I always thought there was a lot of truth to the opening sequence to Big Punisher’s “Capital Punishment” album (an excerpt from the movie ‘Fresh’), where two kids engage in an imagined battle of the superheroes (with The Punisher coming out on top, naturally). Oftentimes, rap fans make their favorite rappers out to be some comic-like character who possesses special skills and even superpowers. The rappers themselves are known to contribute to the caricature with varying degrees of irony, and some even create a second rap identity for themselves. But also most primary rap personas allude to superhuman qualities, or at the very least some kind of excellence that elevates them above us mere mortals.
It’s almost impossible to be a fan of rap without buying, to some degree, into all those antics and images. Rationally I have always rooted for the rare everyman in rap, and frequently for the less rare clown. But I too have been susceptible to rap hero worship. To the point where I purposely ignored the drama, the disappointments, the banality their private life holds just to preserve the image I had of them. Over the years I have developed a more mature relationship towards my favorite rappers, but knowing how much acting rapping requires I’d never dismiss a rapper just because he wears a mask and cape. Chino XL has been one of my rap heroes, precisely in his assumed role of superhero. “Here to Save You All,” his 1996 debut, was a focused tour de force that joined high-level lyricism with a baring of emotions seldom heard at the time. In my recollection it remains one of the most awe-inspiring rap albums of all time.
Since then quite a few things happened in rap music. Without going as far as calling him the originator, we’ve witnessed various MC’s who have displayed characteristics that can also be found in Chino XL. Jadakiss. Eminem. Tech N9ne. Vinnie Paz. Royce Da 5’9″. What they have in common but separates them from Chino is success. They’re widely acknowledged rap titans while he remains underrated, too sporadically releasing albums to make a lasting impact on the artform.
True to his rap persona, Derek Barbosa doesn’t let his relative obscurity trouble him, he still steps into the arena as a title contender. On his latest, a hefty double album, he goes to lengths to tell us just how great a rapper he is. The metaphors operate at the level of rap (“I’m known for iron bars, that’s why they named a jail after me”), but just as often they venture into the realm of mythology and religion. Atlas asks him, “Chino, do me a favor, hold this world up,” while Jesus Christ sports a t-shirt that ponders “What Would Chino Do?” Alternatively he’s a mysterious creature, “a beast with fangs,” “immune to pain,” “a new strain” that forces modern science to admit it is “too young for Chino to be explained.” In short, he sticks to the script (“like an actor with no improvisational skills”), ensuring continuity in rap’s superhero universe: “I stepped right out of Stan Lee’s imagination, Chino is a living Marvel.”
All the more astounding is how he chooses to begin “RICANstruction – The Black Rosary.” “Father’s Day” recounts the dramatic period when his infant daughter suffered from cancer, one of those treacherous things the strongest father can’t protect his child from. After this existential experience (and a touching spoken word interlude by Mystic) our Dark Knight rises vengefully, bent on destroying wack rappers and the industry that supports them. He wields his silver tongue with surgical precision, letting loose a well-timed barrage of bars dipped in sarcasm and instilled with a deep sense of superiority, invariably reaching a high density of wordplay and punchlines. The already converted will easily recognize the Chino XL of old. Few rappers can take it to levels of “Most underrated lyric artist, that’s him / I walk on water, haters claim it’s cause I can’t swim” or “I bring liquor, bench-press and write rhymes raw / So I raise the bar while raising the bar while raising the bar.” Or how about “They say my ego put me out of history / I’m so conceited I’m jealous when people envy me”?
Rappers watch their skills around Chino XL, as evidenced by the nasty guest verses Immortal Technique (“Arm Yourself”) and Bun B (“Xross Your Heart”) drop. Tech N9ne (“Hell Song”) matches him in more than one way, the posthumuous duet with the Punisher himself (“Kings”) makes perfectly sense and “Latino’s Stand Up RMX” with B-Real, Thirstin Howl III, Sinful and Frost underlines the significance of the first half of the album title (he namechecks jazz musician Ray Barretto, who originally came up with it).
