You have to hand it to MJG, creatively setting the so-called confederate flag ablaze in 1997 gave rap music one of its potentially most political album covers. However, controversy didn’t ensue. Considering how easily tempers flare over the subject, the fact that the Tennessee rapper didn’t add lyrical fuel to the fire likely didn’t play much of a factor. From a historical perspective it is nonetheless notable that cover and title remain purely symbolic gestures on the part of MJG and the legendary Pen & Pixel Graphics. On “No More Glory”, no arguments whatsoever are made regarding the flag in particular or the burden of history in general.
Presumably alluding to the phrase ‘The flag may fade but the glory never will’, MJG’s message as a proud southerner himself nevertheless was clear – what to some is an innocent token of southern heritage, an emblem of a romanticized kind of freedom that one allegedly only finds below the Mason-Dixon (the irony of which shouldn’t be lost on anyone), a harmless piece of pop culture even, to him and millions of others is an offensive symbol of a barbaric system of oppression, exploitation and injustice that was in effect for centuries and continues to corrode modern-day coexistence in the United States, and that’s not even taking into account that since the civil rights era the flag was increasingly hijacked by white power asswipes.
When it came to writing songs for his solo debut, Marlon Jermaine Goodwin drew from the same sources that guided his pen on the first three Eightball & MJG albums that have become part of the canon of southern rap music. MJG goes against the grain with every rhyme because he’s part of a generation of rappers who knew they had to speak up to get heard. But while he steps to the listener directly, the flow itself is markedly layered and flexible. He often uses multi-tracked vocals, a technique that may not get every purist’s approval but that breathes life into a performance. This is not stylistically witless, straightforward rapping, indeed it’s sometimes reminiscent of Slick Rick’s groundbreaking conversational recital.
It works perfectly on opener “Keep Your Mind”, where MJG encourages you to navigate “hang-ups, let-downs, bad breaks, set-backs” and to persevere with patience. As is tradition in rap, he invites the listener to take a leaf out of his own book by sharing his experiences: “I had to make my own path, do my math / understand I had to be sad before I’m glad”. It’s one of the many rap songs that manage to inspire with what on the face of it is a self-centered message.
“Comin’ up I knew the streets did test me”, he remembers, but in the meantime “communication skills be the best / so I don’t wear no armor on my chest / God bless my soul / Hopin’ to get a 100 years old”. Going into certain situations prepared, specificially being able to defuse dangerous situations through means of communication, and, who knows, being able to put your faith in a higher power – these can be essential tools that determine whether you live or die, see “Slippin'” where G braces for schemers who want what’s his.
The clean-cut “Hard But Fair” may direct its message mainly at the opposite sex, but it also offers insight into MJG’s general outlook on life. What doesn’t feel fair to MJG is how the music business ignores his achievements. On “What Is This” (a vintage slice of underdog/underground Memphis rap as pioneered by him and his partner) he wonders, “How come every MC feel he got the skills to sell a mill / But when my record sell a mill, ah hell, that shit just can’t be real?” The title track, taking the national debut in 1993 as a starting point, scolds “groups stuck in a trend” back then and “circus MC’s” who “wanna go with the flow” but “can’t stay afloat” now. Elsewhere he chides, “First-time MC’s should thank God / for first-time platinum, that shit is hard”.
Sidestepping the emotional support the blues traditionally offers to confront trials and tribulations, MJG is keen to present himself as steeled and smartened up, letting exasperation slip through only momentarily (“Sometimes I feel I’m at the bottom of the list”, he lets on in “What Is This”, and, “I gots to get some glue in my life before I break” on “Shine and Recline”). He tends towards a sternly patriarchal rapping style. He himself would probably say that he governs with fairness and by experience, even admitting to mistakes he has learned from: “Ain’t no bitch worth my whole income” and “ain’t no ignorant muthafuckas residin’ in my zone”, simply because “it’s been too many times that I’ve been ganked and double-crossed”, he relates on the tune that insists that he’s a “Good Damm Man”.
More than a few people will find that hard to reconcile with Mr. Goodwin’s carefully cultivated image of a pimp. And they may have a point (although, being a rapper, rest assured that he has a couple too). The prominently placed phrase “Break that bitch” is censored on “Take No Shit”, and while the song can’t avoid misogynist and macho language, it’s not blind to male misbehaviour either (“Jack that trick” goes the other half of the hook). Guest Bun B has the following words for a fella who has his priorities mixed up: “Puttin’ hoes up in cribs / Take ’em out to eat lobster tiein’ they bibs / Then can’t take care of yo kids?” ZING! Possibly the hardest knock on a song that knocks hard as hell. More importantly, though, is it about ‘breaking bitches’ and ‘jacking tricks’? Not in the literal sense, no. It simply calls out folks who step out of line with the language of the street. Rap listeners should be smart enough to know the difference.
