In 2001 – having successfully launched Def Jam South, still dealing with his lifelong battle with clinical depression and a DEA agent called Jack Schumacher – Scarface decided to retire from recording music. With the money he made running Def Jam South, it wasn’t a bad choice. He had just helped make Ludacris into a star. He was 10 years in the game. Not every rapper lasts that long. Brad “Scarface” Jordan became an excellent rapper by rapping about death, his proximity to it, and those little harrowing details that only a soldier in the street remembers. “Mind Playing Tricks With Me” made Geto Boys a household name in every place from Houston to Hacienda Heights. The Untouchable – some days my favorite album from him – put him with 2Pac on “Smile,” a song so raw (even more so knowing what would eventually happen to 2Pac) that it gives the listener an involuntary shiver. Rap-A Lot Records was family, but they had him stuck in a vulturous contract for a decade. Rap didn’t pay off that much. He had earned the right to hang up the mic. Who else has given to the game like Scarface had?
Lyor Cohen had different ideas. In Scarface’s autobiography Diary Of A Madman, he writes: “Lyor wasn’t hearing it. He wanted me to finish my career at Def Jam, and by that, he meant he wanted more music. If I couldn’t agree to multiple albums, he at least wanted me to make one. He was sold on the idea. He wouldn’t take no for an answer, and once again he broke out his checkbook to prove just how serious he was. He offered me a hell of a deal, and it was something I had to look at.” So Scarface went to work on The Fix, which was to be his seventh album.
In 1999, Jack Schmaucher and his DEA team conducted a search of Scarface’s Houston home. ‘Face was confused. J. Prince had told Rap-A Lot signees and their entourages not to deal and to focus their energies on the collective instead. Still, the D’s were on their bumpers. When murders would happen, feds would show up at the label’s office. The walls were closing in even though ‘Face had devoted time to changing his lifestyle. Music was supposed to be different than the streets. In Madman, he says: “Then they started seeing niggas up and putting our friends away. Like in January 1999, they locked up the homie Spook after putting drugs and money in front of him their damn selves. It was their shit! And they popped him for touching it. He got busted for some shit that wasn’t even really there. That’s how they were getting it in by any means necessary, they were determined to shut down of our whole shit.”
While dealing with this, Scarface began to get paranoid. He thought the feds were tapping his phone. At one point, an acquaintance of his, Ronnie, asked to work on Scarface’s roof. Then, while on the roof, he asked Scarface for drugs. “Do you think J would trade me ten ki’s for five hundred pounds of weed?” said Ronnie, relentlessly. Scarface wiggled his way out of that plot. Ronnie was mic’d up during the conversations. While ‘Face was able to avoid getting caught by Ronnie, some of his old friends were unlucky. Ronnie had been the weasel that captured some of Scarface’s old outfit, some of whom were no longer into drugs or never were into drugs. Snitching pays on the streets.
“Safe,” the first song on The Fix, is born out of fear and paranoia. The same fear that led Scarface to wonder why Ronnie was acting funny. The same one that led him to ask for a device that lights up if your phones are tapped. Scarface is not only a survivor but an evangelist of correct street behavior. Backed by the blaxploitation beat by China Black, ‘Face preaches – despite him saying he isn’t trying to – in the third verse: “I done been there, done that, seen a whole neighborhood destroyed by the government being tipped off by one rat.” One could hope that Ronnie heard that from whichever city the feds put him in. Later, he croons: “Snitchin’, that’s a motherfucker, watch what you say: You don’t know no motherfuckin’ body, nigga you lame.” The advice he gives is implanted in your head like Demme’s Manchuarian Candidate remake. Stay away from guys who got caught and got home too early. Don’t write anything down. Keep to yourself. Writer, radio host, and HBO personality Bomani Jones once said, “Rap music ain’t that deep. But there’s genuine life lessons to be learned on Scarface’s The Fix.” “Safe” is what he’s talking about.
When The Fix focuses on the street and what it is like to fight for the same scraps, it is riveting. “In Cold Blood,” produced by a rising Chicago native named Kanye Omari West, is excellent. Its strings and sped-up sample were perfect for ‘Face’s trademark gruff. This was classic Kanye. Sampling Gladys Knight & The Pips’ “And This is Love” seems obvious, but it was also a knockout. It’s inescapable. What ‘Ye had done for Jay-Z and Beanie Sigel, he also did for Scarface. This was not the first time that Scarface had worked with the Roc-a-Fella producer, but it is the one that reminds you why Jay-Z and Scarface worked so well together. The next track, “Guess Who’s Back,” starts with Jay-Z ad-libs that suggest Jay-Z is in on the jokes about his ad-libs. He rhymes “Face-mob,” “Face it y’all,” and “basic ball” with “eight-feet-tall.” While Jay is meta, Scarface is ultra-serious. Like he is showing people that the South can keep up with East Coast titans, he is quick but never in a hurry. The beat can barely keep up with his legato. It’s Baba-Elixer-cake-from-a-new-French-restaurant dense. It’s a verse for rap fans that want to hear wordsmiths pack on more phrases for your ghetto vocabulary.
When the album exists in that “OG” space, it’s very good. But its Southern songs are great and underrated. “What Can I Do?” sounds like “This Can’t Be Life” part deux. It’s not quite as affecting since it is missing the details that made that verse so heartfelt (Scarface talking about how his son is only two is devastating), but it’s still quality. His flow is a tad bit slower and more methodical. Those are the most Houston records on the album. The Fix can be a great as an East Coast record from a Houston rapper but it was just as great when it felt fully a part of the Houston rivers that bodied once floated on. ‘Face even invites Nas on “In Between Us,” a solemn song about the perils of being on top of the game. There’s a nostalgia to it that Nas was always exceptional at. “Sell Out,” produced by T-Mix, sounds like Houston personified: a lean-drinking beat that makes you feel like the ’88 Cadillac could bounce as high as God allows it to. ‘Face claims that he is 27-5 in fights, a number that sounds like he took it from Roy Jones Jr.
The features on the record are terrific, but they also made me wonder whether ‘Face was making his commercial record. Nas and Jay-Z — appearing separately, just after their very public feud — are East Coast reliables. If The Diary is the first Scarface classic, The Fix is the one that bridges the gap between the South and the North. Even if Scarface had to make more East Coast-friendly sounds to do it, it was still as potent as a good batch of dope. Scarface said this was him with a real budget: “For the first time, I was working on an album for a label that believed in me 100 percent and didn’t want anything from me except for me to make the dopest album I could possibly make.” Born out of the belly of pain and deceit, Scarface had made another classic — a universal classic, the moment when a Houston warrior meets the regal East Coast monarchs. It doesn’t take a while to cook, either; in under 50 minutes, you spend quality time with a war survivor. Keep your Clipse album. The Fix is exactly what the title says it is: It’s a remedy for all-encompassing struggle.