His name up in lights, N-I-N-E. That’s what Derrick Keyes envisioned for himself 15 years ago. Not surprisingly, he never quite got there. The big marquees and billboards are reserved for more marketable types, the Puffys and the Nellys. While the rapper Nine was a newcomer to most in 1995, he had actually been recording for a decade. Going by the name Ricochet, he formed the rap duo Deuces Wild (spelling varies) with partner Centipede. They released the singles “Charlie Brown” (’85), “Hard Is Hard (’86), “He Writes His, I Write Mine” (’87), and “Five Times the Rhymer” (’88), the latter a dedication to the group’s DJ, Funkmaster Flex. These four singles represent the entire spectrum of second-half-of-the-’80s hip-hop, from a cartoon-inspired debut to a Run-D.M.C.-style shouting match to a hard-hitting track experimenting with samples laced by gruff-voiced rappers.

Dubbing himself Nine Double M, the Bronx MC then appeared together with Flex on a couple of early ’90s singles such as “F.A.L.L.I.N. (And Ya Can’t Get Up),” “Go Bang (Can’t/Won’t/Don’t Stop),” and, most notably, “Six Million Ways to Die” before getting his big break with the classic “Whutcha Want?,” a late landmark in New York’s jeep beat era. He followed up his debut LP “Nine Livez” with the overlooked “Cloud 9” in 1996, before disappearing into the void. From which he – largely unnoticed – returned last year with “Quinine.”

What does Nine want this time? He is less outspoken about his specific goals, but he insists that we “call it a comeback.” He seems both realistic about the rap game and convinced of his place in it (which of course is a potential paradox). He is “the truest” and “one of the fewest,” coming to take “the crown back to the BX borough.” He suggets, “Take a minute to listen, you’ll see Nine is flawless” because he is, by his own account, “as raw as raw gets, verses to the chorus.” “I’m built for this game, I don’t feel no guilt and no shame,” he declares in “Bionic.” There are a few hints at the very beginning of the album on “What’s Done Is Done” that the timeout he took removed him from “the lifestyle of a rap star” (“You seen that nigga’s video? I ain’t have that car / I ain’t get that far”). But the vast majority of the lyrics are meant to reassure us and Nine of his potential. The track best suited to initiate a triumphant return would have been “Yes” with its Just Blaze-esque beat from HUSHH Productions (an acronym for Help Us Save Hip Hop) that fires up Nine’s enthusiasm:

“Tic-toc… it’s my time now
I’m so polished, you can see the way I shine now
You can hear the way I rhyme now
Say, ‘Is that the same Nine? Goddamn, timeout!’
When you find out you don’t remember my name
but you gon’ find out when I take over the game
You just a cuchifrito, you burn under the flame
I am arroz con pollo, we are not the same”

Rarely, however, is “Quinine” this invigorating. The growl that made him a precursor to million-sellers DMX and Ja Rule has been tempered by the years. The song concepts aren’t very original either, and the lyrics that go with it not particularly coherent. “Bionic” opens with a sampled Bushism for no apparent reason until at one point Nine issues an “Obama for president.” But Nine has never been a political or socially conscious rapper, if anything he came from a personal perspective. There is some of that here, like on “Furious,” which uses an Aaron Neville vocal sample to good effect. It discloses that the rapper is continuously “mad at somethin’,” but instead of searching his soul, he doesn’t delve much deeper than the song title:

like OJ when he caught Nicole suckin’ on dick
like Scarface when he caught Manny fuckin’ his sis
like Ike when Tina Turner got sick of that shit
I throw bricks and shit cause I’m (furious)
like the Grandmaster Flash MC’s
Then I put the hammer to your ass and squeeze
You can’t touch this, I’m like Hammer – Please
Like a lion when he’s eatin’ a zebra
like hyenas when they chasin’ a cheetah
like Nas was when he wrote Ether
like if you say bitch to Latifah”

The album is full of songs about Nine, but most remain on the surface of standard confrontational street rap. He strives to observe the rap context, meaning that in most songs there’s at least one line about rap (“Gimme My Money”: “First time I hear you rhyme I can finish your sentence / it’s all so basic”), but the formula of a song like “Shotgun” itself is so basic that you wish that for something like “Homicide” he’d stuck to the initial storytelling approach. There is a handful of drug (dealing) similes in “Glock 9” and “Push,” but it’s the quinine metaphor that results in a potent song. HUSHH Productions dug up the Delfonics horns the hip-hop generation knows from Missy’s “Sock it 2 Me” and Nine’s performance is on the level of “Cloud 9”:

“They dope but I’m just a little better than ’em
If you can count, I’m 10 steps ahead of them and
I’m representin’ every single veteran in
every project building and ghetto residence and
every stripper on the pole, every hustler on the corner
T-shirts to crack I make ’em react
Like, ‘This nigga is just like me
cause just like me he just wanna be free
He just wanna stay ahead, he just wanna get paid
And he’s doin’ that shit, so why am I afraid?
Workin’ a 9 to 5, why am I a slave?
I got dreams, I wanna live ’em, so it’s time to get brave’
Take a chance with your life, you deserve better
If you don’t believe it, then you don’t deserve better”

While no rap fan would feel alienated by the production on “Quinine,” when you consider rap’s vast musical possiblities these days it’s not an album that takes many chances. HUSHH Productions provide “Push” with a charmingly low-key but convincing underworld vibe and sign the organ-heavy composition “Bionic.” The other main contributor, Hiram Abiff, is involved in the ill-fated attempt at a club track, “Red Light Green Light,” a wholly soulless, synthetic affair with an unexplicable underground vibe. “Glock 9” is slightly dated, moody street shit, while “Homicide” is more contemporary, but also borderline pseudo-cinematic. Sadly, Abiff’s rock-inspired beat for “Hip Hop” re-defines amateurish hip-hop, a veritable farce featuring only the cheapest sounding drums, keys, guitars, and vocal effects. Too bad, because Nine’s dedication to the artform is felt, from the RIPs to the fallen soldiers to his reaction to hip-hop’s alleged demise:

“I heard hip-hop was dead, nobody told me
She was just a kid in like 1983
What, she have a heart attack or somethin’?
She’s still alive, my heart’s still pumpin’
She’s still alive if your heart’s still pumpin’
I don’t know what you heard, my speakers still bumpin’
In the club I’m still jumpin'”

“Quinine” is actually a quite decent comeback album, although interest would likely be limited to people who dug Nine back in the day. It’s relatively easy to overlook preposterous claims like “I’m the new Hova” and “Not since BIG has a nigga did it like this” and take the album for what it is – an unexpected but well executed re-entry from a veteran who manages to make an unfazed impression among hip-hop’s incessant hustle and bustle in the internet age. As he says over the soothing beat of “What’s Done Is Done”: “Fuck who he is, I know who I am.”

Nine :: Quinine
6Overall Score