And yet – this is not the time to discuss Eightball & MJG’s space age pimpin’ metaphor, even less so because sometimes there’s nothing even remotely metaphorical about their form of pimp posturing. “Black Mac Is Back” sees them both getting lost in their pimpsloitation fantasy, fittingly preluded by 3 minutes of crooner Rodney Ellis channeling Curtis Mayfield on “Pimpin Ain’t Easy”.
Although we should never view (non-metaphorical, plain) pimps as role models, MJG’s reading of rap from the perspective of “a Memphis-born pimp” contributes to an instructive, inspirational grounding of his music. At face value, other acts had a firmer grip on combining beats and rhymes with horror/thriller imagery, yet in reality “Hip Hop Voodoo” celebrates MJG’s ability to influence his audience. In that sense he’s no different from other writers who evoke the power of words: “You get zapped with the powerful pimpin’ from deep within / So take it as a lesson, you’ll never be weak again”.
And so, as is so often the case in this genre, as long as you’re able to look beyond the language, the imagery, the exaggerations, you’ll walk away with worthwhile content. From whatever corner of the world it may originate, quality rap is always informative. As the hook to “Hard But Fair” puts it: “Cause what I don’t know I’ma learn / and what I ain’t got I’ma earn”.
Ultimately MJG knows there’s a time to be a player and there’s a time to start pursuing an actual adult relationship. Which he does on “That Girl”, the single glammed up for crossover success with an unambiguous Stevie Wonder interpolation, singer Rodney Ellis on the hook and actress Stacey Dash in the video. Despite its airplay intentions, “That Girl”, cribbing from Cool J’s book of (unrequited/complicated) love raps, elaborates on its subject and is definitely not your typical skippable single release. “Middle of the Night” with Eightball was later overshadowed by a remix featuring Twista but closes out the album as a final reminder of how well the duo harmonizes when they indulge in storytelling and their little Space Age fetish. “Don’t Hold Back” is MJG’s part in a flirtatious exchange between two consenting adults that runs the gamut from self-assured brags like “Amazon, let’s have a marathon in the bedroom / cause stout, 6’3″ women need legroom” to sensual particulars like “The sweet aroma of your perfume clouds the room, soft rain / Sprinkle down homie, massage away the pain”.
If we may borrow MJG’s motto “Hard But Fair” for this review, there is one thing that compromises the enjoyment of “No More Glory”. While Eightball & MJG diligently made a name for themselves on a national level in ’97 and ’98 with features around the country (Mase, The Almighty RSO, 5th Ward Boyz), appeared together on Sick Wit’ It and No Limit compilations and on movie soundtracks, took part in a hip-hop documentary (‘Rhyme & Reason’ – whose soundtrack yielded the brilliant “Reason For Rhyme”) and an AIDS awareness project (“America Is Dying Slowly”), all of a sudden they decided to branch out on solo paths. Considering the album shipped gold within a solid four months, the south may have been ready for an MJG solo, the world was not. It’s disputable whether Eightball’s subsequent “Lost” was the better record, more crucial was that the Eightball & MJG brand lost its buzz and their potential national breakthrough album, their universal claim to fame, their “Raising Hell”, their “Black Sunday”, their “The Infamous”, their “Aquemini” was never to be.
The album itself does fall short here and there as well. But don’t mistake “No More Glory” for a vanity project from a rapper who has no business rhyming without his partner, rather consider it an essential southern album. It contains plenty of strong cuts and smartly deals with the universal topic of maintaining individual freedom when society has contrary ideas. Without the majority of tracks being overshadowed by a couple of absolutely brilliant ones, the record is rock-solid in so many respects. T-Mix’ production takes a more conventional direction than usual every now and then, but it’s still original as it seldomly can be nailed down to one inspiration or source. Notably MJG’s dominant flow is the album’s very backbone. There is plenty of variation, but for our amazement let’s pick this lethal barrage shortly after the 3-minute-mark of “Black Mac Is Back”: “I’m waitin’ for one to jump up / Itchin’ to pop the trunk up / Reachin’ and pull the pump up / Hittin’ whoever run up”.
It’s hard to imagine T.I. or Killer Mike without MJ. Fuckin’ G. He’s the model of southern MC’s who won’t sugar-coat shit but still make their points with rhetoric finesse. From tightly fitted thought patterns like “My friend – my foe / My woman – my hoe / If the shoe fits you’re told” to crafty couplets like “A woman with lots of class / who knows how to carry herself with lots of ass” and “Goddamn, is this shit ham or is it spam? / Thought I had a bottle of jelly and got jam”.
As always, it’s best to have a bit of a predilection towards the sound to be able to fully savor the flavor. The same goes for the MC’s manner of expression. But the general quality of “No More Glory” is undisputable. If you’re not inclined, you should still take a hard (but fair) listen. To quote from Eightball’s final verse on the album: “How you gon’ shoot a player down before the conversation get started, baby?”