“Selling-out:” It is perhaps the most controversial, most reviled tag that can be slapped on an artist–whether it applies to said artist or not. But let’s face the facts: Artists rarely maintain the same exact style from one album to the next, and if one does, they’re often criticized as being stagnant or possessing limited talents. The flip side of this argument is, of course, the idea that the artist changed too much–usually for commercial gain. It happens in all genres of music: Punk outfit Blink 182 went from critical underground acclaim with “Cheshire Cat” to the adulation of 12-year-old girls with “Take off Your Pants And Jacket,” and the-once “Nasty” Nas went from “Illmatic” to “Nastradamus.” So what kind of a fair balance can an artist possibly maintain while pleasing all parties involved, including their own needs (artistic and financial), the record label’s quest for money, and the fans’ preferences? For the so many artists, it’s nearly impossible.
But Xzibit is not just any artist. When he dropped the commercially successful “Restless” in late 2000, he seemed to make the usually-tumultuous transition from underground to mainstream look easy. Some hardcore fans cried foul but many embraced it. But four years before the release of “Restless,” and two years before the release of the underground classic “40 Dayz and 40 Nightz,” Xzibit debuted with “At The Speed of Life.” The album set the stage for what has become an excellent career for Mr. X to Z, a career which includes a resume boasting unforgettable guest appearances (see him on “Bitch Please” with Snoop, or “What’s The Difference?” with Dre on 2001) and catchy, witty punchlines. Xzibit may not have garnered mainstream recognition until his affiliation with Dr. Dre, Snoop and Eminem, but he had a heck of a formula with The Alkaholik Family and some other west coast-ers.
After a short, instrumental intro to start the album, Xzibit kicks off “At The Speed of Life” (and his career) with a bang on the title-track, production courtesy of Thayod Ausar, who proves to be extremely reliable throughout this album:
“It took a long time comin’ but we waited
Xzibit went from underrated, to now most anticipated
Never would of thought that I would rock your set
And get love and respect with no special effects
Only the rugged, rough shit that the hard rock need
Lyrics must contain more than just clothes, bitches and weed
Thinkin’ how you’d like to see the next man bleed
Tryin’ to glorify greed, livin’ life at ridiculous speed, indeed…”
The pounding bass drum and the twangy guitar riff boom, leaving the listener in a mercurial mood–the perfect setting for Xzibit’s raw, thought-provoking lyrics. Raw and thought-provoking at the same time? Definitely. One of Xzibit’s greatest accomplishments on this album is his ability to seemlessly mesh the two–simultaneously pleasing both the aggressive and introspective side in all of us.
The next track, “Just Maintain,” produced by co-Executive Producer (along with Xzibit) E-Swift, is one of the few spotty tracks on the album. The track itself and Xzibit’s lyrics lack nothing; both are above-average. But for whatever reason, they decided to include Hurricane Gee as a guest spitter, and she doesn’t exactly spit the way one would hope. Her flow is slightly off beat, lyrics are sub-par (gangsta bitch, blah blah blah), and she utilizes the “middle-aged-Dad-trying-to-rap” vocal inflections. The song is a keeper until she gets on the mic, so you might just want to forward the track when her verse comes up.
“Eyes May Shine,” is another good example of a heavy, underground banger. The looped string riff (either a cello or a bass, I’m not sure which one) starts off the track beautifully and is eventually joined by quirky whistle samples. This track is definitely a keeper and Xzibit keeps it raw with the lyrics. It might be a little over the top with the gangsta talk, but that’s part of the package with X to the Z, and he holds your attention with his wit and flow.
