of the most distinctive, powerful voices in rap. If his subject matter is occasionally repetitive, he makes up for it in intensity. At his mellowest he's practically screaming, and when he really whips into action he sounds positively unhinged. Incidentally, this track - and this album - is great for playing Mario 64.
* I know Fiend is still alive, and technically should not be spoken of in the past tense. I'm sorry, Fiend.
3. Soulja Slim - From What I Was Told
This right here is one of the greatest album covers of all time. It's ugly as sin, the color scheme is redolent of vomit, it's busier than a Tokyo anthill - and there, right in the center, is the Soulja himself, looking half-asleep and high on methadone, barely conscious. Like, seriously, you're posing for your album cover, maybe you want to look . . . engaged? Perhaps at least cognizant of your surroundings?
But hey, once you put the disc in the player you realize that his sleepy expression is definitely misleading: the Soulja was intense. Unfortunately, we must here speak in the past tense because Soulja Slim was murdered on November 26, 2003, shot three times in the face and once in the chest in front of his mother's house.
4. Mystikal feat. Master P & Silkk The Shocker - Ghetto Child
Speaking of rappers who met unfortunate fates, here's Mystikal. However, it must be said that the only person responsible for Mystikal's misfortune is himself, and he's got the six years in prison for rape and extortion to prove it. He was released from prison in January and is currently hard at work on his first new material in almost a decade. (I believe this is his first post-prison appearance.) Now that he's paid his debt to society, it remains to be seen what he will do in order to try and rebuild his career. Certainly what he did was foul in every possible way - and a sure reminder, if you needed another, that the sexist fantasy world sponsored by gangsta world is deeply disturbing in its inescapable misogyny - but I'm also a believer that once a person has paid his debt to society he deserves the chance to rebuild his life and prove his rehabilitation through his actions. I quite liked Mystikal back in the day and would love to be able to report that he has unambiguously redeemed himself - but we shall see.
5. Master P - Commercial 2
This is just a quick skit, but I'm pretty sure this is one of the first - if not the first - appearance of Lil' Romeo on record. Because of the absolute economy with which No Limit approached every aspect of their production and marketing, their skits were usually much more effective than those on other rappers' albums: most skits suck and beat around some recondite and repetitive point about playa-hatas (they mad because we got game) or dick sucking (don't use your teeth, bitch). But No Limit? These skits get to the point: Master P is straight-up saying he carries a gun because the hatas are after him, and Master P's kid is straight-up asking him if he ever killed a man.
6. TRU - Torcher Chamber
And while we're on the subject - this is a track off TRU's classic TRU 2 The Game double album. (Every TRU album was a double album, because there was just too much talent to be contained on a single plastic disc.) TRU (which stands for The Real Untouchables) was Master P with Silkk the Shocker and C-Murder - otherwise known as Master P and his two less talented brothers. This is a C-Murder solo performance wherein C-Murder discusses all the ways he tortures and kills people. Coincidentally, C-Murder is currently serving a sentence of life without possibility of parole for the 2002 murder of a 16-year old fan named Steve Thomas.
7. Silkk the Shocker - You Know What We Bout Feat. Jay-Z & Master P
I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Silkk the Shocker was probably the worst rapper in the No Limit stable. Barely intelligible, filtered through an incessant echo, screaming like a maniac - proof positive that nepotism is alive and well in New Orleans. But this track is also significant as an example of just how deep Master P's pockets were: P got Jay-Z to rap on his shitty younger brother's album. It doesn't matter that this is pretty much the definition of a perfunctory guest shot, and that in 1999 Jay-Z - while still talented - was nowhere near as magisterial a presence as he would soon become . . . Jay-Z is still Jay-Z, and here he is rapping on Silkk the Shocker's awful, awful album. He was fresh off Reasonable Doubt, In My Lifetime and Hard Knock Life, all in the space of three years. He wasn't yet Jay-Z - I remember thinking at the time that he was pretty much on the level with DMX, and that has turned out to an absolutely spot-on value judgment, because DMX is functionally insane and Jay-Z bought the decommissioned Conchord so he could jet across the pond when Chris Martin needed a fourth for badminton. Still: Jay-Z, slumming.
8. Master P - Let's Get 'Em Feat. Mystikal & Silkk the Shocker
The first cover was recalled almost immediately after release, replaced by the second version in subsequent printings. Gee, I don't have any idea why that would have happened.
