Let me preface this by saying that I’ve been tinkering with this review for several years now. It’s not just that I’ve always found it extremely difficult to make my mind up about its object, I’m also irritated by the prospect of critiquing a piece of music someone half my current age made over twenty years ago. I furthermore feel burdened by the precedent I set myself with my review of this album’s predecessor, a crude and rude rebuke of a young artist’s first work. And yet it’s that same review that drives me to cover a sophomore effort that ostensibly tried to make ammends for an undeniably wack debut. There’s also the fact that the artist, who is my age, is still putting out product and has a standing that deserves complete coverage. Finally, both albums have lingered in obscurity since they first came out, which is always an incentive for Matt Jost to go ‘Back to the Lab’ at RapReviews.
With that in mind, let’s get to it. Craig G’s major label debut was also a major disappointment. The “Symphony” alumni was blessed with the opportunity to work with producer Marley Marl in his prime. But the opportunity was squandered something awful. An audio engineering nightmare, “The Kingpin” caught the longtime collaborators on a particularly bad day. Two years later the self-proclaimed “dopest duo coming out of Queensbridge” tried to make up for it by recording another album for Atlantic, the promisingly titled “Now, That’s More Like It.”
The album was indeed more like it, even as there are valid reasons that it fell on deaf ears. Compared to Marl’s late ’80s work the record lacks oomph, particularly in the bass department (usually his strong suit). The audio polish that is applied results in bluntness instead of sharpness. For instance, the only Craig G track that rivals “Droppin’ Science,” “Take the Bait,” a monster jam with its acrobatic Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band groove and assorted horns, yelps and cuts, originally appearing as a b-side to the previous album’s “Shootin’ the Gift” single, is not only shortened in the album version, it suddenly feels sluggish, turning one of the freshest joints of 1989 (and that’s saying something) into a still strong but simply less stellar track.
Then there are attempts to turn Craig G into a marketable rapper who may fit into some short-lived mainstream fad. During a highly hypocritical moment (“Intro II”) the two lampoon house, claiming that they “don’t do house music.” So they may have learned something from their own horrible hip-house tracks like “Love Thang,” “Rock the House” and “Turn This House Into a Home,” but since new jack swing is the new big thing, they simply hop from one bandwagon to the next. “I Want to Be in Luv” isn’t bad per se, but it’s so obviously terrain reserved for Heavy D that it inevitably feels ill-fitted for Craig G.
“Girl Fever” owes its bubbly charm to a Moments & Whatnauts sample, still it lays bare the 19-year old’s songwriting limitations. While L.L. Cool J penned a slick but still serious ode to the “Around the Way Girl” to a classy Marley Marl beat that worked both on a car and a club system, Craig opts for the impersonal approach and wastes time trying to convince gays of feminine charms. Nonetheless he manages to drop some science:
“Everything with women can’t be sex-related
So if your friend has a man that’s always up on her
tell her that’s not what she needs in her corner
She needs a man that loves her for a whole lot of reasons
not just to have you for his personal skeezings
You gotta take a stand and learn to say somethin’
Cause if you don’t, you’re gonna wind up with nothin’
or maybe a baby that never knew his father
cause he ran off with a lady and he lives in Nevada
Go for warning signs before he says ‘See ya’
or you be stuck with a child in the midst of girl fever”
“Girl Fever” is one of several ‘dancey’ tracks on the album who all dispense a vague air of clumsiness and clownery. On “Word Association” he sports a jovial delivery to an equally upbeat beat while still trying to battle rap. “Somem to Swing To” has cheap live audience and gunshot effects, the rapper’s praise of his producer’s ability to flip samples falling flat on the happy-go-lucky track.
“U-R-Not the 1,” the album’s only single, leaves swingbeat behind to make a dash for pop, and again music and message don’t quite click as the bubblegum bassline and lightweight drums prove too harmless even for his polite disses. In turn “No Favors” comes across like an overreaction to the tameness of “U-R-Not the 1” with its bashing of an ex, an obvious failure to mimic Kool G Rap & DJ Polo’s “Truly Yours.” Thankfully he saves some of the verbal venom for competition, in particular MC Shan, who after some initial generic battle raps suddenly becomes the target of “Ripped to Streads”:
“You little wack hip-hop basehead
Here’s a rap that’ll turn your whole face red
A brother makes three LPs
and he’s still sportin’ Pumas and Lees?