True to superhero tradition, the album also uncovers motives, mainly a troubled childhood that is dealt with in “Mama Told Me,” “Reguarding Elizabeth (Save Me)” and the superb “Silent Art Child.” As producer SouthPaw conducts a soulful symphony, XL paints a wonderfully contradictory parable of his life:
“An honorable villain and damned saint
That’s brutally comforted in my sick health and baptized in hate
I tried not to think, I quietly just wrote my rhymes
Abuse casted a shadow that has lasted a lifetime
Questionable answers that’s formed a humble arrogance
Exposed to virtuous lies told with ugly attractiveness
Tryina get a handle on my own moves
Tryina prove I’m more than dirt on God’s shoes
I swear these syllables, IQ’s that I choose
are too many, mirrors of mysery and riddle me physically
Challenged artistically, definite, even contradictory
Place words next to each other that’ll confuse – but clearly
As a kid writin’ rhymes with severely broken fingers
Developed ability to write with either hand, Satan won’t stop my English
I remember kneelin’ prayin’ askin’ God why
35 sleeping pills and I didn’t die
Silent art child, lost like one tear in the ocean
There isn’t a locked door that my writing can’t open”
Down to the deeply human issues that create the need for superheroes in the first place Chino XL is credible in his role as rap superhero. Where rappers often seem caught in some type of identity crisis, “RICANstruction – The Black Rosary” feels right and true front to back. The role he fails in is as narrator of his heroic story. All those song titles with religious references mainly mean one thing – editing has been neglected. What was once said elegantly in one album title is now repeated ad nauseum. He’s the Lyric Jesus, then the Lyrical Jesus, then the Lyric Jesus again, and finally the Lyric Christ. We get it. And unlike the Good Book, “RICANstruction” records the trivial its messiah has to say as well. The celebrity baiting, once a trademark, is largely ineffective. Who can seriously expect to stir “controversy” with lines about overdosed actress Brittany Murphy? A comparison like “You softer than Avril Lavigne” represents the most basic level of pop culture references a rapper can make.
He falls victim to the expectations he continuously raises. Chino’s Achilles’ heel is the combination of fervor and stamina. Coming across like an attempt to make up for lost time, “RICAN/Rosary” is the proverbial overkill. Those who thirst for metaphorical blood won’t mind and welcome rap’s avenging angel with open arms. They’ll be rewarded with a lyrical experience few other rappers are able to provide. But seen in a sober light track after track the album misses the mark invariably by a narrow margin. The music often contributes to the photo-finish loss. Single most featured producer and former Dr. Dre apprentice Focus can’t let go of those “Chronic 2001” templates. Nick Wiz, KwamÃ©, DJ Khalil, E-Swift, Sid Roams, Stu Bangas have all made better beats in the past. Tech N9ne, Jedi Mind Tricks, La Coka Nostra et al. set standards for mystic, gothic soundscapes that “RICANstruction” just doesn’t meet. The only fruitful extended collaboration is the one with Apollo Brown, who besides “Father’s Day” produces other soul-inspired tracks like “Can Be” and “Take it Back.” Sure there are many instances where the beats match the tone of the rhymes, going as far as a House Shoes beat inspiring Chino to pay tribute to Detroit’s Dilla and Proof (“Eye”), but the production is seldomly worthy of an MC who sees himself in the top one percentile.
A Chino XL record is never an open-and-shut case. If the inner kid in me would argue about who’s the MC to defeat them all, I’d say that Vakill’s “Armor of God” was the album that Chi claims to deliver. Still Chino XL will always be an immortal among men. That has nothing to do with how hip-hop history treats him but everything with his lyrical super powers: “Mind [/mine] of weaponry, from the time of the Byzantines / You talkin’ metaphysically but Chino’s metal physically.”