For more than a few years now, the dead and the undead have been a popular item in American TV shows. Six Feet Under. Cold Case. Dead Like Me. Crossing Jordan. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Tru Calling. Pushing Daisies. Ghost Whisperer. Bones. Corpses are thoroughly screened in countless Crime Scene Investigations. What is it with death that makes it so fit for storytelling? It is the antithesis to our current existence, that which is not but which will certainly be, the final frontier we’re all trekking towards. In conventional narratives death merely marks the end of a story or the beginning of it, but in the above examples, reality or mystery, it has the characters in its grip or at least takes on a pivotal role in the plot.
Haunting the hip-hop underground under the prefix-turned-name Necro since the mid-’90s, Ron Braunstein has always shown a fascination with the morbid and the macabre, but there emerges an album title pattern that might make one wonder if the attraction has turned into obsession: 2004’s “The Pre-Fix for Death,” 2007’s “Death Rap,” and now “DIE!” Cynics are quick to cry gimmick, but to deal with death is actually one of art’s most ancient tasks, one traditional theme being the medieval danse macabre (dance of death), depictions allegorizing the reaper’s role as the great equalizer.
With rappers often relating how they escaped death and celebrating their survival, the idea of one of them facing fatality unflinchingly is refreshing. “DIE!,” however, is a very literal title, it is the raging yell Necro lets out as he draws the gun, pulls the knife, or, more creatively, proceeds to “twist your spine like a Pilates class.” He takes delight in ending your existence, with very little motivation shown as to why exactly. Lacking any psychological element, lyrically “DIE!” is strictly splatter rap. Maybe Necro would, in light of the album cover, want to make the argument that he rises from hip-hop’s grave and back it up with the odd statement about “pop fags in the game claimin’ to be true lyricists [that] give hip-hop a bad name,” but these remarks are largely unconnected to the gorefest. Even those who decode every last blood-drenched line on this album as a manifestation of battle rap have to admit that we’d be dealing with largely unimaginative battling here.
That’s not to say that “DIE!” doesn’t entertain. Necro belongs in the same category of mischievous hardcore rap artists as The Beatnuts, Redman, Noreaga, M.O.P., Sean Price, Tha Alkaholiks, or J-Zone. Like for the Nuts or Zone, a big part of Necro’s eminence is his production ingenuity. Check the deceptively cheerful and comforting “Set It” brimming with horns and pianos only to orchestrate murder plots: “Kickin’ that thug shit, set it / You can get it / Your whole click deaded / wet up, infrareded…”
Forgoeing the metal collaborations of the aforementioned previous albums, “DIE!” is front to back hip-hop, some beats even harking back to the days when the Brooklynite first made a name for himself, while some are standard contempo hole-and-corner hip-hop (“asBESTos,” “First Blood”). Other productions are more prolific, see the punk-meets-the-Middle-East thump of the title track, or “Hey Now,” a complex composition that highlights his musician chops. “Serpent’s Bite” combines his penchant for obscure samples with a dramatical street rap soundscape, “Viva Necro” does the same with vintage boom bap. Paced like a chase scene from a blaxploitation movie, “Pit” is sure to incite moshing with fitting commentary from the MC: “You get carried away – you literally get carried away on a stretcher.” “Viva Necro” should also become a live favorite and features some of the album’s more cohesive trad raps.
Necro articulates his frenzy often in pop culture lingo, like on the catchy “Thugcore Cowboy” (the title a play on Gus van Sant’s drug drama Drugstore Cowboy), which samples a spaghetti western theme song to good effect. In his raps, he’s able to land punches (“I’m the shiznit / while you got bad kismet”), but can also dominate an entire round:
“My deluxe bullets
lift you fucks up like a pull-up
Carve you with a Philips, schmuck
Gem-star your grill up
I’m not a law-abiding citizen
I’m a rider, I get it in
I get acquitted fast after I smash your fitted in
I almost got trapped in jail
cause you’re a turncoat tattle tail
rattlesnake rat, your legal battle failed
I’ve broken all the rules, old school gangster
Provoke me and I smoke you with the tools
Choke you with your jewels
Like a molar rips through my whole crew flips you
Money, you try to sun me, and I’ll solar-eclipse you
Fuck you up like a polar shift; steal your skins
Hardcore pimp, hat with the brim, Fillmore Slim
You’re too stupid to work a gun, son, it exploded
cause you’re the type that cleans a gun out while it’s loaded
I capitalize slappin’ you guys
You could be the best rapper – I’m the best clapper alive”
His ca. ’92 Kool G Rap impersonation is still serviceable, but Necro’s vocal performance just isn’t differentiated enough to get him out of his niche. Although he varies his attack and can hold a train of thought, any subtleties in his lyrics are overpowered by the nonstop mayhem. Whether he uses the boxing metaphor (“Brutalized”), kicks some old school underground shit (“FUBAR”), or gets sexually explicit (“The Kink Panther”), you get the feeling that you could tune in and out without missing much. Artistically, his strength lies in co-opting unsuspecting sources for his perverted purposes. Or you could say he simply thinks things through, connecting Mobb Deep and Rambo quotes in the war-themed “First Blood” and using strained samples from the pop standard “Sometimes I’m Happy (Sometimes I’m Blue)” for “Thin Line Between Love & Hate,” a song best described with the lyric “A psychologist wrote: / ‘Leave a relationship on a positive note’ / Fuck that, I hope you choke.”
Whether it’s Rick James’ “Superfreak” (“The Kink Panther”) or Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” (“Sorcerer of Death’s Construction”), they all get abducted into Necro’s lair. When Ani DiFranco sings about assholes who tell good stories, he will gladly quote her and be that asshole: “Tellin’ her she’s beautiful is unsuitable / You’re better off callin’ her a doody bowl / Negative shit’ll get you in bed with her quicker / Fuck with her head, women are sick” (“The Asshole Anthem”).
A more ambitious rapper could distill significant art out of Necro’s influences and knowledge. He comes close to achieving something outstanding on “The Human Traffic King (White Slavery Pt. 2),” a disturbing look at the trafficking of women, but in the context of Necro hip-hop it’s ultimately another sleazy song slobbering over the dark side of human nature.
Confessing, “Rapping’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” Necro takes a wholly egotistical approach to his art. Stressing, “No matter what, remain sadistic / maintain persistence / break every chain of resistance,” he continues to fight his own battle. His stubbornness led to a long career in indie rap, but it also means that Braunstein sticks to his shtick, which includes homophobia and misogyny. When one of his beats appeared on Raekwon’s “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II” last year, it was an acknowledgment of his talent attested by people outside of the Psycho+Logical- camp and cult following. “DIE!” on the other hand is one for the die-hards. But even outsiders can see there’s a method to the madness and appreciate Necro’s renegade rap.