And his label wants to give him the boot
But he owes ’em so much loot
that they’re writin’ him off with their taxes
It considers his album as practice
But yet he took the time out to diss me
on some bold chance that he thought he could rip me
He called me his son, but is he sure?
I never slid checks under his door
So yo, watch your step, you little asswipe
Your album sales couldn’t generate a flashlight
or buy you a pack of gum
Your Juice spilled, so here’s a sponge
And if you try to play me as a kid
Just remember, I know where you live
And next time you hit the pipe
and you think you wrote somethin’ hype
just think, I could kill you dead
But nah… I’ll just rip you to streads
Although they finish the track with a trumpet playing “Taps” for Shan’s dead career, they return to finish him off in the album’s closing (bonus) track, “Going For the Throat,” Craig offering, “BDP wrecked you quite a long time ago / But allow me to deliver the final blow.” His assumed strong suits, battling and freestyling, are also covered by the other two CD bonus cuts, “Swiftness” and “Live Off the Top,” the latter suffering from canned live audience effects.
All that being said, Craig G and Marley Marl were still on to something on “Now, That’s More Like It.” With a handful of tracks they make some noteworthy points that went unnoticed at the time. With “What You’re Used To” Craig tries to get to the bottom of the rap game in “My Philosophy” fashion. Anchored by a Digital Underground sample (an abbreviation of Humpty’s “I’m about to ruin the image and the style that you’re used to”), he touches on various elements such as performance, lyrics, style, labels, etc. and ties them into the subject of originality and creativity:
Skills portrayed from what jams are played?
And how many rappers are out gettin’ paid?
And who sports the dopest lookin’ fade?
Nah, that don’t make the grade
Rhymes that leave you all just confined
in your room to excercise your mind
is the only brand, only kind
To me that sounds fine
So yo, next time you even try to flow
Find a style of rhymes that go
Go exactly with the way that you choose to
not the style that we’re used to”
“What You’re Used To” is a convincing declaration of independence and one of the smarter songs about the inner workings of the hip-hop scene as it became part of the music industry. Marley’s track mirrors the content with its straightforward drum track that only fully gives in to the S.O.U.L. sample (“Peace of Mind”) in the chorus (unlike Heavy D/Pete Rock’s “Letter to the Future” from the same year). Meanwhile “Feel Ya Way” is dedicated to amateur rappers who simply “feel their way through it,” claim unwarranted production credits (probably more Marley’s concern) or release albums you expected a lot more from (like, uhm, “The Kingpin”).
Craig and Marley themselves pretend to know their way precisely. Announced as something “you can calm your nerves to,” “Ummm!!!!” combines Juice Crew and A Tribe Called Quest with its smooth, jazzy rhythm and Big Daddy Kane samples. They take the idea of purposely pleasant, inoffensive rap one step further on “Smoothing Out the Rough Spots,” another tune essentially inspired by the Heavy D school of rapping. Placed side by side, both tracks make a good case for what Craig (rather unfortunately phrased) calls “hip-hop easy listening,” especially in the heated climate of early ’90s rap. Particularly “Smoothing Out the Rough Spots” is something of a hidden treasure and quite frankly a song that continues to impress me as a longtime rap fan.
“Now, That’s More Like It” is far from a hip-hop classic. Sceptics needn’t look further than the haphazard cover art to realize that the QB duo once more failed to live up to expectations. It’s an album resulting from conflicting conditions, written by a teenaged veteran of the rap biz, backed by an accomplished producer who is torn between hip-hop simplicity and pop aspirations (assisted on 3 tracks by a young Salaam Remi), signed to a legendary label that probably didn’t fully understand rap music. It’s a hodgepodge of stinging disses, arbitrarily censored profanity, a duet with Master Ace that sounds like a “Take a Look Around” outtake (“Give it to Me”), clever concepts, crossover attempts, rock-solid hip-hop, tampering with previous perfection (“Take the Bait”), Heavy D influence without the matching charisma, etc. It is both courageous and safe, optimistic and bitter, sophisticated and homespun. It is, in Craig’s words, “different, not too different, but different from the last.” The latter being an understatement because in actuality it’s a vast improvement over “The Kingpin,” and to top a debut is, as fans of the era know, quite an accomplishment. Even moreso when that debut was so bad it didn’t really warrant another go-round. In short, “Now, That’s More Like It” is one of the most appropriate rap album titles of all time.