Anyway, this track provides a great example of just why Master P was so successful: this is monstrously derivative, repetitive, grotesquely exaggerated - but catchy as all hell. P knew this was a hit because he penned a sequel for MP Da Last Don. (No Limit did a lot of sequel songs.) This also has perhaps my best P line ever: "Tupac and Biggie taught me a lesson, / Don't leave the house without your Smith & Wesson."
9. Master P - Bloody Murder
This is from Master P's second album, way back in 1992. Meaning, if you want to get technical, Master P has been in the game long enough to be counted as legitimately "old school" - his first disc dropped a year earlier. Which means that Master P will be eligible for induction in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in just six years.
Anyway, I love the strict utility of this cover: hey, you know what this record is? It's Mama's Bad Boy by Master P. In this album, you will find Master P himself, lovingly dressed in an Oakland Raiders cap (remember those?) There will be bloody murders and dudes stacked up against the sides of their cars wearing handcuffs. It's BOOMING. And it's got one of those adorable Parental Advisory Stickers from back before they settled on an industry-standard design.
9. TRU - No Limit Soliders
This song presents the listener with an existential quandary wrapped in a rhetorical question: what are you, and how do you prove it? You can state and restate you're ontological status, but if your listener refuses to believe - or remember - then you are stuck in the unenviable and vaguely Kafka-esque position of attempting to convince yourself that you are indeed who you claim to be. In this case, Master P loudly repeats the fact that he is a No Limit Soldier - bitch, he thought he told you. How many times does he have to tell you before it will stick in your head that he is not fucking around? Game time is over, he is a No Limit Soldier, he will ride until the day he dies, and if you forget he will have to tell you again and again, ad infinitum. Bitch, he thought he told you? But who are you really trying to convince, P?
10. Snoop Dogg - Ghetto Symphony (Feat. Mia X, Fiend, C-Murder, Silkk The Shocker, Mystikal And Goldie Loc)
If you weren't around in the late 90s, it might be difficult to convey just how big a deal Snoop Dogg signing with No Limit Records actually was. In some ways it was every bit the epochal, game-changing moment that the deaths of Biggie and Tupac had been. Suge Knight was the bogey man of 90s hip-hop: he feuded with Eazy-E after the dissolution of NWA and the formation of Death Row, he feuded with Dr. Dre after Dre left the Row, he signed Tupac after Tupac got out of prison, he feuded with Puff Daddy and was vaguely incriminated (by the court of public opinion) in the deaths of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G., he even (supposedly) dangled Vanilla Ice out of a hotel window. But by the end of the decade he was a spent force: there was too much money in rap for people to be happy that the fortunes of multi-million dollar companies were essentially being held hostage by vicious thugs. So, you know, rapper rivalries were great for the bottom line until people actually started dying and rappers decamped for real record labels that weren't run by violently paranoid NFL washouts.
By the time Master P rose to prominence, pretty much the only card Knight still held was Snoop Doggy Dogg. Even though it was obvious to everyone that Snoop was no longer happy at the Row, Knight refused to budge on releasing Snoop from his contract - until, that is, Master P offered him a lot of money. From that point on Knight was a paper tiger, and the East Coast / West Coast wars were essentially over - tellingly, the last shot of the long war had been fired from neither coast but from the South.
When Snoop left the Row he dropped the "Doggy" from his name - just like when John Mellencamp dropped the Cougar (although everyone still reflexively says John Cougar Mellencamp, just like I still say Snoop Doggy Dogg because I'm OLD). And almost overnight he morphed into the genial, unambitious entertainer beloved across the planet. If there is one solid lesson learned from the mid-90s hip-hop wars, it was that these brands were worth a lot of money, but that they could be worth even more if they shaved the sharp edges off the music's more conspicuously criminal elements. So now Snoop is essentially the Elton John of rap: an elder statesman and worldwide celebrity who gets by almost solely on the accumulated cred of his first few, brilliant years, even though he hasn't produced anything really great in decades. Snoop can always be counted on for a decent verse and his flow is always compelling, but taken as a whole his career since leaving the Row adds up to a whole lot of the same thing done over and over again for increasingly larger paychecks. This is one of the No Limit roundtable posse tracks that popped up usually one-per on every No Limit album back in the day, and it's one of the best.
