Online research for this release can point to up to three different covers. One, a yellowed close-up of a sunglassed C.L. Smooth in front of some sort of historical background that includes the stars and stripes, is actually last year’s lead single. Another, used with a 2006 XXL Magazine review, shows him in a casually worn white shirt standing under a darkening sky, looking alert into the distance as behind him an American flag braves the wind. The third, the one I’m holding in my hands, depicts the artist in an upright, thoughtful position in front of another fluttering flag, clad in a white paisley suit while to his right there is a collage with dollar bills, Black Panthers protesting, a car bearing a license plate that says Black Heart, the New Yorker Hotel, and a female in push-up bra and panties.
“American Me,” released last fall, marks the return of the Mecca Don after twelve years of absence interrupted by sporadic appearances, three of which, “Da Two” (1998), “Back on da Block” (2000) and “It’s a Love Thing” (2004), leading fans of the duo to get their hopes up that one day the world would witness another album “written by the C.L., produced by the P.R.” With their legacy, any album title and cover the duo would choose would be readily accepted. But on his own, backed by a label that has never had to handle such a high profile release, Corey Penn has to put up with questions about both. What’s the meaning of the cover? Why “American Me”? Such is the lonely accountability of a solo artist.
Positioning the album’s presumed theme prominently, “American Me” starts with the same-titled intro, a couple of bars over a blaxploitation backing following a Hollywood sample pondering that what makes a man is “not how he starts things, but how he decides to end them.” A nice enough introduction, where the overused “You industry / I’m in the street” rhyme is outweighed by the determined declaration “I’m still positive, but let’s go hard with it.”
Then the title track kicks in courtesy of Rsonist, who suffocates potentially banging guitar wahs and rahs with a club thump. A voice announces the President to address “the upgrade of homeland security.” Never known to write particularly linearly, the Mt. Vernon representative seems acutally concerned with coming across clear this time, only to pen a question-raising song instead of a thought-provoking one. At times it seems like he’s either pulling a Bulworth or attempting to get into Bush’s mind, at times “American Me” seems to merely celebrate the fact that C.L. Smooth is back: “If there was any doubt before I could never return / watch and learn, it’s the type of heat that make Pete squirm.” Or is he trying to give a view from both the top and the bottom, once a shining example of leadership (with the strength to make “rougher hands to fall in line”) once a pitiable victim of discrimination (“Strung out and still not free / for the world to see, American Me”). While making sense in parts (“As hard as they come, straight out the slum / nothin’ comes for free, it’s American Me”), the song mixes political and personal perspective in an unconvincing manner.
The album itself is not as perplexing as the title track, but is bogged down by the heavy burden of its title. If it was the rapper’s intent to portray himself as an individual overcoming obstacles, to appear as the kind of determined, hard-working person the term American Dream was coined for, “American Me” is a 12-step program without any actual steps, a biography without events. What could have been an insightful concept to deal with American reality is marred by C.L.’s constant begging for votes from the rap electorate, trying to convince us “how the rap game needs C.L. Smooth.” As his flow is still rock-solid, it’s not a pitiful sight, it’s just not a particularly compelling act being pulled off. Younger fans might not have the same concern, but considering his track record, “American Me” is definitely too C.L.-centric.
That’s not to say that the Carmel King doesn’t make every effort to accomodate the listener. Living up to his professional name, he picks beats that offer comfort. To see the rapper embrace soulful tracks so decidedly should come as no surprise, as Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth were among the first to regularly incorporate vintage soul vocals in their music. This time around, he relies mainly on Rsonist of the Heatmakerz, Mike Loe, and Kay Gee & Tramp of production team Divine Mill (the people behind Jaheim’s success). Former Naughty By Nature conductor Kay Gee actually has a long history of mixing hip-hop and R&B, and his experience shows on the sparkling “Call on Me” and the muscling “Gorilla Pimpin.” Mike Loe is the most versatile of the bunch with the horn-driven “Smoke in the Air,” the guitar-wielding “The Impossible,” and the soul-soaked “All We Ever Know.”
But the smoothest ensemble is put together by Italian producer Squarta, who provides “C.L. Smooth Unplugged” with mellow jazz funk sweltering so organically it has you looking around for the live band. “This is champagne music, caviar lyrics,” C.L. smacks his lips, all the while making sure that this party is not ruined by a strict dress code (“You might have some cash, but got no class”). The price of admission? You have to buy into the rapper’s boasts: “Who could me top me, kid? / They had enough kahunas, they would’ve already did.”
On a few occasions, C.L. manages to lift the focus from himself. “Call on Me” offers support to women, citing Betty Shabazz, Coretta Scott King and Maya Angelou as essential female figures in black history: “If life is a tug of war, let’s keep pullin’ / cause behind every strong man is a strong woman.” “Warm Outside” is a summer jam, nothing more, nothing less. “It’s a Love Thing,” the lone collaboration with Pete Rock on “American Me” (previously released on “Soul Survivor II“) is a love joint that needs no revisiting. The closing “All We Ever Know” and “Heaven Is Watching You” see C.L. putting himself in the position of others for practically the first time on the album, the child witnessing “grown folks trippin’,” the soldiers “losin’ legs, arms and eyes,” the hurricane victims dying “with no disaster relief.” “All We Ever Know” proves C.L. is indeed “feelin’ this pulse of the street, that ear to the street” as he claims, as with focused lyricism he addresses strife and struggle in an inspirational way, arriving full circle at 1991 when he first envisioned the “Good Life.”
Nitpicking aside, C.L. Smooth deserves respect for staying his course. He still is a rapper that will “accentuate the positive” (as he puts it on “Heaven Is Watching You”). With C.L., “you not dealin’ with a herb that’ll move with a bird.” So no trap muzik from this rap musician. What “American Me” lacks is the lyrical creativity of “Mecca and the Soul Brother,” the unique vocab of a rapper who once considered himself able to “hit the clichÃ©s, or the subliminal,” the filigreed flow it was delivered with, and finally the penmanship to make more out of “American Me” than a warm-up speech that in politics your campaign manager would make. C.L. Smooth is not a born political or social commentator, but the frustratingly short “Terrorism Interlude” indicates potential.
On the personal side, an attentive listener would be interested in how C.L. earned his very own stars and stripes in the good old US of A. Where’s that “greatest hood tale ever told”? It’s left untold in favor of a campaign that presents him as head of some abstract state that is hardly recognizable as what once was billed the hip-hop nation: “I’m not here to fit in, I’m here to get right in / This is a takeover, rap needs a makeover, a new president / the same time tear your face off and still know how to take it with intelligence.” Acting as the commander of chief of a ghost army, the don of his yet unknown Blackheart Family, C.L. assumes an air of authority, but no one is there to obey: “See every order be followed and executed / snap of the finger, and I can send for you / can’t stand your attitude, then that’s the end for you.” “We play by my rules,” he says on “The Impossible.” Too bad his rule ends once the music stops.
Not to take anything away from all the rappers who ever rocked a Pete Rock beat, but in my opinion (which I know few will share) C.L. was truly – as he once claimed – “the best who ever did it on a Pete Rock track.” My complaint is not that “American Me” lacks Pete Rock, but that it lacks the C.L. Smooth of Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, or at least an updated and equally good (or even better) version. This comback, while musically solid and lyrically clearly more healthy than hazardous, fails to live up to expectations nourished by both the artist’s catalogue and the idea of a C.L. Smooth album called “American Me.” “I’m the man that you be takin’ too lightly,” he warns. Or could it be that he takes himself too seriously?