“I grew up as a muthafuckin’ thug
an outcast, couldn’t do shit but sling drugs
In and out of jail ain’t no place to be
I’m not Short Dog, but ‘I just want to be free’
Made a lot of money doin’ dirt
pullin’ capers, didn’t give a fuck who I hurt
You wonder why a nigga can’t sleep, man
cause I got the blood of my dead brother on my hand”
(“The TRUest Sh…” – 1998)
At the time of this review, Corey Miller’s future looks grim. The man professionally known as C-Murder is currently imprisoned following a September 2003 conviction of second-degree murder in the death of a 16 year old. A state district judge who had ordered a new trial in April 2004 was recently overruled by a state appeals court. The defense plans to appeal to the state supreme court, while the rapper receives additional legal support from a Louisiana NAACP president who challenges the state’s constitution. If denied a retrial, Miller will serve his life sentence without being eligible for parole. He faces additional charges, having been indicted by a Baton Rouge grand jury on attempted second-degree murder charges stemming from an unrelated incident in 2001.
As lawyers, judges and jurors try to bring justice to innocent victims and a presumed offender to justice, the latter records and releases a new longplayer. Let me take this time to make it clear that I only agree to review this album because I’m willing to believe that C-Murder is innocent. Were I convinced otherwise, I would quickly dispose of this promotional CD. I also deem it necessary to point out that I have no intimate knowledge of his case but that certain circumstances lead me to view Miller as still innocent until proven guilty.
With that out of the way, let’s have a look at the latest rap album to reach us from behind bars. Without the option of a work release, C-Murder had to record his raps in the Jefferson Parish Correctional Center in Gretna, LA. A decision he may be regretting now, as one media source reports that Miller “blamed the failure of his latest appeal in part on the controversy caused by the behind-bars recording of his latest album and the jailhouse shoot for his latest video.” Finally coming to his senses, a few days ago the rapper also announced that his artist name would now simply be C-Miller. It takes a fool to interpret C-Murder as an incriminating alias, but it’s equally foolish of a defendant and his defense team to assume such a name would have no effect whatsoever in a court case and on public opinion. Since his latest is still released under his old moniker, this review will not shy away from using it.
Growing up in New Orleans’ Calliope projects, Corey ‘C-Murder’ Miller has probably ‘seen murders’ the kind many of us only hear or read about. The violent death of their own brother Kevin Miller has always loomed over the lives and careers of C-Murder and his brothers Percy ‘Master P’ Miller and Vyshonne ‘Silkk the Shocker’ Miller. It is safe to assume that it is in no small part due to his biography that C-Murder took to a more violent form of expression when he introduced himself to the rap world as a member of the group TRU (The Real Untouchables) alongside the two aforementioned siblings. In the late ’90s, their family enterprise No Limit Records was an unparalleled success story, artistically veering between raw, original expression and some of the worst self-exploitation rap music ever had to endure. Since then, the No Limit camp suffered various set-backs, experiencing first-hand the old adage that what goes up must come down.
From a critic’s point of view, failures and losses are essential to an artist’s curriculum, especially in the case of someone like C-Murder, for whom success definitely came too easy given the small amount of talent he displayed by the time he was thought ready to pursue a solo career with the album “Life Or Death.” Over which his sophomore release, the overlooked “Bossalinie” was already a considerable improvement. The point is that a decade after his national debut as a rapper, Corey Miller simply had to mature as an artist, jail time or no jail time. With most of the 2Pac-mimicking gone, he can finally come into his own as a rapper. Blame his age, the troubles he’s been through, or the fact he had to record these raps in relative isolation and possible secrecy, but C-Murder’s voice has gotten deeper and fuller, to the point where it almost resembles that of fellow Nawlins rapper Big Mike, a thick, thoughtful drawl.
The quality of the vocals is surprisingly good (no over-the-phone shit), although it’s obvious they haven’t been recorded in a professional facility. Given the circumstances surrounding these impromptu recording sessions, C-Murder does a surprisingly good job. Not only does he come across clear, he managed to pen and perform full-fledged songs with hooks, adlibs, etc. Post production also came correct, especially when it came to matching C-Murder with guest vocalists. What you can’t expect is the listening comfort of a studio album, what you can expect is a more intimate, more immediate listening experience. The somber, moody tone C-Murder raps in creates a one-of-a-kind atmosphere, intense in its monotony, wavering between resignation and determination. His delivery stripped of exalted emotions and exclamations, it’s as if he’s talking to himself (which he probably was), just a man in his cell, dictating raps into a recording device. The result is depressing, but what else do you expect from an album like this?
You probably expect it to live up to its title, a title that now bears more significance for C-Murder than back when his he and his ilk plundered the late Tupac Shakur’s philosophy down to the trademark phrases. Even though after “The TRUest Sh…” (off “Life Or Death”) and “Forever TRU” (off “Trapped In Crime”), this is at least the THIRD time Miller vows to hit us with “the truest shit” he ever said (clearly echoing Pac’s “This be the realest shit I ever wrote”), the phrase might finally actually mean something to him. What matters to us, however, is not if what C-Murder says is true (or truer than before), what matters is that C-Murder is now more true to himself as an artist. C himself puts it best when he says in the opening “My Life”: “My mission is simple, my music shine even when I’m gone.”