“Positively Negative” is yet another minimal beat that allows the MC to shine, and in this case, it’s MCs. West Coast favorite King Tee shows up for two verses, and this time, the guest doesn’t bring Xzibit down, but instead pushes him to bring his best skills to avoid gettin shown up on his own track. You decide which one brings it the best as the two explore the trappings of the streets and the thugged out lifestyle:
“Now let me introduce who’s first
The niggas that’s been down with the set since birth
Whatever it was worth, I checked it on the norm
Since a juvenile callin’ shots in the dorm
Moms said you better get right or shake the spot
I chose to break and be a rollin’ stone – like Pop”
“Quick, sharp and straight to the neck
I’m heavy on your chest
I’m all up in your life, like stress
The coast that resides to your left
Where niggas perpetrate and catch a fate worse than death
And like cyanide I’m hard to detect
Got more designs and straight lines than an architect”
Back and forth. King Tee’s voice (which has a chesty bravado, somewhat like Biggie’s), compliments X’s gruff like they’d been doing it for years. It’s great to hear two MCs on a track that equal each other in ability. A short interlude comes next, but as far as I’m concerned, this track serves only one purpose: It preceeds what is perhaps one of the best break-through songs of all time. This is undoubtedly a weighty label to put on a track, but “Paparazzi” has become, for lack of a better term, “one of those songs.” Just one of “those,” ya know what I mean? Gamers may recognize it from the soundtrack to Tony Hawk Pro Skater 3. It’s one of those head-nodders that you know every word to and you never get tired of listening to it. It’s may even be good enough that if you were to pick out your favorite hip hop tracks of all time for a mix cd (or tape for you old-schoolers), this one might make the cut. The snapping sound of cameras taking pictures is eerily mixed with the angelic voices of a choir, which is replaced by harps and strings, and complimented by a smooth bassline and drum beat. One can only wonder if producers and rappers realize how good a song like this one is when they’re in the studio laying it down. Thayod Ausar comes up clutch on this one, and X doesn’t dissapoint with the pure fire:
“Sometimes I wonder if it’s all worth my while
Xzibit stay versatile with million dollar lifestyle
And I could feel it as a child growin’ up
The niggas that was real and the niggas that was scared as fuck
That’s why Xzibit only roll with a choosen few
You ain’t really real, I can tell when I look at you
So ease off the trigga talk, you ain’t killin shit
And it’s not affecting me, or the niggas that I’m chillin with”
It’s this kind of introspection and honesty that makes Xzibit so balanced and redeeming when you feel he might be going over-board with the “trigga talk,” or lacking focus. Though the beats and lyrical styles are nothing alike, one can’t help but be reminded of Jeru The Damaja’s “Come Clean” when listening to X to the Z question the legitimacy of the thugs and gangstas, and a comparison like that is definitely a good thing.
“Paparazzi” is so good that nothing else on the album could possibly match it, right? Well, honestly, yes. But the next track, “The Foundation,” is pretty damn good in its own right. Muggs, of Cypress Hill fame, shows up to provide a pounding bassline, ear-tickling piano loop, and more angelic background voices–all of which are the perfect backdrop for Xzibit to dedicate a song of love, warning, and advice to his new-born son. “Ms. Crabtree” follows, and is a skippable interlude. “Bird’s Eye View” features Catashtrophe and J-Ro of Tha Alkaholiks, and all spit solid lyrics, but the beat is lacking a little something. The same string sample is looped throughout and it offers little to engage the listener. And damnit! I think I hear that annoying Hurricane girl in the background babbling again. “Hit & Run (Part II)” suffers a similar fate as an uninspired beat drags on and even X falls victim to the mundane routine of “all I wanna do is fuck these hos.”
Things get brought back quickly on “Carry The Weight,” a title no doubt misleading as one unfairly assumes X is referring to selling dope. But the heartbreaking narrative that ensues shows a lamentful, burdened Xzibit reflecting on a troubled past. The beat, yet another keeper laced by Thayod Ausur, matches the tone of his lyrics–sad and a bit brooding.
“You see, I don’t like to reminisce about the past
The lower class, no cloudt, living hand to mouth
Each and every wrong move, the police keep count
make it real fuckin easy to get stretched out
I was at the funeral when it all began
You know the painful transition from boy to man
I lost sight of my mother at the age of nine
Didn’t understand death, nearly lost my mind”
“Plastic Surgery” brings the album back to the playful, and Ras Kass & Saafir both mesh nicely on the track. “Enemies & Friends” closes out real song tracks on an ironic note as Xzibit explores the dichotomy of his relationships with other people. Some are friends, some are enemies, some are in the grey area.
So, did Xzibit fall victim to the fatal “S”-word? Well, that answer probably varies from fan to fan. I tend to think that he really didn’t. Underground-ers yearn for more of this material while fans of the Dre sound look forward to more songs like “X” or “Multiply.” Fans of both–like myself–are happy with his whole catalogue. His new beats are definitely more polished–that’s inevitable when Dr. Dre is in the mix–but X’s lyrics remain rugged and he hasn’t exactly gone pop. You probably won’t hear tracks like “Positively Negative,” “Paparazzi,” or “Carry The Weight” on any of X’s upcoming albums, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. For Xzibit to remain frozen in ’96 would be counter-productive to him and his listeners. He wasn’t the first to be accused of selling out, and he won’t be the last. No matter how you slice it, this is a damn good album, especially considering it’s his debut.