In the best possible case, the musical alphabet soup known as Best Of or Greatest Hits tells a life story, a tale of talent, of growth, of purpose, of destiny. In other cases, all kinds of things can go wrong with career retrospectives. The future of the format is uncertain at this point as streaming playlists seem to be replacing collections sanctioned by record labels. For some time now, they are mainly conceived and manufactured for buyers who either support their favorite artists until the very end or for momentarily interested listeners looking for a glimpse into the genius of a famous artist.
Either way, not everyone gets the special treatment – at least past the days of the ’90s/’00s goldrush when every two-album career was crowned with a Best Of. A retrospective has to be earned and expected. Lyrics Born’s name was called in 2016 with the humorously titled “Now Look What You’ve Done, Lyrics Born! Greatest Hits!” I’m not shy about disclosing that I eventually gave a copy to someone I thought might enjoy it, whether as an introduction to the artist or as the proverbial essential collection, the only Lyrics Born album the person would ever need.
Sporting a title that would suit a career compilation as well, “Quite a Life” however makes the point that LB is not done yet. One score that remains unsettled, according to the artist himself, is the lack of acknowledgment of his pioneering role as an Asian in the American music biz. He spends most of “Don’t Quit Your Daydream” to make a case for his unique position, in fact, he cites “Now Look What You’ve Done, Lyrics Born!” as evidence:
“First Asian kid to make a Greatest Hits
in the history of American music
Ain’t that some s–t? That goes beyond just
entertainment and amusement
Every song I write has historical significance
Something that’s lost on these cultural critics”
These are bold words even for a rapper, but Lyrics Born is absolutely serious, burdening himself with nothing less than historical responsibility. Like for many of his peers, Tom Shimura’s aspirations ran beyond just being a rapper, but it’s not uncommon for his ilk to simultaneously claim rap supremacy (as he also does on “Don’t Quit Your Daydream”). L.L. Cool J did it, Will Smith did it, Nicki Minaj does it. The overall greatness of this artist, however, is directly derived from his vision to portray a credible MC with a deeper connection to soul and funk than just rapping over loops. Across early staples like “I Changed My Mind”, “Callin’ Out”, “Lady Don’t Tek No” and “Balcony Beach”, Lyrics Born managed to become the quintessential San Francisco Bay rapper/singer crossbreed.
Alchemy is an uncertain business, however, so later Lyrics Born albums contain their share of middling song material. “Quite a Life” opener “Chocolate Cake” is so unimaginative it’s an insult to a long list of rap classics that use culinary metaphors. It takes a particularly evil genius to put Chali 2na, Gift of Gab and Lyrics Born on the same track, but “When I Get My Check ($, $, $)” seems oblivious of the fact that it’s a freak meeting of three rappers who were separated at birth. And so all the self-irony is spent on a song concept from yesteryear. Del meanwhile is criminally underused on “Is it Worth It?” and the self-centered host’s oh so original rhyming gets old before the first verse is over.
Lyrics Born works hard to keep us entertained, but ever so often there’s a touch of desperation to his efforts to not lose our attention. Take “Clap Your Hands (If You Know You’re Beautiful)”. The band goes to town, LB growls and howls, erupts in random “That’s Bay all day!” exclamations, drops neat and petite storylines, but the whole thing mainly seems to pander to whoever may be present.
It would be unfair to maintain that perspective to profile all of LB’s output. The A for effort is well earned, the rest of the grade depends on your personal tastes. On this crowdfunded album Lyrics Born doesn’t challenge himself or the listener and settles into the family-friendly funk that has always been in his repertoire. Under these circumstances, it’s refreshing to hear some real rock in rap for a change (“In Case of Fire”). Or a soundscape that isn’t at least all the way retro (“Trouble Trouble Trouble”). And there’s always the positive, politically correct message behind the music. You’ll find out quickly that LB is no JB, but his reinterpretation of “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” is probably the only way the song can be legitimately revived in 2018 and beyond. This is certainly a piece that will garner enthusiastic responses from live audiences, at home the effect is prone to wear off after the first couple of listens. The CD version of “Quite a Life” also includes Latyrx’ pertinent remake of a Tragedy oldie called “Arrest the President”. While “Same But Different” gives the kind of valuable advice our age group often seems to have forgotten along the way, concluding, “Be that person you needed when you were younger”. “Can’t Lose My Joy”, the album’s emotional centerpiece, could almost be too personal and painful to be shared with strangers, but clearly if a rapper can relate his wife’s enduring battle with cancer, it’s this one.
Lyrics Born has the qualities of a legacy artist. That would be the kind with the Best Ofs and Greatest Hits. That’s not even a compliment, it’s just a fact. It’s also a fact that these days you know what to expect from LB, whereas in 1997 you really didn’t see it coming, what Latyrx and later Lyrics Born as a solo artist had in store. During what turns out to be one of the album’s strongest moments, “Don’t Quit Your Daydream”, he asserts, “I still pursue it / with that sense of newness / that sense of humor / that same exuberance”. While these words may stretch the truth about “Quite a Life” just a little bit, they certainly describe Lyrics Born’s career to a T.