11. C-Murder - Lord Help Us
Looking back on No Limit, it is tempting to dismiss the whole enterprise as simply a cynical cash-grab on the part of a ruthless entrepreneur who figured out how to sell simplified gangsta cliches to a wide audience. And certainly there's a lot of that. But coming back to the music with fresh ears, I'm surprised how sincere a lot of it sounds, even despite the heavily derivative subject matter. Just as every No Limit album had at least one label-wide posse track, every album also had a rap power ballad in the mold of Bon Thugs' "Crossroads" or Tupac's "Dear Mama." Extra points if they specifically mention one of the above tracks in the lyrics. (Check: "'Cause at the crossroads ain't no hunger, and every man the same color."
Sure enough, "Lord Help Us" is strictly in the "Crossroads" mold. But given what we know now about how C-Murder's life ended up, it seems almost unbearably poignant to hear him rapping in all sincerity about the sin and pain on the streets, and his own doubts about whether or not he will be able to reform in time to save himself and his family. Usually these stories end on an upshot, with the hero maturing and moving past the cycle of violence. If his story had ended around the turn of the millennium he would have walked off into the sunset, but in real life C-Murder wasn't able to save himself, and now he's in prison until the day he dies. That's a rather harsh corrective for anyone who might be inclined to dismiss the entire genre as simple fantasy.
12. Soulja Slim - Pray For Your Baby
Another track in a similar mold, another dead rapper.
13. Master P - Burbons And Lacs
This is the final track off Ghetto D, and maybe my all-time favorite Master P track. It's built on an incredibly ballsy Marvin Gaye sample - keep in mind the album begins with him biting Eric B & Rakim on the title track, so finishing off with Gaye makes sense. P was never needlessly humble, especially when it came to explicitly placing his music in direct comparison with that of far superior artists. On the surface this sounds like simply another in a long line of Southern hip-hop car rhymes, rapping about how awesome chrome plated spinning rims actually are. But in light of what we've already seen, there's something more here: "the ghetto" isn't just some abstract fantasy setting like the Shire or Mordor, it's a real thing that these rappers are hustling their asses off in order to escape. You need proof? Soulja Slim - murdered; C-Murder, incarcerated for murder; Mystikal, incarcerated for rape and extortion; Kane & Abel, incarcerated for contempt; Mac, incarcerated for manslaughter. A song like "Burbons and Lacs" celebrates crass materialism, yes, but it also captures the sensation of having "made it," however fleeting: if you can come rolling on chrome and candy, you've made some money, you've pulled yourself up.
If you've never been really poor, you are very fortunate - but if you grew up poor, or if you became poor, or if you've been surrounded by poverty, you know how bad it feels to want to escape, to do right and move up in the world. As silly as it seems, the older I get the more this song resonates with me because I've felt that desire myself: everyone wants the chance, just once, to drive through the old block and wave your success in the faces of everyone who didn't believe. It's all the more affecting because, intentionally or no, you know it's fleeting: pretty soon No Limit would fall off the charts, the label would dissolve in acrimony and financial mismanagement. P still made out like a bandit and many affiliated acts ended up feeling definitively shafted as a result. But for one brief, shining moment, hip-hop really was about that old standby, the naked appeal of America's primal Horatio Alger myth of social mobility through hard work. That's this song, and this is that feeling.
14. Master P - Reverse The Game / Eternity
I think that if Master P really had retired in 1998, he might be remembered a bit more fondly today. (OK, maybe not, but I would certainly appreciate the symmetry.) Somehow, his retirement felt appropriate: he had taken No Limit as big as it could get, and anything after "Eternity" could only be an anticlimax. Sure enough, when I saw the first advertisements for Only God Can Judge Me in the Source, I was excited, but my skepticism was essentially correct: the magic had gone. He couldn't top MP Da Last Don because the album, and that entire phase of his career, was untoppable: for a few brief years Master P built a massive music fortune out of nothing much at all but chutzpah and ruthlessness. The scale of his last pre-retirement recordings seems positively cosmic: his outlandish gangsta persona had become so large that he actually seemed to fill the space of his massive ego. He wasn't much of a rapper, but he could always rival Jay-Z and Tupac in the one arena that really counts - his monstrous ego.
Here's to P - God help us if we ever see his like again.
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