Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Carola Dibbell
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Rude Girls Rule

All hardcore rappers are scared of seeming, not to mention being, soft. So whenever they approach that storied sellout line, they prove their manhood with gangsta gestures--waving a gat, treating some bitch like a ho. The concept behind this posturing is "reality." In the 'hood, we are told, dealing and drive-bys are what's real, with all attempts to transcend or escape doomed--except rapping, that is. Though it helps to meet a few of the countless African Americans whose lives belie this dogma, you don't have to be from the 'hood to figure out that on the literal level it's bullshit. Among other things, it's a classic piece of rock and roll ideology--young males fending off existential insecurity by declaring their experience the only truth. Yet that's not all she wrote, because as metaphor the gangsta faith retains undeniable clout. Year after year it seems to impart credibility, conviction, maybe even beats. And not just for young males.

As usual, there's action worth watching on the hardcore fringes. But as the engagé critic hypes Brokin English and the Coup and Capital Tax and the down fan puts money on Onyx and Kam and Tim Dog, the summer's most visible hardcore moves will be female. Coming off the No. 1 rap single "Deeper," Boss's Born Gangstaz debuted at 26 pop before doing the SoundScan swan dive (to 68 so far); it's a little too early to know from how high Yo Yo's You Better Ask Somebody and MC Lyte's Ain't No Other will begin their descents, but Yo Yo's and Lyte's lead singles ("IBWin' Wit My Crewin'" and the magnificent "Ruffneck") are moving on up. Whether any of these albums will have legs remains to be seen; the stark fact is that except for the "pop" Salt-n-Pepa, no female rap act, not even the revered Queen Latifah, has ever gone gold. There can be little doubt, however, that they'll all turn a profit. Fans will reward Boss as rap's first full-fledged female gangstas, Yo Yo and Lyte as proven homegirls. Interested bystanders will hope the gangstas go away and root for the homegirls, who can't conceal their humanism even as they set about denying they're soft. And this humanism proceeds from their gender--even if, as Boss means to tell us, it's not the only way a woman can go.

Like so much recent gangsta, Born Gangstaz is distanced and twisted, framed and fictionalized, to make nonsense of "reality." It begins and ends with antigangsta answering-machine messages from "Lichelle"'s mama and papa. Presumably that would be Lichelle Laws, a/k/a Boss, though in the credits Lichelle/Boss thanks "my moms & pops fo backin me up." Boss-the-act isn't just Lichelle--it's a duo, fronted by a prettier woman tagged "Dee," who met Boss in college, where they decided to pursue a career in show business together. But it was a hard road, one that eventually took them from Detroit to L.A.--where, their publicists tell us, they lived on the street, sold dope, and spent time in jail. Yet despite this claim to authenticity, they leave you with the feeling that for them, gangsta is a state of mind. Sometimes "psycho" and sometimes just "tense," Dee comes down hard on the fashionable insanity defense, and "Deeper" isn't about the gangsta life, it's about the gangsta-rap life: "Every now and then I start flippin' and get to thinkin'/About deep shit beyond all that bullshit I shoot at people/But fuck it, I'm evil."

And she is fairly evil, in the banal manner of entertainer-exploiters everywhere. Although Erick Sermon gets only two cuts to the formerly swinging Def Jef's seven, the beats are in the clipped, functional EPMD style, which hards love and nobody else gives a shit about. Dee sounds contained rather than cool, as if she's holding in a hit. There's no love in her affectless tales of mad mayhem, and no sisterhood: "Most bitches don't fit in the category of a criminal gettin' paid." There's not even any sex; two dickheads who believe otherwise end up with their guts on the floor and their money in the pocket of her designer straitjacket. "Recipe of a Hoe," about how she won't be pimped, ends with the kind of mean-ass dozens that might be funny if either combatant cracked a smile: Fake Pimp: "Aw bitch, eat a dick up till you hiccup"; Dee: "Naw trick, eat this clit up till you spit up." Instead, the only humor is the Serch-produced theme song "I Don't Give a Fuck," which deserves all the samples it'll get.

Having already sold records and showed skills, Yo Yo has less to prove than Boss, and more. The founder of the largely theoretical Intelligent Black Women's Coalition has often seemed a male satellite nonetheless--brought forward in 1990 as proof that Ice Cube wasn't a bitch-killer (in "reality," that is), she's ridden Cube lyrics and Lench Mob beats ever since. Because her voice suggested the honeyed grit of an Irma Thomas or a Jackie Moore, and because Cube's crude portrayal of an intelligent black woman was saner than his obsessed portrayal of an endangered black male, even her first album provided an attractive alternative for those who admired the beats more than the calculated rage they channeled, and on Black Pearl she wrote most of the rhymes herself, among them the battered wife's hurting "I Can't Take No More." But its intimations of respectability were easy to label sellout--bitches always go for the gold, right?--and when Black Pearl went nowhere special, Yo Yo disavowed everything on it except the truly saccharine title track. So now she's at pains to reestablish how street she is. "Pretty in pink but don't forget I'm strapped," she warns, and a Cube rhyme adds the news that her man's Tec-9 will "kill your whole crew." In addition to two paeans to "Bonnie and Clyde"-style racial struggle, Cube also gives her a lot of lines about how much chronic she smokes, as well as protestations of sexual normality: "You can ask the people that I fucked with/Not one of them ever got their duck sicked." Whew--glad that's settled.

