On the face of it you wouldn't exactly call the group Brand Nubian prolific, with only five albums released in the last 14 years including "Fire in the Hole." On the other hand, Grand Puba put out three solo efforts during that time, while Sadat X put out two. That's the curious and often vexing thing about this rap triumverate. While they set the world on fire with their 1990 debut "One for All," Puba was reportedly not happy sharing the limelight with X and Lord Jamar, especially when he was widely recognized as the best lyricist and microphone maestro of the group. By 1992 he was gone, and although the group made a game effort on the overlooked "In God We Trust" the follow-up album "Everything is Everything" was an appalling disaster, lyrically unfocused and musically abhorrent. It's little surprise that no group album was released after that until Grand Puba could be talked into returning for 1998's "Foundation." The album re-established Brand Nubian's credibility both individually and as a group, but didn't change the fact their music was playing to an ever increasingly smaller audience.
It's been six long years since their last release. Six years without an album can be tantamount to career suicide unless you're either a hugely overrated pop icon like Michael Jackson or an eclectic artist like Prince who can live solely off his cult following. Brand Nubian's rappers do have a cult following, but the odds are their numbers are so small this album will only push a couple hundred thousand units tops unless a surprise single breaks out nationally. If you know anything about Brand Nubian, you know that ain't going to happen. As a soloist Grand Puba had crossover potential, and could even be found rapping with the Brand New Heavies and Mary J. Blige, but as a group their dynamic when it works properly is thought-provoking raps over strong beats. In 1990 you could convince people to groove to raps that were musically and lyrically strong, songs like "All for One" and "Wake Up," but in 2004 people like it either simple or thuggish - from Ma$e to Lil Jon. There's very little room on the charts or on the dancefloor for hip-hop to be provocative.
That's not to say Brand Nubian deserves to be ignored. On the contrary, it's all the more reason "Fire in the Hole" may be one of 2004's most important rap records. At a time when they weren't wanted, in a music scene that wasn't clamoring for their return, Brand Nubian reunited again ANYWAY for no better reason than to prove to themselves that they've still got it. Twelve tracks long and just under sixty minutes, this is a solid album start to finish with no skits or filler to be found anywhere. Right from the start on "Who Wanna be a Star?" the lightly plucked guitar loop produced by Lord Jamar seduces you into the track, making you nod your head while you enjoy the group's well crafted lyrics. While at one time in the past they may have been uneven in skills, by this point they are all strong on the mic. The biggest difference to the know-nots will be their vocals: Sadat X is high pitched but razor sharp in emphasizing syllables and words, Puba is around that range but generally more relaxed and loquacious, while Lord Jamar is the mellow and soft spoken glue that binds them all together. On the punchy "Young Son" Jamar proves capable of producing tracks contemporary to the style of today, while all three sound fresh enough to be on the streets but wise enough to know the dangers of it:
Puba: "Now don't get caught up by the corner
You know these blocks be hotter than a sauna
Don't let them peers put the pressure on ya
And when ya make moves, make moves cause you wanna
Don't get caught up on some monkey-see, monkey-do
Stay focused, and understand the thug in you
And just handle yo' business
And always be persistant, like Jehovah's Witness"
Jamar: "I need you to hold the fort down
I ain't likin how this judge in court sound
I might have to spend time away from the fam
And if I do then I'ma need you to act like a man (young son)
This is no time for tears
It's time for you to man up, time to face your fears
Looks like your ol' dad might face some years
Don't allow the family name to be disgraced and smeared"
Sadat: "One young son, he wanna get a scholarship
The other wanna get a whip from the car dealership
Chips off the ol' block is what pop'll say
One's on the court, one's in court all day
A mother's heart smiles and it grieves at once
She cries at home, but in the public she fronts
'Where did we fail? How did we prevail?'
From the diploma ceremony to the jail it's a journey"
To say this is refreshing would be an understatement. Brand Nubian didn't just pick a song name out of a hat and build a rap around it that only mentions the title in the hook - the title reflects well thought out lyrics and Jamar's smooth beats and appropriate samples build it into a coherent and well executed track. The trio are not afraid to pass the ball, cause they know nobody's going to blow the game with a foul or a bad shot. Working together as a team, they always score. Jamar handles the majority of musical duties throughout, although Sadat X co-produces "Where are You Now?" and long-time collaborator DJ Alamo lends a hand to "Just Don't Learn" as well as producing "Momma." Puba himself jumps on the boards for "Got a Knot" and to help out with "Ooh Child." All of these songs are strong, but even the kids who ride Kanye West's jock these days would have to acknowledge the sound of "Coming Years." It's got the high-pitched, sped-up samples, the lush symphonic instruments, and a rap from Puba that sets things off hard right at the start:
"Now I heard the SILLIEST SHIT from this crackhead bitch
I asked her why she smoke that shit, she said we all can't be rich
She said I'm hopeless, like a penny with a hole in my soul
Then she asked me my goal, I said to live to grow old
And watch my seeds grow and teach those who need to know
And if my shorties need me, deliver like Dominoes
See the name of the game of life is maintain
Your mind won't grow if you can't feed the brain"
Brand Nubian is not dumbing down their music in any way to crossover. If anything they're going in the opposite direction - trying to come as close as possible to recapturing the magic of "One for All" over a decade ago while still coming with a sound musically that will be relevant to today's rap head. If one called it surprising, it wouldn't be for the fact that Brand Nubian is tapping all of their potential to put out an excellent album - it would be because they're still motivated to in a world full of people who don't want to hear it. The fault is clearly not theirs. The music industry has gone out of it's way to squeeze the meaningful out of hip-hop's majors, forcing even legendary artists like Brand Nubian to find independent labels. That means you may have to look a little harder to find "Fire in the Hole" but if you want to hear something that means something AND sounds better than what the mediocre mainstream media outlets offer, it's worth the effort.
Music Vibes: 8 of 10 Lyric Vibes: 8 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 8 of 10
Originally posted: August 31, 2004