He’s gone by many aliases — ”E-Double-E, the Green Eyed Bandit, and Erick Onassis to name a few — ”but be it for his celebrated work behind the boards or his identifiable drawl-ly rhymes on the mic, Erick Sermon has more or less been a mainstay in the rap game for over twenty years. Whether for his invaluable contributions as one half of seminal Long Island rap duo EPMD, his role as founder of the influential Def Squad collective, beats tailored for everyone from Too Short to Jay-Z to Ludacris to Shaquille O’Neal, and substantial latter-day solo catalog with multiple hit singles, he only rarely makes headlines but never fades from relevance. In 1993 while EPMD fans were still mourning the breakup of one of hip hop’s greatest twosomes, E-Double hit the studio right away and rushed to produce his solo debut “No Pressure.” Featuring his by-then signature bass-heavy East Coast production, “No Pressure” was well-received by fans and critics alike but displayed somewhat of a lyrical deficiency on Sermon’s part as he struggled to handle double the mic duty in Parrish’s absence. After producing acclaimed records for his protÃ©gÃ©s Keith Murray and Redman in 1994, his sophomore album “Double or Nothing” arrived on Def Jam in 1995.
From both a musical and lyrical perspective, “Double or Nothing” is head and shoulders above his debut. This is the album where Sermon really developed the iconic cosmic funk that would become the standard of the Def Squad’s sound. Largely abandoning the Jeep-rattling funk of his earlier recordings, “Double or Nothing” is marked by a smooth, mellow nighttime vibe, incredibly soulful production elements, and laidback, slow-flowing percussion. Musically this is Sermon at his mid-90s best, and the beats are rich with his recognizable basslines, heavy yet balanced arrangements, and R&B vocalists such as Aaron Hall, Crystal Gamble, and Sugarless on many tracks. The album moves at such a steady, consistent pace that some songs seem to blend into one another, but it’s definitely not a bad thingâ€”it feels like a slow, smooth late-night ride through the realm of the Def Squad.
Erick really steps up his mic game by taking a humbler approach than on “No Pressure,” where he attempted a wider range of concepts and a much more hardcore stance. “Double or Nothing” is comparably laidback, and his easygoing lyrics mesh well with the beats. Having assembled the original Def Squad lineup by this point, he’s frequently aided by Redman and Keith Murray who provide strong collaborations.
Erick kicks off the album with a bang, the first single “Bomdigi,” an infectious head-nodder with a great hook. As a single, it was a good indicator of his significant progression since “No Pressure” and showcased a fresh sound and likable verses. After the energetic Redman duet “Freak Out,” he spins a tale of a violent late-night encounter on the brief “In the Heat” before sharing the mic with Keith Murray and Roz on the vibe-heavy “Tell ‘Em.” On “Boy Meets World,” co-produced by Rockwilder, he raps:
“I believe in the power of the conscious mind
And if you think something, then it becomes something like
If I had to battle a whole crew, if I couldn’t beat ’em
Then my conscience would defeat ’em
I wouldn’t put my career in jeopardy
But I would let somethin’ off these people keep stressin’ me
This is madness
I wish I was around when that midnight train to Georgia picked up Gladys
Listen close, life is just what you make it
If you wanna be happy like Mary J, then hey
Get rid of negativity in your circumference
All outside your realm in mass abundance
Knowing the industry is filled up with drama got some hype
Fakeness from people of all types
Even the so-called keepin’ it real type stars are frauds, they get the sword”
The standout is the second single “Welcome,” an atmospheric soul number featuring an inspired performance by Aaron Hall of Guy. Other notables include the tasteful “Set It Off,” the posse cut “Move On” which Redman tears up, the upbeat closer “Open Fire,” also featuring a particularly hyped Reggie Noble and Keith Murray, and the heavier “Focus,” where Sermon spits:
“I rock the mic, Safe + Sound, like DJ Quik
In the mix without packin’ a M6
Bein’ up on the scene, the eyes are green, no bullshit
Niggas sayin’ they pull shit, but won’t pull dick
Fake hardcore MCs with fake hardcore crews one in the same
Practicin’ brand new gun names
And new swing, they sound more street
They gain more peeps so they won’t let me sleep
Only west coast was kickin’ that shootin’ cops
Fuck that bitch shit, now we all on they dick
I represent The Bridge Is Over, Eric B for President
Gettin’ Raw, Rockin’ Bells, and Raisin’ Hell
I ain’t knockin’ those out there keepin’ it real with the steel
Y’all know the deal
But if you ain’t shot nobody, don’t claim to be a John Gotti
Remember the days of La-Di-Da-Di”
Historians will want to take note that “Double or Nothing” features Jazze Pha’s first recorded appearance, a year before he would strike gold with his earliest productions for Tela and L.S.G. His “Live in the Backyard” skit is surprisingly good, and he sings a smooth hook on “Man Above,” a late highlight with a heavy bassline perfect for a suave after-party.
“Double or Nothing” is not a conceptual record by any means, but it’s an extremely consistent effort that has aged surprisingly well and features many talented contributors displaying great chemistry. Still, it’s Erick’s show and his production shines throughout the entire seventeen tracks. Underrated like the man himself, “Double or Nothing” is an addictive, memorable listen that will inspire enough head-nodding to warrant a neck brace.