Yet if anything, You Better Ask Somebody intensifies the pleasures of Yo Yo's music--her voice and timing get richer, and especially on side two the beats could make you squeal. Eschewing Black Pearl's soul steals, her latest production crew samples straight-up funk and other rap records. For me the highlights are the corkscrew funk of "Givin' It Up," built off a reconstructed Mtume riff, and the easygoing sing-along of "Pass It On," which credits Cypress Hill and "Poison" as well an obscure Webster Lewis track. On the latter, five IBWC stalwarts pass a blunt and a mic, boasting about how fucked up they get in the kind of morally retrograde one-off that's given sin good word of mouth since snakes could talk. And then there's a Yo Yo lyric Cube couldn't come near. "Letter to the Pen," in which a loyal gangsta bitch risks her neck keeping her imprisoned "soldier"'s "pockets fat" as his buddies outside play him and his buddies inside swear she's fucking him over, has got to be the most touching love song in years. It's not "reality"; it may not even be realistic, though I doubt it. But it evokes reality, one that remains poorly documented after five solid years of hardcore--a reality in which even the hardcore faithful somehow live through the shit.

An around-the-way girl who's dissed the gangsta life from a street perspective since she surfaced at 17 with the anticrack "I Cram To Understand You Sam," MC Lyte has never had Yo Yo's luck with producers. Her greatest charm is the ordinariness that's also her biggest liability, especially when it comes to music. In 1991, with Latifah and Monie Love passing her by, she failed to go pop with Act Like You Know, which led with "When in Love" and avoided the enthusiastic obscenities of 1989's unprogrammable "Shut the Eff Up! (Hoe)." In 1993, with Latifah and Monie Love falling off, she's acting like she always knew: "Never ever have I ever said I was good-lookin'/Just one bad-ass bitch from Brooklyn." She's still "Pushing out the message that crack is a no-no/Guns and violence get you into a mess/And condoms I strongly suggest." So Ain't No Other's hardcore move is attitudinal, linguistic, with special contumely reserved for the original hardcore female, the tremendously talented and all but over (Roxanne) Shanté, who on a recent track called out every female rapper worth two shits: Latifah ("Roll up and I'ma smoke that ass like reefer"), Monie Love ("Your album cold garbage/Had one good jam now you think you're a star bitch"), Yo Yo ("Keep the pork chops out the frying pan") and Lyte ("She needs something real thick to help her out quick/And that's a good piece of dick").

The source of these startling sentiments, Shanté's The Bitch Is Back, had no discernible cultural or commercial life, and though as pure artifact I think it cuts any hardcore album I've heard all year, with rap such judgments are extremely abstract. So in a way Shanté must have been pleased when Yo Yo took time to call her a "nappy-headed hooker," and for Lyte to construct a whole album around their ancient rivalry--with KRS-One brought in for a bridge-is-over call-out--is a tribute to her fecundity. The most disinterested bystander should search out The Bitch Is Back for "Brothers Ain't Shit," pained testimony that sex in the 'hood has a reality of its own. But as of now Lyte is winning the cultural and commercial war. The verbiage she levels at Shanté ranges from ordinary ("You a lowdown dirty loser/Next time I see you I'ma hit you with my Land Cruiser") to unspeakable ("Flippin' coins with your mom to see who sucks Dad"). But as with Shanté herself--as with so much good hardcore--it would be pointless to deny its energy. Lyte has always written her own rhymes and controlled her own beats, and on her fourth album she's finally hitting them right with some regularity--on the turf-proud "Brooklyn," the jilted-and-glad "Lil Paul," the bloodied-and-unbowed "I Go On," the jovial "F--k That M-----f--kin' Bulls--t," and the revamped "I Cram To Understand U," for starters. Give the hardcore posse one thing--as Latifah fades and Monie scours the studios for her next good jam, this bad bitch keeps on.

Lyte's version of "Letter From the Pen," the boy-loving "Ruffneck," is the single that will break her pop if anything does, and I'm pessimistic enough about America and the 'hood to suspect that it's too good to do the trick. Over a cheering male chorus strangely reminiscent of an oi anthem, Lyte raps the praises of her hardcore boyfriend. "Fiddling with his dickhead" or sneaking away from the cops, he's always rude and not always what he pretends to be, but when she needs him: "He'll be there/Right by my side with his ruffneck tactics." I hope so. Because the reality is that they're going to need each other.

Village Voice, July 13, 1993