"So when you put this motherfucker to the test
You gotta realize somethin' nigga, you fuckin' wit the very best
I got this killa up inside of me
I can't talk to my mother so I talk to my diary"
If you lived through the mid-90s, chances are you know those words. Maybe it's because you were one of the million-plus Americans who bought Scarface's third album "The Diary" in the last two months alone of 1994. More likely, though, it's because you've seen Mike Judge's 1999 cult classic "Office Space," and more specifically the opening scene in which Michael Bolton, the white, nerdy, gangsta rap-loving Initech accountant, is stuck in morning traffic and rapping along to "No Tears" before promptly slamming down the car door locks at the sight of a black street vendor. Michael Bolton's character is meant to be humorous and ironic, as is the inclusion of Scarface's music on the soundtrack played to scenes of corporate employees engaging in hilarious white-collar rebellion - indeed, nothing could be further from the ghetto nightmares Scarface rapped about. However, whether or not the film's makers intended it, it was a shining indication of the progression of gangsta rap through the 1990s. As a member of pioneering Houston rap group Geto Boys, Scarface was blacklisted by politicians and radio stations for the violent, misogynist, explicit nature of his lyrics - even their own label put a warning sticker on the cover of 1990's "The Geto Boys" reading, "Def American Recordings is opposed to censorship. Our manufacturer and distributor, however, do not condone or endorse the content of this recording, which they find violent, sexist, racist, and indecent." Gangsta rap, the powers that were reasoned, was a dangerous, crude, lowbrow art of the lamest quality, worthy of being stifled and censored for the good of the public. Yet by the time "The Diary" arrived in 1994, Scarface was a multiplatinum-selling artist. His millions of fans were not indecent urban lowlifes - they were the Michael Boltons of the world: people from all walks of life who appreciated the poetic lyrics, vivid storytelling, and raw philosophy of Brad Jordan.
Prior to "The Diary," Scarface was rarely viewed as a solo entity. While both great albums that sold well, 1991's "Mr. Scarface Is Back" and 1993's "The World Is Yours" were viewed more as side projects and supplementary material meant to tide listeners over until the next Geto Boys reunion. Still, his superstardom and steadily-growing reputation as a master lyricist created massive buzz for his third solo effort enough that it debuted at #2 on the Billboard Charts. At the peak of their creative and commercial viability, Rap-A-Lot Records enlisted their iconic producers Mike Dean, N.O. Joe, and Uncle Eddie to provide the sound that defined Houston, Texas in the mid-90s - a lean, deep funk that could be equally furious as slow and pensive. However, Scarface himself is largely behind much of the album's production, and his distinct musical sound - dramatic pianos and strings, shrieking synths, moody bass, and rumbling percussion - begins to take a definite shape here as well.
The tracklist is brilliantly sequenced. The album opens with three songs of furious murder raps and clear, steady southern funk. In addition to being wonderfully effective hardcore rap, these songs establish the Scarface of "The Diary"'s street persona, as on "The White Sheet":
"I see yo' mama in the waiting room steady crying
I see yo' ass in the doctor's arms slowly dying
Now talk that shit that you was talking to your homie
Bitch, you should have shot me when you pulled your fucking pistol on me
So now I'm forced to pop the clip in
S to the muthafuckin' A, nigga, set trippin'
It ain't no love when my finger's on the trigger
It ain't no love for you off balance ass niggas
So keep your ass in the neutral spot
'Cause if you rollin' through my hood when we're feudin' then you getting' caught"
"G's" is a visual portrait of the hood, and 'Face asserts his godfather status, commanding respect from neighbors and enumerating his weaponry. Like any great artist though, behind the angry facade is a conflicted mind plagued by doubts and insecurities. "I Seen A Man Die" is one of 'Face's most legendary tracks, a stunning, humbling analysis of existence and responsibility. Following a verse narrating a man's release from prison and quick reversion to a life of crime and the second verse, a contextualization of death in the grand scheme, comes the final verse, an astonishing narration of the soul leaving a dead body:
"I hear you breathin' but your heart no longer sounds strong
But you kinda scared to die and so you hold on
And you keep on blackin' out cause and your pulse is low
Stop tryin' to fight the reaper, just relax and let it go
Because there's no way you can fight it though you'll still try
And you can try it 'til you fight it but you'll still die
Now your spirit leaves your body and your mind clears
The rigormortis starts to set, now you outta here
You start your journey into outer space
You see yourself in the light but you're still feelin' outta place
So you standin' in the tunnel of eternal light
And you see the ones you never learned to love in life
Make the choice, let it go but you can back it up
If you ain't at peace with God you need to patch it up
But if you ready, close your eyes and we can set it free
There lies a man not scared to die, may he rest in peace"
Listen to that a few times and see how much you care about your favorite ballclub. The prevalence of death as a subject matter is one of the many factors that makes "The Diary" such a demanding listen. The tempo picks back up with the livid funk of "One," but slows down again on "Goin' Down," another highlight. Over a lush, playful track with funky kicks and a soulful keyboard line, Scarface kicks it to the ladies and raps about picking up women while their men are at work. It's a welcome and successful incorporation of humor amidst the album's heady contemplation, and it's hard not to envision 'Face smiling as he sings the hilarious chorus:
"Now I'm cruisin' to the crib with this bitch that I scooped
Parked my Ferrari, now I'm back in the coup
I knocked her boots, your baby's mama put me to work
I tagged that ass from the back, and knocked her shit in the dirt
She wanted me badly so I put it inside
She got the (front, back, and the side to side)
Back and forth with the gangsta glide
Started off at six and didn't finish 'til nine
Hit the showers like I been out playin' ball for the day
Now she's asleep, 'cause she just had her drawers full of dick
(Now that's sick) and plus she got you stayin' at home
With the kids all alone while she's gettin' her fuck on
So believe me when you downin' that Brad
I'm at the pad with yo' baby mama clownin' that ass
So playa hatin' niggas check the bitch you chose
I'll be mobbin' in my Benz spittin' this to hoes"
'Face's commanding delivery sounds phenomenal on "The Diary," with its deep resonance and furious emphasis. Technically his flow and rhyme schemes are impeccable, peppered with adlibs and appealingly complex bars. "The Diary" is a lyrical masterpiece, with legitimate quotables in each verse, but it's a musical gem as well. Part of what makes these songs so effective is that the music is so closely dialed into Scarface's verses. The simple keyboard chimes and resonating synth chords are a perfect backdrop for the chilling first-person threats of "Jesse James," and "I Seen A Man Die" is as heavy as the weighty subject matter with a reverberating bassline, somber synth arrangement, and sleighbells.