Looking at this album, it still remains to be seen whether Corey Miller will ever be remembered for his music. “My Life” treads familiar No Limit territory, which may not be that much of a surprise since KLC produced it. The music is a mixture of utterly basic piano textures, keyboard-generated bass and strings and snare-heavy drum tracks that never quite fits together. The raps can be summarized as tales of loyalty and betrayal, a continuous word association game pertaining to all things hood:
“My dog, my ace, boy wanna take my place
My nigga turned sour when I went upstate
Used to be my homie till I caught this case
Now I wanna slap the taste…
I can’t wait – my stash, my connect, my ends, my Benz
My God, please forgive me for all my sins
My hood, my crew, we do what gees do
Best believe I’ma ride for TRU, that’s my crew”
In C-Murder’s defense, what seems generic on screen, does in reality come across quite honest, regardless of the fact that few listeners will be in a position to tell whether he raps about things past or present, let alone if what he says is indeed true. But you’re compelled to believe that it’s real insight that has him saying things like, “This be the truest shit I ever said / It’s my life, behind this I might wind up dead.” Maybe this really is the truest shit C-Murder ever said, not because they had him hooked to a lie detector in there, but because prison is where you come to face the mirror. Case in point – “Mama How You Figure”:
“My future’s gettin’ dim, my chances gettin’ slim
I’m steady rappin’ and they steady attackin’
Will I forever be behind bars lookin’ out the window?
I’m thinkin’ ’bout my kinfolks
I’m in the court house starin’ at the DA
Lookin’ for some leeway, lookin’ for a free way
The color of my skin, well, it did me in
But I’m still proud
to be the black man standin’ in the crowd
I represent that
I don’t ever resent that”
That same honesty permeates the rest of the tracks. Akon lets him use the beat and the hook of his hit “Locked Up” to reflect on his incarceration (“Won’t Let Me Out”). “Hustla’s Wife” is a dedication to the oft-lauded ride-or-die chick (probably not his ex, singer Monica), which is upstaged by “Did U Hold it Down,” a track simply begging for airplay. Over a soulful beat produced by Bass Heavy (who also provides the hook),” C-Murder delivers the album’s best-written song, a heartfelt letter home to his loved one.
Not quite as emotional but nonetheless touching are two of the cameos. “Holla @ Me” features the late Soulja Slim on the hook. Dani Kartel’s beat is in the tradition of posthumous Pac-tracks, wistfully plucked guitars and strings set to a thick rhythm section. Plentiful with tried and tested thugisms Ã la “I live it, but I ain’t never braggin’ / pants saggin’, tryin’ to dodge the toe-taggin'” and “Three hots and a cot with no glock, it don’t stop / even in the box you get dropped and popped,” “Holla @ Me” could almost be called classic, the simple wish to just holla at them rendered even more poignant by the fact that one is dead and the other is in jail. Thankfully, the one still alive hasn’t given up hope just yet, showing himself to be able to appreciate the finer things in life:
“I be rollin’ down the hottest strip
You know me, I want the hottie with the widest hip
Now is you down to let a baller hit it from the back?
I’ma knock the hinges out it, believe that
and pass it to G.O. and G.O. pass it to Slim
and put it in a song and you’ll become famous from him
Now Uptown is where I rides at
windows down, holla at me and I’m gon’ holla back
There are other guest appearances, but but the real killer collabo is “Yall Heard of Me” with B.Gizzle, who shares the chorus with C as if they weren’t separated by prison walls. ATL’s Montez and NYC’s Capone assist him on “I Heard U Was Lookin’ 4 Me,” the latter sending “a kite to the Calliope and every crack-server / who lettin’ that automatic blow, we freein’ C-Murder.” Old pals show up as well, Fiend on “Betta Watch Me,” Mac on “Camouflage and Murder,” while two XL-produced tracks take you even further back. “Back Up” with its minimalistic but funky bassline is on the Short Dog tip, while “Started Small Time” pays hommage to Brad Jordan fusing the drums from “Scarface” with a variety of musical ideas.
While not meant to be an album that blares from cars and clubs, “The TRUest Shit I Ever Said” does at times suffer from sub-par production. “Betta Watch Me” is archetypical creepy southern funk, where the limited producer (Fiend) gets overly ambitious, combining too many of those too simple melodies, resulting in complete instrumental overload. It’s hard to believe, but after all these years this camp still comes up with piano key combinations any five year old could hit. Several good tracks would be much tighter if the mixing and mastering would have taken command over the single elements, a flaw that becomes even more evident in the presence of Akon’s bulletproof “Locked Up” beat. These letdowns are balanced by the professional offerings of XL and Bass Heavy, the latter orchestrating an excellent, dramatic “Intro”/”Outro” and lacing “Stressin,” a slowly grinding track bearing traces of New Orleans’ rich musical heritage. “Stressin'” is also the one track where C-Murder gets the most prolific with his flow, further proving his artistic maturity.
Despite its musical shortcomings, it’s quite possible that this is C-Murder’s best album to date. He still lacks a great deal of emotional and rational eloquence, but since he does exhibit considerable insight we ought to cut him some slack there. Last but not least, there’s enough variation in subject matter and presentation. Overall this is a solid effort for someone who’s locked up. With the prospect of having to spend the rest of his life behind bars. Possibly innocent. Belonging to a category of rappers that are often labelled as one-dimensional, C-Murder comes to life on “The TRUest Shit I Ever Said.” He’s Inmate #58815110 buried in the “belly of the beast,” complaining “the devil hit me with a murder charge,” he’s loving father and husband, but he’s also the cutboy still running the CP3, “ten minutes from losin’ it, one day from locked up,” knowing “the way I’m livin’ sooner or later I’m gon’ be boxed up,” and finally he’s the rapper hoping to literally resurrect himself with this record: “2002 C-Murder died, he later came alive / 2005 he’s saved, now I’m back from the grave.” Only time will tell.