As Tupac Shakur originally imagined it, "Thug Life" represented a bicoastal alliance of grimy street hustlers, ghetto signifiers, and underground beat-slingers, to be united via the "One Nation" project, which sadly never materialized before his death. Still, thug life survives, even if it has become a cheap marketing tool used to sell ghetto culture to sheltered suburbanites looking for the authentic "thug" experience without the threat of actual gunplay.
Thus, Thug Nation.
Imagine a modern-day K-Tel album, but on the thug rap tip -- complete with doo-rags, Timberlands, and plenty of blingin' ice. How else to explain Thug Nation? Indie label Razor & Tie's new CD comp imagines itself as 2004's answer to the cheesy pop and rock best-of collections of the past, with a marketing thrust aimed squarely at suburbia, not to mention anyone else who missed out on hip-hop's urban domination of pop culture in the last decade.
This target audience might explain why Thug Nation opens its borders to include such hardly threatening, SoundScan-climbing hits as Craig Mack's "Flava in Your Ear," Da Brat's "Funkdafied," Naughty by Nature's "Hip Hop Hooray," and Busta Rhymes' "Woo-Hah!! Got You All in Check." Woo-hah, indeed. Those particular songs may be now-forgotten party jams from the seemingly long-ago '90s, but there's nothing explicitly "thug" about them, especially in the post-50 Cent era. Nobody gets shot, no illicit narcotics transactions are conducted, and the artists generally seem to be having fun. "Flava in Your Ear" and "Funkdafied" particularly are far too safe-sounding to qualify as thug anthems, even in retrospect.
Compounding this misappropriation of the thug manifesto even further is Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, who display far more harmony than anything else on "Tha Crossroads," a tune so catchy it broke sales records previously held by the Beatles, foreshadowing the pop harmonies and vaguely hip-hoppish beats of the boy-band era. And meanwhile, Mobb Deep's "Survival of the Fittest" is heartless, violent, and utterly mesmerizing, but if you're going to choose a song by the QB duo to represent the thug contingent, why not pick "Shook Ones, Pt.2," which ranks with M.O.P.'s "Ante Up" as the illest chain-snatcher anthem of all time?
Aspiring hoodlums, don't despair. There are, in fact, several authentically grimy thug-approved knocks on Thug Nation, such as Noreaga's "Superthug (What, What)," which easily makes the Thug Rap Top Five of all time. Nore's so-ghetto-it-doesn't-matter-what-the-fuck-he's-saying style is equaled only by Ol' Dirty Bastard, whose "Got Your Money" (featuring a chorus by Kelis, of "Milkshake" fame) also makes the cut. Both songs, coincidentally, are products of the Neptunes' hitmaking factory, which sort of undermines their thug nature while imbuing them with a long-lasting tangy flavor, kinda like a Now & Later.
Yet lest Close 2 tha Edge be accused of hatin', let it be said that the inclusion of Rappin 4-Tay's sublime 1994 classic "Playaz Club" very nearly makes up for Thug Nation's various slights. You don't hear this one on the radio too much anymore, which is a shame, because the Fillmore Street legend still sounds more chill than champagne on ice.
But it's easy to argue that the thug nation itself has long since moved on since 4-Tay's glory days. Thug Nation is woefully dated -- the oldest song, Ice-T's "New Jack Hustler," goes back to the halcyon days of the first Bush administration. Similarly, the Luniz' "I Got 5 on It" is classic, but it ain't no new millennium thug shiznit. Even worse, the album offers up nonthuggin' radio versions of every single track; the cumulative effect of all those censored bleeps is like trying to hoo-ride in a Geo Metro with your girlfriend's uptight Mormon uncle as chaperone.
The Thug Nation audience, along with those too lazy to Google for their favorite rhymes, are no doubt the primary market for the book Hip-Hop & Rap: Complete Lyrics to 175 Songs. Unfortunately, other than a too-brief preface by OG Bay Area scribe Spence D, there's no context given for these lyrics, though they are presented in alphabetical order. Even more disappointingly, the songs included seem to be selected by a random computer program: After C-Murder's "Ride" is "Romeo & Juliet" by Sylk-E-Fine (who?!?), and "Ruffneck" by MC Lyte.
Thankfully, though, the tome deciphers ODB's "Got Your Money," but the lyrics make even less sense on the printed page: "Now you can call me Dirty and then lift off your skirt/And if you want some of this, God, make ol' Dirty Dirt bust your ass/Stop annoying me, yeah, I play my music loud."
As Joeski Love would say, "Huh? What?"
Those still lacking proper role models in their quest for ghetto fabulousness will look no further than Straight from the Projects, a new DVD series that presents gangsta rappers hanging out in their indigenous habitats. This Cribs-on-crack production features luminaries like C-Murder repping his 'hood: 3rd Ward, New Orleans. According to the DVD's back cover blurb, "Seeing the neighborhood through C-Murder's eyes, following in his footsteps, is the only way to know the truth in his music."
Truthfully, C-Murder lived up to his name by getting convicted of homicide (for which he is currently serving a life sentence), and the video does offer a rarely seen glimpse of ghetto life in the Big Easy. Kevin Epps, however, did the 'hood documentary thing far more poignantly in Straight Outta Hunters Point, although for some, watching C-Murder attend house parties in the infamous Calliope projects might prove a guilty pleasure impossible to resist.
After the Neptunes' Pharrell Williams played Ringo Starr in the Grammys' Fab Four tribute (alongside Vince Gill, Sting, and Dave Matthews), it really shouldn't surprise anyone that black urban culture is being spoon-fed to middle America like creamed peas to a baby. It's now possible to experience the inner city from the comfort of your living room, without ever having to set foot in Section 8 housing. In other words, if you can't come to the 'hood, the 'hood will come to you.
But is this a good thing? Not really. Commodifying the pain and suffering of the underclass is nothing new, and though it's easy to see why inner-city life might seem fascinating to suburban youth, Straight from the Projects does nothing to change the base inequalities of the system that created C-Murder and made him a star (and now a prison statistic) -- much as Girls Gone Wild doesn't exactly advance the women's movement.
The irony of mass-produced thug life is that no matter how much African Americans try to transcend the ghetto, white America is co-opting it even faster without giving anything back (unless you count Eminem and Haystak). The result of all this cultural crossover might well be a nation of wiggas, roaming the wicked "streets" of the mall with cultural authenticity that amounts to little more than a fashion statement. That ain't thuggin'; that's just sad.
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