The single "Hand of the Dead Body" is phenomenal, with a menacing, deep funk and clever hook delivered by a young Devin the Dude. Beginning with a news clip of a reporter condemning Scarface's music, he opens:
"We got this whole motherfucker on a mission
Now the whole entire world's gotta try and come up with a quick decision
They claim we threats to society
And now they callin' on the government to try to make somebody quiet me
For the bullshit they done to me
Gangsta Nip, Spice 1 and Tupac never gave a gun to me
So gangsta rap ain't done shit for that
I've even seen white folks from River Oaks go get the gat
So why you tryin' kick some dust up
America's been always known for blamin' us niggas for their fuck-ups
And we were always considered evil
Now they tryin' to bust our only code of communicating with our people
Let's peep the game from a different angle
Matt Dillon pulled his pistol every time him and someone tangled
So why you criticize me for the shit that you see on your TV
That rates worse than PG
Just bring your ass to where they got me
So you can feel the hand of the dead body"
His sentiment is straightforward enough: gangsta rap isn't to blame for violence any more than cowboy and mafia movies. It's his conviction and delivery that make this a classic rap song. Ice Cube clocks in with a furious verse of his own but even he can't get on Akshen's level.
Willie D was separated from Geto Boys in 1994, but it's surprising to view some of the similarities between "The Diary" and Willie D's 1994 effort "Play Witcha Mama." While a vastly inferior album from practically any perspective, "Play Witcha Mama" featured a song called "Mind Still Playin' Tricks," billed as a sequel to the classic "Mind Playin' Tricks on Me" from 1991's "We Can't Be Stopped." "The Diary" finds 'Face employing the same concept to far greater results. "Mind Playin' Tricks 94" features the same Isaac Hayes sample as the original, but the effect is wholly different because different musical elements are emphasized to give it a fresher, funkier sound. On the second verse, he raps:
"Dear diary, I'm havin' a little problem with my mind state
How many bullets would it take to change my mind, wait
Sometimes I want to end it but I don't though
They tell me see my pastor but I don't go
'Cause they all be on this one street
So I take it on myself to thank him one deep
And give my money to the most needy
And never put it in the hands of the most greedy
Cause they puttin' a price tag on a man's word
And it's a fashion show, so the men flirt
The world is endin' so they try to make us switch fast
And they openin' up these churches for some quick cash
And usin' the money fo' they new cribs
While brother Johnson just got kicked out where he lived
I follow no man, cause man be phony
My mind was playin' tricks on me"
Willie D echoed these exact same suspicions of the Southern Baptist church on "Guess My Religion" from "Play Witcha Mama," similarly speculating embezzlement by lavish ministers and folks using services to sport their wardrobes. "Mind Playin' Tricks 94" is a wholly worthy sequel to the original, displaying the same soul-baring honesty and believable paranoia but adopting a more mature tone.
There's not much wrong with "The Diary" - even the epic piano cadences of the intro and outro make them among my favorite on any rap album - and clocking in at just 43 minutes over thirteen tracks with just one guest verse from a particularly pissed off Ice Cube, it's 'Face's most focused album. Perhaps what's most impressive is the wide range of material encompassed on such a brief listen. There is a multitude of moods and sentiments yet no filler, and this helps to build the legendary character that Brad Jordan embodied: a reflective, visionary, personal, soulful observer, but one that stays strapped because more than anything else, he's a product of the mean streets of Houston's Southside. Hundreds have tried but few have succeeded in balancing the thug and the thoughtful like Scarface.
The title track rounds out the tracklist, and is fittingly a deranged killer narrative over frenetic production. Thus goes the arc of "The Diary": introspection and serious reflection upon life and the world amidst straightforward hardcore gangsta rap. Scarface the man and the rapper is a philosophical thinking man, but he'll take care of his business until the day he dies.
1994 was the year of "Illmatic" and "Ready to Die," albums that showcased a new generation of poetic New York MCs who were quite familiar with the violence and guns of the street life but maintained a fairly optimistic outlook as they sought blunts, brew, and bitches. A thousand miles away, Scarface was living through the same early years of the Clinton administration yet perceived a much darker, direr, unjust world in need of change. There are a million words that could be used to accurately describe "The Diary" - startling, relevant, contemplative, stimulating - but the one that best captures it for me is poignant. Scarface's third album catapulted him from the status of a regional hero to one of the rap masters, and in such is one of gangsta rap's essential masterpieces.
Music Vibes: 9.5 of 10 Lyric Vibes: 9.5 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 9.5 of 10
Originally posted: April 13, 2010