If you grew up in the ’90s, loving Wu-Tang or Cypress Hill or the Beatnuts or the Fugees, you probably had a “wait, what?” moment with Master P. I remember mine vividly: One night in 1997, at the summer camp where I was working, after all the kids had gone down to sleep for the night. One of my co-workers put a VHS of I’m ‘Bout It, the archetypal rapper-made home-movie that helped make P a star. I haven’t rewatched the movie since that night, but I remember being confused as hell that something this sloppy and bloody and plotless could exist. It didn’t seem anything like a real movie, but all the guys I watched it with spent the whole rest of the summer quoting it at every available opportunity. A couple of months later, I had a second “wait, what” moment while flipping through The Source at a Hallmark newsstand near my house and seeing a big spread on P, showing off his mansion and luxury-car fleet and foyer with floor-tiles in the shape of a dollar sign. And it was like: This is the same guy? Who made that shitty movie? He’s a star somehow? P was still a regional sensation at the time — his solid-gold-bathroom MTV Cribs stage still to come — but during his meteoric rise over the next year, I never quite lost that sense of confusion. P struck me as someone who could barely rap, whose image was so new-money baroque that it looked like parody, whose signature catchphrase was actually more of a grunt. It took a while, but eventually I got sucked in. P’s flow was always rocky and garbled, but he built No Limit Records into a sort of comic-book universe of platinum-plated tanks and insane Pen & Pixel album covers and du-rags worn with spotless white suits. The music from his Beats By The Pound production crew seemed dizzingly rudimentary at first, but it had its own logic and its own sort of hooks, and soon enough half the stuff on rap radio sounded something like it. P’s No Limit label gave a home to some excellent rappers (Mystikal, Mia X, Fiend, Young Bleed, eventually a very young Curren$y), and it eventually yielded one hell of a double-disc greatest hits album. And now that P has suddenly reemerged from years in the pop-cult wilderness, bringing a mixtape about a million times better than I could’ve expected, I’m realizing how badly I missed the big lug. It’s nice to have him back.
P has had a rough decade or so. The moment he tried to turn Lil Romeo, his preteen son, into Lil Bow Wow (even giving Romeo an iced-out Bugs Bunny to match Bow Wow’s Mickey Mouse) might’ve been the beginning of the end, or maybe it was his run on WCW TV during the wrestling company’s waning days. Then there was the funny-sad Dancing With The Stars run, the role on his son’s Nickelodeon sitcom, the time he stood in front of Congress and apologized for making knucklehead rap music. Career moves like these aren’t the sort of thing that indicate someone has any great rap music left in him. But with the new tape Al Capone, P is back to making the knucklehead rap music he once apologized to the nation for, and it sounds incredible.
That type of rap — hard, unapologetic music about doing dirt — has largely fallen from grace; most rap up-and-comers are now post-Kanye/Drake emotive-fashion-plate types. Even Rick Ross, the last street-rap star left standing, has a silk-robed good-life persona leagues removed from the grimy gold-teeth swamp-kingpin intensity that P radiated even when he was at his pop peak. And it’s cool to see that he’s lined up just about every artist still making vital, remorseless, snarling street-rap at this late date. P is in the midst of relaunching No Limit, and rather than reuniting any of his old crews, he’s shown a shocking taste level in signing a couple of up-and-comers: D.C.’s Fat Trel and Atlanta’s Alley Boy. These guys were doing just fine on their own, but they sound better as foils to P; they could’ve been standout No Limit Soldiers 15 years ago. Trel is a beast of a rapper, East Coast enough that he pops his plosives with authority but Southern enough that he knows to let his voice sink deep into track. Alley Boy, meanwhile, is permanently hoarse and gnarled, croaking slick threats from the back of his throat.
The guests fit the same increasingly rarefied mold: The Game, Meek Mill, Chief Keef. Considering that Keef is only slightly more than a third P’s age, he sounds remarkably at-home next to the man on “It Don’t Make No Sense.” And Meek’s adrenaline-blasted opening verse on “Paper” has me wanting to turn into Oldboy and hammer-fight a hallway full of dudes. It’s like P looked over the current rap landscape, figured out exactly which lane needed filling, and assembled the cast of characters necessary to do it. “I ain’t fuckin’ J. Cole,” says P on “My Life,” and that might be the mission statement of this whole relaunch.
But the joys of Al Capone aren’t just curatorial; P ain’t fuckin’ A$AP Rocky either. For one thing, there’s his voice, which is just an excellent rap voice. It’s a wizened, guttural moan. P throws Southern-preacher emphases on the ends of his phrases, but he more or less whoops everything with absolute relish. That voice, the way he uses it, isn’t far removed from 2Pac or Scarface, two guys P used to call his contemporaries. And something else: You don’t go on to sell fifty bazillion records if you don’t know how to put a song together, and P knows how to put a song together. His choruses are usually just stray phrases repeated over and over, and they look dumb on paper: “Al Capone Al Capone! / They love Al Capone! / I don’t fuck with no haters, make them bad bitches moan!” But the way he delivers them, they hook their way into your brain and stay there all day.
The production on the tape is stark and propulsive, redolent of old Beats By The Pound stuff but so free of frills that it feels out of time. There are moments where P tries out different things, like when he interpolates Diana Ross on “Gangstas Need Love Too” or goes New Orleans bounce-revivalist on “Block Party.” Mostly, though, he keeps the same fundamental pound going throughout. He’s made an hour’s worth of top-shelf trunk-boom music at a moment when absolutely nobody was checking for him, and that’s an amazing thing.
Download Al Capone for free here.