For much of his remarkable 18-year career as a hip-hop DJ, producer, and MC, Prince Paul has done his best to live up to that standard contradiction of the really nice guy with a not-so-hidden dark side. "Iíve been told Iím a complex person," Paul muses in a phone call from the New York offices of his new record label, Razor & Tie. "If you listen to my records, one, youíd think Iím crazy; in another part, youíd think I really dislike women and Iím a pervert; and I think the music industry is wack. Well, yeah, I feel all that. But at the same time thereís the good side of it. But, man, isnít the bad side more entertaining? You know what Iím sayiní? Who wants to hear 50 Cent talkiní about, ĎYeah, man, I was talkiní to the kids today and I read to íem?í"
Needless to say, Prince Paul, who headlines Lupoís Heartbreak Hotel this Wednesday, June 11, is hardly 50 Cent. Not only is he a lot funnier, heís also warmly indulgent, laughing quickly every time I point out a joke or ironic detail on his Razor & Tie debut, Politics of the Business. At one point, he excuses himself to take a private cell-phone call, and I hear him tenderly apologizing to the caller, "You okay? You need anything?" It reminds me of the time I saw him defuse a contentious hip-hop panel discussion at a music conference, dropping self-depreciating one-liners and droll observations whenever sparks started to fly.
Itís a characteristic that carries through into his work as well. Even producing De La Soulís dyspeptic De La Soul Is Dead, leading the Gravediggazís "horror-core" routines, or crafting his wonderfully perverse 1996 solo debut, Psychoanalysis (What Is It?) (Word Sound), Paul lit the darkness with the fuzzy glow of his off-the-cuff humor and unpredictable beats. On Politics of the Business, however, Paul sacrifices those beats to make the comedy shine brighter, or maybe blacker. "As far as from a production standpoint, Iíve totally disregarded my old style," he explains. "In order for me to put my point across I had to imitate everything that everybody does now. You know, Iíd listen to the Jay-Z album and say, ĎThatís the sound I want.í"
The mission of this mimicry was mockery, a satire that says out loud what everyone says in private: "Music is wack." It rings clearest on cuts like "So What," a loping, OutkastĖgoĖWest Coast number featuring Snoop Dogg associate Kokane, who coos in a fauxĖGeorge Clinton chorus: "What do you say to a man that raps about his car?/So what!" Paul still laughs when he recalls how Kokane never noticed that his usual employer might not like the sentiment. But the misperception also made him worry: if Kokane didnít get it, who would?
"My fear for this album is that people are not going to get it. Because itís like, itís layers beyond layers of messages. And itís not blatant. Itís just like certain subliminal things, you know, just weird things here and there. It requires too much thought."
That concern speaks to the hot incident that sparked the concept for Politics of the Business in the first place: the refusal of Paulís former label, Tommy Boy, to promote A Prince Among Thieves, a 1999 "hip-hopera" widely considered by critics to be a hip-hop masterpiece. "You gotta keep in mind that when I made this new record, I made it out of sheer hurt," he says. "You know what Iím sayiní? I went to Tommy Boy, and they were like, ĎYo, we canít even make you a T-shirt because your record has no commercial potential. We canít sell it. Itís too conceptual. Itís too this, itís too that. Itís too smart.í You know?... Iím glad I donít carry a gun, because if I felt a lot of the things I felt at the heat of the moment.... Itís like, ĎMan, you made me mad!íí So I think out of being hurt, my rebelliousness was like, ĎAll right, you want a record with what everybody else is doing? Iím gonna make that.í"
Actually, the lingering heat of the moment is one reason Politics mostly falls short as satire: it just doesnít have the cold command demonstrated by the new school of jiggy jokesters from N*E*R*D to the Majesticons. And yet, in a way, that shortcoming is also the discís greatest strength. The beats might be stripped naked and greased up for heavy rotation, but Paulís warmth still comes through in the comedy skits, in the relationship complaints, and in the unbridled anger of cuts like "Not Trying to Hear That." Itís even got a couple soulful moments, when Paul and his MC guests face lifeís darkness head-on. Compared to this kind of real-life complexity, 50 Cent might as well be reading childrenís stories after all.
Prince Paul headlines Lupoís Heartbreak Hotel, in Providence, this Wednesday, June 11. Call (401) 272-5876.