Victor “Noreaga” Santiago is a prime example of an artist whose solo career wasn't so much a choice as it was the only option remaining for him. After the (moderate – let's be clear, it's not like the guy has ever sold millions of copies of anything) success of his debut project, Capone-N-Noreaga's The War Report (released in 1997), Santiago found himself thrust into the public spotlight after his partner-in-rhyme Capone was very publicly serving out a prison sentence (one which he began before the album's release; there's even a few tracks on The War Report that directly reference Capone's time in the bing).
So, doing what any other rapper in his position would do in order to maintain the buzz surrounding him, Noreaga went solo. At first, his career (aided by his label, Tommy Boy Records) served as a function of the duo, a way to keep the group's name alive while getting more material out to the masses. Unable to rely on his partner, Noreaga made some new friends, including the likes of Big Punisher, Cam'Ron, Kool G. Rap, The Lox (well, two-thirds of The Lox), Busta Rhymes, and Nas, and enlisted their aid on N.O.R.E., his 1998 solo debut, which also included the hit single “Superthug”, notable for being one of the earliest efforts from soon-to-be-fucking-famous production team The Neptunes: Noreaga's attempt to keep the sound limited to the visual street thuggery that The War Report was grounded in contrasted greatly, and appealingly, with Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo's tendency to locate the bling in any haystack, and audiences ate that shit up with a spoon and a side of fries.
Which then rendered the Capone-N-Noreaga team pretty much obsolete.
Although the duo would release more albums together upon Capone's eventual release, Noreaga had tasted solo success, and discovered that he had acquired a taste for it. Recording on his own allowed him to ride off on any flight of fancy he so chose, which, luckily for him, never deviated from his need to discuss violent street activity and random sexual exploits, some of which involved brooms for some reason. There would be no Pulitzer Prize in Santiago's future, that's for sure. But given the fact that this is rap music we're talking about, this put him in a prime position to capitalize on his newly-acquired solo fame, so he unleashed Melvin Flynt – Da Hustler in 1999, doubling down on the Neptunes contributions while giving the audience what he thought they wanted.
Since that album sucked, though, you're forgiven if you don't quite remember how it sounded.
Noreaga went back into crisis mode. His solo career was derailed, as he quickly discovered that an audience can turn on you if they aren't feeling what you're doing. And the problem was that Noreaga wasn't feeling what he was doing, either: as he would later explain in a few other songs, Melvin Flynt – Da Hustler is the result of Noreaga throwing himself into his work after suffering the loss of his father, and not having taken an adequate amount of time to grieve had taken its toll on him. His heart wasn't in the music: he just didn't give a shit, and rightfully so.
After the release of his friend, Capone-N-Noreaga re-formed to release The Reunion, a 2000 project that tried its best to replicate past successes while incorporating new-school tactics to keep the audience interested (which is why producers such as DJ Premier and The Alchemist, hardly the first names one would come up with when discussing CNN, contributed some musical backing: also, those songs bang). But when the duo felt that they weren't receiving the full support of their label (possibly because Capone returned to prison shortly after completing work on the project), they did exactly what you would expect in the current music industry climate: they complained. Loudly.
Luckily, Noreaga's prayers were answered, and he signed a deal with Def Jam almost immediately. (Capone also signed with the powerhouse label, which makes sense when you consider that they were probably selling themselves as a unit, but neither Capone nor CNN ever released anything with the Def Jam logo on its sleeve, so that didn't quite work out for him, eh?) So the work he had been putting into his third solo effort, Grimey... God's Favorite (later shortened to just God's Favorite), was just transferred over onto a different, probably more expensive hard drive, and with a bigger budget backing up his work, Noreaga set out to create the album that he felt his fans deserved, and also one that he felt Tommy Boy wasn't good enough to distribute, because fuck those guys, apparently.
God's Favorite serves as a rebirth for Victor Santiago, who rechristened himself as N.O.R.E. for the project, both because sometimes a new name helps one shed the expectations that came attached to the old one, and also probably to avoid some sort of legal skirmish with Tommy Boy, even though everyone and their grandmother could easily figure out that Noreaga and N.O.R.E. were the same. Fucking. Person. Which helped Def Jam tremendously, because back in 2002, everyone and their grandmother actually sat around actively anticipating just what Santiago would come up with next. True fact.
