Monday, February 2, 2009

A Diss You Might've Missed: This Is A Man's World

When they close the book on Alvin Nathaniel Joiner, let the record show that before becoming the face of “Pimp My Ride”, before “XXX: State of the Union”, and “X-Files” cameos, the MC known to the world as Xzibit had his moments. The Alkaholiks affiliated rapper from Los Angeles via Detroit will be remembered for his first two contributions “At the Speed of Life” and “40 Dayz & 40 Nightz”. Like Nas, Xzibit cloaked his impoverished hood in mysticism and biblical allusions. He was most effective over dramatic, string heavy production in which his gravelly baritone fills with passion and intensity. You hear songs like “Paparazzi” and believe for Xzibit, his artistic integrity is an all or nothing struggle.

Perhaps this is the reason why no rapper ever suffered more from gaining an all star production team and the backing of what, at the time, was the most powerful label in the game. Xzibit was a leader of the underground, someone whose identity was based on his very otherness and unwillingness to conform or compromise. When he leant his growl to voice-over narration for MTV2 shows about conspicuous consumption and tailor made, cookie cutter singles about nothing over bloated, Storch-era Dre beats we didn’t believe him. The raging, righteous underdog was nothing but a career move from an intelligent and talented MC, easily, carelessly traded in once a major label came calling.

A microcosm of Xzibit’s promising career and where it went wrong can be found in his brief beef with So So Def impresario Jermaine Dupri. In a 2002 interview with XXL magazine, Dupri got a bit full of himself and started running his mouth, claiming the title of best producer in the game and that Dr. Dre and Timbaland couldn’t do what he does. Dre and Timbaland were pissed, and in a fashion typical of that moment, in which all of Rocafella participated in Jay v. Nas and G-Unit/Murda Inc. became a battle royale, Eminem and Xzibit followed their label head into the fray.

Xzibit’s roast of Jermaine is a mini “Ether” (A song I consider the gold standard for any diss). I say that not in terms of devastating ramifications or cultural importance but sheer effectiveness. It’s at once childish taunting and eviscerating character assassination over a Neptunes beat ripe for the taking. It’s humorous and a scathing career critique of the man, so damaging because it’s so on point. This is Barry Bonds swinging on a piñata with a spiked bat and X makes the most of his opportunity. To this day, when there’s some obnoxious, amorphous, talentless rapper who seems to hang around through means of familiarity and the willingness to co-opt any and every developing trend to get three minutes on Clear Channel I’ll ask myself “Why it always gotta sound like the next man’s shit?”

Unfortunately for Xzibit, a new jack on Aftermath presumably and understandably trying to fit in and make a name for himself, there was more than one label head with Dre’s name in his mouth at the time, and that irritant was none other than Suge Knight. With the relevance of his label already nearly non-existent, Suge took increasingly brazen shots at Dr. Dre, Snoop, Eminem and everyone affiliated with the collective. Even this wasn’t enough to garner publicity for Suge and his once mighty Death Row imprint. In all likelihood with no response, Suge would’ve continued to fade into his role in history as the super villain at the heart of the East Coast West Coast beef, there was only one person who couldn’t let the aggression stand.

Snoop Doggy Dogg, arguably Dre’s greatest collaborator and ghost writer (with all due respect to Jay-Z and Ice Cube) took Xzibit, Eminem and Dr. Dre to task for what he perceived as hypocrisy. They were all loading up on JD, the easy target while the big bad gangster Suge Knight is saying much worse, ungodly shit about all of them and their mothers. Xzibit weakly responded that his beef with Dupri was “just hip hop” and because of the fact that he had a life and a family, a beef with a character like Suge was something the MC couldn’t afford. Snoop responded to Xzibit and Suge with one devastating blow.

Snoop Dogg - Pimp Slap (Suge diss) - snoop dogg

“Pimp Slap” made a brief run on the mixtape circuit then disappeared. It did nothing to further Snoop’s career or cement his place as a West Coast icon. It’s a song the listener understands in context as something the man had to make. He was being disrespected, called out by name and Snoop was obligated to respond. The very name of the track implies his intentions, a pimp slap is something reserved for a ho, a sign of open disregard and disrespect. This came at a time when Suge was still seen as a dangerous entity who had gotten away with one or two of the most infamous murders in the history of Hip Hop.

The song is quintessentially West Coast, the funkadelic bassline and hook, the Quik-ish key work and scratching and of course Snoop. This track displays none of the tight, technical proficiency Xzibit unleashes in his attack on Jermaine Dupri, Snoop seemingly freestyles through half of it and more than a few punchlines are throw away. But this declaration of war is towering, imperial swagger, screw faced with a middle finger raised from start to finish. It’s drenched in Los Angeles reference, neighborhood pride and crew love. Intimate knowledge of Suge’s prison situation, damning swipes at Death Row’s failing health, when Snoop straight calls the unassailable Suge a bitch you’re floored. The Crenshaw role call is my favorite moment. In general this song serves as a reminder, that beyond cutesy commercials and celebrity bullshit Snoop is still Snoop, a Crip born and raised in Long Beach.

While haters can step back and call this diss lazy or predicated on shallow gang feuding, for me it’s instructive regarding an X factor in what it is that makes a diss track effective. While Xzibit used every device in the book well in his tongue lashing, Snoop ultimately did more damage with less ability. I can’t say context doesn’t play a part, but it’s in the music as well. There’s a simple, quiet confidence, a menace, a heart in “Pimp Slap” that simply isn’t present in the JD diss. There's a genuine grievance being aired, a personal intimate familiarity and anger that avoids the typical, publicity minded industry beef. In his battle, Xzibit’s playing the school bully, while Snoop is standing up to his and knocking him on his ass. What does it mean to keep it real? Being gangster? Conveying authenticity through your rhymes? Being true to yourself? I don’t know, but Snoop does.


T.R.O.Y. said...

I'm not buying it. Snoop is trash on this track, like he is 90% of the time.

Informative post, just chiming in to disagree.

Hill Rat said...

Interesting post, but why are you so hard on Xzibit? I hear what you're saying about X starting out as an outsider, but once X (and others like him) start to gain a measure of notoriety and financial success is it fair to expect them to stay "outside?"



Abe Beame said...

Certainly, as I acknowledge several times, Snoop is short on wordplay here. What I love about the song is its content. You feel like this goes beyond proving cleverness or airing out some minor grievance. This is some real personal shit, and Snoop is setting the record straight with absolutely nothing material to gain. Like I said, I think context plays a part in me loving this song. It came at a time when you just assumed Snoop was over the hill, and to go call out Suge Knight of all people. I found it was a great moment and a true affirmation of character.

As for Xzibit, inside, outside, position and finances have nothing to do with what you put on record. Unfortunately, X let these things affect his work detrimentally. There's simply no way to compare "40 Dayz & 40 Nightz" with "Restless" and feel like there wasn't a conscious re-packaging of the artist in whole. This isn't always necessarily the case. Eminem for instance, was once a lyrically focused veteran of the battle circuit who got his label endorsement and wasn't above TRL concessions, but ultimately established an identity as an artist and maintained that identity. (Even on his last two shitty albums)

Lar said...

super insightful take.