Funny thing happened to me while listening to this album a few years back -- I got hit by a car. By a small truck, in fact. I had just stepped on the crosswalk when its front hit me like a knock out blow. The car had not been going very fast and it immediately stopped, so the impact wasn't as hard as it could have been. I managed to get back on my feet but I slumped down again and was counted out for good. The ambulance had to come pick me up. Thankfullly I was able to leave the hospital the day after, with not as much as a concussion of the brain. The moral of the story? Rap music can be hazardous to your health. So watch out. Watch out for other road users when you're zonin' off with your favorite rap tape in your walkman. I'm serious.
The man whose album I was listening to when that happened wasn't joking either. He had already made that clear with his debut album, "Somethin' Serious", in '94. And he bolstered it in '97 with the follow-up "Still Serious". Originally one half of the group The Convicts, Big Mike was recruited by Rap-A-Lot owner James Smith as a substitute for Willie D in the infamous Geto Boys. His critically acclaimed performance on the Boys' "Till Death Do Us Part" LP lead to him being able to pursue a solo career. To my dismay it didn't rocket like I hoped it would, but I cherished all of his solo albums and he remains one of my favorite rappers coming from Down South. I heard him discredit this album as not being what the people wanted to hear, but it instantly hit a nerve with me. Because it was damn different. They took it to the proverbial next level of the game with this one. Way into the early '90s Rap-A-Lot products were known for their rugged appearance. But suddenly, around the time of Scarface's "The Diary", they began polishing up their sound. Where there had been cracks and crevices in the structure there now was a smooth surface. Hell, the finale here is even called "Black Lacquer".
Sonically, "Still Serious", mainly produced by Mike B and Mike Dean, is as tuned up as it can get. It's like one of those prized quality cars that the owner can show off with pride even after it's long gone out of production. That's the point of this album: It has a hand-made feel to it. It's not high tech, it's not low budget. It's timeless quality work. That virtue cannot only be attributed to the beats, it's also Big Mike's flow which fits right into the whole machinery. The man's big, and it shows in his voice. His whole demeanor is laid back, yet he puts his all into his delivery. I have not heard many MC's who spit as fast +and+ as precise. At the same time he sounds totally at ease with everything from the musical backdrop to his flow to the content of his lyrics. Combine all those elements together and it's easy to see that what he says must hold some weight.
A sign of an MC's worth is, among others, the ability to touch on subjects from different angles. The opening track, "Playas to Governors", does not talk about ballplayers with possible political ambitions, but is a fictional third-person account about Big Mike's rise to power in the game. The rap game or the crack game, you may ask. You can't really tell at first. But even +if+ Big Mike starts out as a drug kingpin on this album, he'll voice his opinions later on as a rapper. But first, he's stancing up to the obstacles in his way. "I got a thorn in my side, and I wish someone would pull it..." he complains in "Seal it w/a Kiss". The thorn, it turns out, is the usual faceless phantom that's out to get your favorite rapper. But even in the face of danger Big Mike keeps his composure:
"...I'm thinkin' about givin' this muthafucka a bullet
but I ain't goin' out like that, I got too much at stake
to let myself be brought down by these snakes
they fake, and everybody know it
hell, they be tryin' they best not to show it
but it be comin' out like sweat from they pores
I sees 'em everywhere with these five-dollar whores
callin' for a war but they don't want no trouble
if I really had my way I'd stick that ass on the double
these niggas mumble, conversations with they partners
but they best to, take vacations before they catch hot ones
they whereabouts are always known
and little do they know I got niggas ready to blow up they homes
but I'ma tell my niggas to freeze that
ain't no need to go to jail or hell behind these fuckin thieves, black."
The death wishes he sends out and seals with kisses in the chorus kinda contradict that, but not later than when he fades masterfully back in for one last tongue-lashing after a momentary pause, you can't help but think that this song is hella tight. Drama like that is abound in rap music, but when the right directors, script writers, actors, camera men and score composers come together, you might just be in for a masterpiece. Because like film rap music has its own division into a-movies and b-movies, or better yet a-albums and b-albums. Consider "Still Serious" rated A. And Big Mike plays his part to perfection:
"As long as players turn into rappers and rappers turn into actors
all these broads'll be gettin' atcha
Now which non-believin' MC wanna see what time it is?
The rhymin' wizard's about to show you haters what Southern rhymin' is
I'm bombin' kids, I show no mercy on a braveheart
put it down in '94 and never gave thought
y'all ain't ready for the outcome
no doubt, son
I'm from the South and never lost a bout, son."
Big Mike continues to base his songs around himself while providing them with hooks a larger audience can identify with. Tracks like these come a dime a dozen, so it must be the way they're executed that separates them from the discounted ones. "Candy's 4 Babies" for instance is a true gem: a slow beat steadily working under the hood, rhytmically assigned sound effects, two different basses and jazzy keyboard sequences floating above it all make you feel like you're in a place out of this world. Or better yet in New Orleans alias The Big Easy, as Michael Barnett alias Big Mike and Michael Tyler alias Mystikal (just before he signed to No Limit) profess so strikingly on "Southern Comfort (On & On)". They tighten the whole thing even more up for the slow-motioned "'Burbans & Impalas". It's like you've finally arrived in hip-hop heaven. Big Mike's been there for a minute and whether you consider him pusher or pastor, he'll show you how to get there:
"I ain't trippin' off these niggas, flippin', losin' they mind
gettin' high, chasin' hoes, I was like that at one time
I did my thing, and still on top of my game
Got niggas askin': "Big Mike, when you gon' be drop in the game?"
I just smile, go back to the lab, work on my style, collect beats
cook it up like a ki and take it back to the streets
Cause niggas beef when I don't speak, like they straight missin' somethin'
I give 'em a tape, they be like "wait," pop it in they deck and start bumpin'"
But don't do like me or you might end up at them pearly gates. Big Mike's trying to keep things grounded anyway, as he shows on "All a Dream":
"This rap game ain't no plaything, plaything
niggas been hustlin' for years tryin' to make this shit here permanent paytime
now you got these here hustlers, fake muthafuckas tryin' to bite your shit
they comin' with the crooked game, they tryin' to get the name and license shit
now instead of tryin' to write some shit
they be steady claimin' that they like your shit
tryin' to get you to keep poppin' while they're plottin' to rewrite your shit"
Brooklyn's Biggie Smalls once started a rap with the words "It was all a dream..." to recount his own humble beginnings. In the end he got to live his dream, but it was shattered way too early. "You ever thought about this rap game as a life saver?" asks Mike's prominently featured protege III (Trey) in "It's Alright". It might as well have been Biggie's life saver, but some might argue that it did not only save, but also end his life. Around the same time "Life After Death" was completed, Big Mike underlined his will to live on "Everybody Wants a Name":
"I plans to be around, not six feet in the ground
kick back with other blacks, enjoyin' the sound
of our kids comin' up in a similar fashion
makin' it happen, gettin' theirs without askin'
until then I keep on rollin' with the punches
collectin' dough in bunches
layin' my head on plush shit
a hunch, kid
will get your ass a long stay
but a little bit of faith'll carry a nigga a long way"
That and watching where you're going - in the literal AND in the figurative sense. Ultimately I guess I had to learn the hard way that Big Mike was 'still serious'.
Music Vibes: 9 of 10 Lyric Vibes: 8 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 8.5 of 10
Originally posted: August 16, 2001