1. HIT ME SLIME (FEAT. NAS, ICE-T, MIKE KYSER, NELLY, & TYSON BECKFORD)
Yes, Noreaga has famous friends, and yes, he at one time had the authority to force all of his famous friends to work in the phrase “Hit Me Slime” into their not-real-and-only-recorded-for-the-album voicemail messages to him, as though that statement ever meant anything at all. He could have built a school or something, but no, this is a much better use of power.
2. GOD'S FAVORITE
On the second rap album intro in as many tracks, our host once again takes the blame for Melvin Flynt – Da Hustler sucking as much as it did, but promises God's Favorite to be a return to form because he's now “focused” and has learned what it takes to “be a man”, which, somehow, translates to “Hey, everyone, look at how many Neptunes beats I can afford with my Def Jam budget!”
3. NOTHIN' (FEAT. PHARRELL WILLIAMS & LATRICIA THOMPSON)
The first actual single from God's Favorite is a catchy Neptunes-produced number that will easily make you forget about Melvin Flynt – Da Hustler's “Oh No”. Our host throws in random goofball comments (“I'm half Spanish, I cook coke with Goya”; “I'm like a hammer that you hold in your hand, I make hits” (huh?)) with moments of truth sprinkles in here and there (“Left that wack label 'cause I don't like pricks”). Pharrell minus the hat performs the hook, which is less contagious than I remembered, but I still dug this track, since even though Nore isn't a lyrical genius, he still sounds great on the beat, a feat proven by “Nothin'”'s official remix, which also threw Puff Daddy, Foxy Brown, Capone, Final Chapter, and Musaliny-N-Maze at the wall just to see what stuck.
4. GRIMEY (FEAT. PHARRELL WILLIAMS)
Not the first single, but most heads heard “Grimey”, and Noreaga's more blatant dismissal of Tommy Boy Records, first, thanks to the compilation project Violator: The Album. It's placement immediately following the poppy “Nothin'” is curious, but there aren't many opportunities out there to hear two different sides of the Neptunes within such a short span of time. Although not quite as grimy as you would have assumed, Pharrell and Chad's instrumental runs much harder than you remember, and our host turns the aggression up to eleven, attacking generic enemies and bullshitting like a seasoned veteran. The hook is a mild annoyance, but if you dug ScHoolboy Q's Pharrell-produced, Jay Rock-featured “Gangsta”, then you'll find something to like on here.
5. N AHMEANUHEARD (FEAT. DWNLZY)
Because heaven forbid the music industry cough up the resources required for The Neptunes to produce an entire project for our host, Noreaga turns to another act who was huge at the time, Swizz fucking Beatz, for “Nahmeanuheard”. I didn't give much of a shit about this song back in 2002, although it obviously hit home for some folks, as evidenced by the all-star remix that appears later in the program, but using my 2014 ears, and I hate to admit this, Swizzy's beat actually comes across as ahead of its time. No, wait, come back, I'll explain! Instead of recreating yet another Ruff Ryders posse cut with his Casio keyboard, Swizzy (credited as 'Swizz Beatz The Monsta' for some fucking reason) throws in some effects that wouldn't sound out of place on radio playlists today. And I actually liked most of it. Fuck, that sentence was hard to write. However, I'm not calling for a revival or re-release or anything, because our host sounds awkward and uncomfortable throughout, although that may be because he was feeling a bit lazy, as he himself admits to in not so many words by bragging that he likes Swizzy's beats because “they come with a hook”, which means much less effort required on his part. Sigh.
6. MR. CEO (FEAT. MUSALINY-N-MAZE, GOLD [ORO], & TROY OUTLAW)
As any inattentive employer would, Noreaga allows his weed carriers and subordinates to run amok over a shitty Kyze Beat. Emphasis on the word “shitty”. One guess as to how excellent this posse cut sounded today.
7. LIVE MY LIFE (FEAT. JA RULE)
This shit would have sucked even without the guest star, although he certainly doesn't help.
