Friday, December 7, 2007

beanie you back but with a few misfires

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The Philadelphia rapper Beanie Sigel recorded his last album, 2004's The B.Coming, in the weeks between being sentenced to a federal prison on a gun charge and the beginning of his term. That album was like a rap version of Spike Lee's The 25th Hour, the sound of someone who knew he was headed for hard times. In the almost four years since The B.Coming saw release, Beanie served 10 months in federal prison and was acquitted of an attempted murder charge that would've sent him away for a whole lot longer. He was shot twice during a botched robbery attempt. His stepfather was brutally killed in a Philly alleyway, his body set on fire. He saw the chaotic, acrimonious breakup of his label, Roc-A-Fella Records, and the dissolution of his hometown rap crew, State Property. He ignited a minor internet controversy when he told Kanye West, his labelmate and past collaborator, to come out of the closet. By any measure, Beanie Sigel has been through a turbulent few years, and so it's something of a shock to turn on the first track of The Solution and hear him bragging about his money over the Runners' cheesy faux-epic synths while R. Kelly coos professionally behind him.

Beanie Sigel is not a smooth rapper. His voice is a halting, raspy snarl, and he delivers his words with hyper-emo bluster, like he's got so much rage burning in his gut that he's helpless to hold anything back, ever. When he's pissed, he sounds dangerous; when he's depressed, he sounds about ready to bury himself alive. And when he's happy, he still sounds depressed. Beanie has always sounded great playing the growling foot-soldier to mentor Jay-Z's liquid kingpin boss. But he's historically had even better chemistry with the gravel-throated Houston legend Scarface, since Face and Sigel share the same air of hard-won authority, the sense that they're trying pull wisdom from chaotic lives. Over crackly East Coast soul-rap beats, pretty much nobody sounds better than Sigel. So it's hard to figure why Sigel would play against his own strengths as completely as he does on The Solution's first half.

If Beanie's chief virtue is his embittered honesty, it makes no sense for him to drone on about bottle-popping and money-spending over Floridian synth-rap from producers like the Runners and Cool & Dre. It's depressing to hear him coming with endless money-talk cliches: "I don't windowshop/ And I don't lease, I just pick and cop," that sort of thing. This is Jay territory, however, so it's no shock when he up on "Gutted" and completely shows Beans up without ever easing out of autopilot. "Pass the Patron" has a shuffling almost-swing drum-shuffle, like B.Coming highlight "Gotta Have It", but it never even approaches that song's raging intensity. And "I'm In" finds him spitting empathy-free anti-romance over thin, tinkly quiet storm.

Beanie is a technical master, and he sounds happy just to be rapping again after so many years on the Def Jam shelf, especially when he and guest Styles P try out a Run-DMC tag-team style on "You Ain't Ready for Me". But he wasn't built to rap over halfassed club-rap, and so the only real bright moment on the first half comes when Beanie gets very, very dark. "Go Low" is a slow, eerie electro-reggae pulse, and it finds Beanie spitting terrifying jailhouse-bully threats: "No pause, no homo, no vaseline/ When I enter niggas slow with that broomstick." For four minutes, it's like he's venting all the rage that he represses elsewhere; it's not pretty, but it sure is effective. If "Go Low" proves anything, it's that this guy can't be domesticated, not even by himself.

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