Hip-hop isnít kind to its elderly. Implicit in the tales of ostentation and violence that populate radio is youth. Itís one thing to watch the streets from a distance; itís quite another to be an active participant (or at least pretend youíre one). So just as the audience for hip-hop remains young, so do its stars. New generations of listeners demand new heroes; yesterdayís icons are left to fend for themselves.
Well into his second decade as a rapper, Scarface has been thrust into the unenviable role of genre granddaddy. Itís a cumbersome responsibility that many before him have fumbled. Most one-time gangsters try to kick the same rhymes at age 40 that held them over in their 20s, with little success. Some become sullen and surly in old age, finding it necessary to use their bully pulpit to spit sermons about the fallacies of the art form they once embraced. On his previous album, Last of a Dying Breed (Def Jam), Scarface seemed poised to fall into the first of those categories. His stories lacked vision and bite, and his flow seemed prematurely aged. Now, two years later, the Scarface of The Fix (Def Jam) is a man reborn, or perhaps one whoís learned how to glide gracefully into middle age. Heís still spitting the same morbid tales of street hustling, but thereís no shine to them, no glory or fame at the end of the road.
"In Cold Blood," produced by wunderkind Kanye West, recounts life as a young drug dealer but focuses on its perils. "Keep Me Down" is as moving as anything Scarface has done in his career. A vivid depiction of poverty, it renders the details of a bleak house so intensely it would make anyone, even its residents, want to stay away. "These niggas in my age group is dead or they locked up. The bitches know better, they smoked out or knocked up."
Sad but true. And what allows Scarface to get away with such dire statements is the musicality of The Fix. Not only does he sing himself, Hendrix-style, on the albumís intro, but his choice of beats ó optimistic piano soul, grimy blues ó allows him the freedom to explore new lyrical ideas without being trapped by old expectations. He also demonstrates his ample diplomatic skills, securing enemies-on-wax Nas and Jay-Z for cameo appearances, albeit on separate tracks. Both are hungry, and they turn in superlative performances that leave their host sounding a bit tame in comparison. "I came from the dirt," Jay-Z proclaims on "Guess Whoís Back." "And I emerged from it all without a stain on my shirt." On "In Between Us," Nasís best guest appearance since Raekwonís "Verbal Intercourse," his pugnacity is palpable: "Circumstances are like my first fight/I lost it/Was swinging my arms bugging/Adrenaline pumping/Oh shit, this liíl niggaís thugginí."
As an MC, Scarface has always borne himself like an authoritative yet accessible elder, even when recounting the grimmest tales of violence. On classic Geto Boys songs like "My Mindís Playing Tricks on Me," he tempered violent urges with a true believerís need to repent. Although most of The Fix is preoccupied with reliving the highs and lows of the gangster life, he leaves ample room for the afterlife. Toward the end, he turns reflective with a pair of songs that grapple with religion. "Heaven" is a straight-ahead toast to the Lord on which he boasts that heís "serious about religion, this ainít no song." On the Neptunes-produced "Someday," he raps, "I was singing this morning/Got touched by the spirit/So I wrote it down for the homies to hear."
Unlike the way KRS-One turned gospel gab on his last album, Spiritual Minded, Scarface does so without being didactic. KRS is the teacher, always has been. To hear him proselytize for the Lord isnít all that different from hearing him preach non-violence (or, alternately, violence). In each case, heís delivering high-minded lectures to the masses. Scarface accomplishes all of that without talking down to his listeners. As a product of his environment, he understands that empathy goes much farther than presumptuousness, that humility is a more potent tool than pride. "Who am I to judge a man," he asks on "Someday." "Iím a man myself."