8. FULL MODE (FEAT. PHARRELL WILLIAMS)
Noreaga mush have felt that God's Favorite was losing the plot, as he throws another Neptunes-produced bone to the listener. The instrumental for “Full Mode” sounds like a mash-up of “Oh No” and “Nothin'”, but never caught on as much as those other two songs. Still, this reminded me of Pharrell and Chad's salad days, when their sound dominated radio airwaves while trying to bridge bling with a semblance of melody. Noreaga will (and rightfully should) go down in history as one of the finest Neptunes collaborators not named Pusha T or (No) Malice. Mark my words.
9. LOVE YA MOMS (FEAT. CAPONE, MUSALINY-N-MAZE, GOLD [ORO], & COMPLEXIONS)
And then Noreaga throws the audience for another loop, recruiting his fluffers and his one-again, off-again partner in rhyme Capone for “Love Ya Moms”, on which everyone involved expresses their probably-genuine love for the respective women who brought them into this world. This isn't just a weird choice to play after “Full Mode”: “Love Ya Moms” doesn't really fit on God's Favorite at all. Bit it's a sweet sentiment, and all parties involved stick to the script, so this is an aberration, but at least it's a positive one, I suppose.
10. HEAD BUSSA (FEAT. PHARRELL WILLIAMS)
I've noticed the only tracks I've actually liked on God's Favorite thus far are the Neptunes-produced ones. Well, guess what? Here's another notch in Pharrell's bedpost that works. (Chad Hugo doesn't receive a writing credit on here (even though it is credited to the production duo), so it's probable that he had nothing to do with “Head Bussa”, which was released around the time that people started noticing Chad pulling away from such endeavors.) It's considerably more low-key than their other collaborations to this point, but the lower energy makes Noreaga's quips and boasts sound much more bitter and threatening (“The nerve of these rat bastards”). Skateboard P's vocal contribution is a bit off, but the beat features some intriguing experimentation within its overt simplicity, so I still found this to be enjoyable. So there.
11. WANNA BE LIKE HIM (FEAT. MASHONDA)
No thank you.
12. BLACK CLOUDS (FEAT. COMPLEXIONS)
It's hard to always find a match between subject matter and musical backing, but Noreaga must have realized that L.E.S.'s production on “Black Clouds” doesn't actually illustrate depression at fucking all, right? And if there's any rapper that sounds less than authentic when paired with an R&B singer, well, our host most certainly is at least in the conversation. Nore should take these verses and use them against another instrumental, which would be alright, since absolutely nobody has ever sat through “Black Clouds” in its entirety until me, just now. Nobody would ever know the truth.
13. BANNED FROM ANOTHER CLUB (FEAT. FINAL CHAPTER)
Probably because his musical output sounded like this, to be fair.
14. NOW I PRAY (FEAT. MUSALINY)
Noreaga separates the Musaliny-N-Maze duo, retaining the Styles P.-sounding half to spit a verse (and the hook) on “Now I Pray”, a SPK production featuring our host's attempt to switch back to the street rhymes that made him popular in the first place. Although this actually wasn't that bad, one is left wondering why Noreaga didn't just grab Capone or another A-list guest from his Rolodex, since everyone's just going to confuse Musaliny for one-third of The Lox anyway and they'll just get upset when they look at the album credits. Not great, but you'll probably let it play all the way through.
15. CONSIDER THIS (FEAT. KELIS)
The lone Neptunes track on God's Favorite that doesn't really work, even though it features Pharrell's then-muse Kelis and an instrumental that brings the blingy synths back into the fold. Nas's ex-wife contributes a hook that covers the same basic territory that Mashonda did on “Wanna Be Like Him”, which doesn't help, and Pharrell and Chad's overall work has evolved far beyond “Superthug” at this point, which may be why this regression is so goddamn disappointing. At least Noreaga didn't phone it in on here: that's at least worth mentioning.
16. NAHMEANUHEARD REMIX (FEAT. CAPONE, CAM'RON, FAT JOE, & CASSIDY)
Remember that Swizz beat on the original “Nahmeanuheard” that I confessed to actually liking? Well, neither does Swizzy, since this remix featured an all-star cast and Cassidy for some reason over a different Swizz production, one nearly indistinguishable from all of the rest of the shit the man put out when the Ruff Ryders were still a viable team. After an album chock-full of restraint, our host finally calls in a shit-ton of favors from Large Joseph, Capone, and Killa Cam, all of whom cash their checks with the aplomb that is missing from their actual verses. Well, at least Capone tries, since that guy never gets to rap over the expensive beats. Speaking of which, exactly why did the instrumental have to be switched up? The fuck?
17. HOLLA BACK SLIME (FEAT. BUSTA RHYMES & JADAKISS)
Same as the introduction, although with different participants, but since it occurs at the end of the program, it should be considered a rap album...”outro”? Nah, that isn't a real word.
The final song on God's Favorite is labeled as a bonus track.
18. THE LIFE OF A... (GANGSTA) (CAPONE FEAT. CHINKY)
In a bit of corporate synergy (in a “Jay-Z solo songs have appeared on both Memphis Bleek and Beanie Sigel solo albums” kind of way), God's Favorite ends with Noreaga very charitably giving his partner in rhyme Capone a track of his own, which was nice of him, since Capone was also an employee of Def Jam at this point in time but, unlike our host, never actually convinced Def Jam to release an album of his own. As such, this appearance exposed him to a wider audience than what he would have managed to do himself. Yogi's production is oddly epic in scope (which makes sense coming from one of Puff Daddy's Hitmen), which was a nice touch, but Capone is only merely serviceable behind the microphone: maybe it's because Noreaga was gifted with more opportunities to hone his craft while Capone served his bid, but one would think Capone would go out of his way to make better creative choices, such as making sure his bars actually fit upon the beat, so that he doesn't always sound like he's racing to the finish line. Mobb Deep's resident chanteuse, the unfortunately-named Chinky, spits the hook in the most generic, interchangeable fashion possible, too. All this track manages to prove is that Noreaga deservedly had the more successful career of the two. Yeah, I said it.
The Interweb believes that the following track was originally scheduled for inclusion on God's Favorite, right before “Live My Life”. I don't have all the information on the track's mysterious disappearance (feel free to fill in the blanks), but I have listened to the song, and, um, well, just read the next paragraph.
BIG D (FEAT. AKINYELE, HEATHER HUNTER, & K.I.A.)
I have no idea what I just sat through. I know it involved our host, something called a K.I.A., a porn star who also raps for some reason, and Akinyele wasting an otherwise decent beat (the producer is unknown to me) to form an idea of a sex rap whose own hook overstays its welcome before Noreaga even starts fucking rapping. Ak injects some much-needed but unearned energy into this ode to “big dicks” and “good pussy”, while Hunter's verse is performed downright horribly: sex raps are supposed to sound confident, not laughable. “Big D” never forms into a cohesive song. I guess you could seek out Ak's verse, which is absolutely the only part of this shit even worth half a damn, but why waste your time? Thank the fucking deity of your choosing that this at least doesn't appear on the U.S. version of God's Favorite.
FINAL THOUGHTS: God's Favorite is much longer than necessary: any earnest attempt to package Noreaga as a solo star capable of appealing to a wider audience is eradicated by his inability to self-edit, similar to my own tendency to let these reviews ramble on when we all know they could be much tighter. Nore's not the strongest rapper to be forced to carry an entire album on his shoulders, but he's far from the weakest; he's an acquired taste, but those of us who grew up with Queensbridge street tales and Neptunes production acquired it quite a while ago, and, refreshingly, our host's sense of humor has grown a bit savvier with the label switch. His reliance on weed carriers whose careers never went anywhere (and never will, especially since he appears to have abandoned them outright) disrupts the flow of several tracks, and his loyalty to (former?) partner-in-rhyme Capone is understandable but still questionable, since Capone hasn't shifted an inch from The War Report and that's not meant as a compliment, but when left to his own devices, he proves to be capable enough to entertain the listener for at least short bursts at a time, especially when given the proper musical backing. God's Favorite isn't perfect by any means, and your level of enjoyment may greatly vary from mine because some of these Neptunes beats hit a nostalgic sweet spot that may be clouding my overall judgment, but I found some of this to actually be pretty good.
BUY OR BURN? The operative word in that last sentence is “some”; God's Favorite is still too long and packed with unfortunate misfires, so I can't justify a purchase. I suggest you look up the Neptunes-produced tracks on YouTube and maybe snag a few of the tracks, but not the entire album. That would just be a waste of your time.
BEST TRACKS: “Head Bussa”; “Grimey”; “Nothin'”; “Full Mode”