In 2001, shortly after the release of their fourth full-length album Take It Or Squeeze It, The Beatnuts found their career in a state of disarray. Their label, Loud Records, a subsidiary that was owned by Relativity Records, who had been Psycho Les and Juju's home since day one, essentially severed ties with the duo, choosing to fulfill the terms of their contract by releasing not one, but two different greatest hits compilations, which is already pretty fucking absurd, but then you realize that these two greatest hits compilations were basically competing with a third, entirely different greatest hits compilation released just two years prior, which is overkill for a group that had only released four albums and one EP (well, two, if you count the remix project) at this point. At least the third and final collection, Classic Nuts, Vol. 1 (there would be no second volume) featured two exclusive tracks found nowhere else, but still, that's a pretty shitty way to be bought out.
So Lester and Jerry were musically homeless. Rumors swirling directly from me pinned the blame on Take It Or Squeeze It under-performing sales-wise, both because it sucked (I will apparently never get over this) and because Loud was in the process of transitioning into being a label that no longer existed, so you can imagine that there was no real marketing push (although two singles were released, neither made as much of an impact as some of The Nuts' earlier work). Actual, unsubstantiated rumors revealed that Jerry and Lester were seriously considering reconnecting with their long-lost third bandmate Al Tariq (previously known as Kool Fashion) and releasing a project under the name Intoxicated Demons, taken from the title of their debut EP. Which would have been cool, except that it didn't actually pan out.
Psycho Les and Juju instead took their act underground, signing a deal with Landspeed Records to record and release one project: their fifth full-length album, The Originators, which dropped in 2002. It failed to even make a perfunctory appearance on the Billboard charts, and none of its singles were successful by any sort of measurement. However, The Originators was critically acclaimed as a return to form, which means less than nothing, since those same critics hailed Take It Or Squeeze It as a genius piece of work.
Perhaps less restricted than they were by the constraints of a major label, The Beatnuts dug deep into their crates and found not just intriguing samples to use, but also a stepped-up focus on lyricism, which is not to say that Lester and Juju suddenly morphed into two Rakims behind the mic, but it was clear that they started to give more of a shit about their vocal performances, possibly because of their experience losing their contract. As if to reinforce this aspect of the project, The Originators features guest turns not just from within the Beatnuts family, but from outside acts who are known for the most part as being “good rappers”, such as Ill Bill, Cormega, and Large Professor, who counts, don't say that he doesn't, you know I'm in the right.
Sadly, because The Originators didn't exactly set the goddamn world on fire (a terrible image to play up given what I'm about to say later in this paragraph, I admit), the albums promised within the liner notes (all from various weed carriers) would never see the light of day. Which is for the best: nobody would actually buy something from The Jihad All Stars anyway, at least not in the United States, especially not when it was promised so shortly after the 9/11 terror attacks (The Originators dropped less than one year later).
I do like how Lester and Juju made it a point to mention in those same notes that the album was “written and produced on trees” and “engineered and mixed on yae yo”; at least they still maintained their sense of humor throughout this experience.
Rap album intros such as this one tend to annoy me, because come on, we all know The Beatnuts didn't record this album live in front of a studio audience. Still, the energy is high, and with that comes the promise that The Originators maybe, just maybe can top the frustrating Take It Or Squeeze It. It doesn't have to try very hard to meet that goal, anyway.
2. BRING THE FUNK BACK
But then they kick off the evening with “Bring The Funk Back”, which, musically, sounds even worse than nearly everything on this album's predecessor. The instrumental is lethargic: even the hook, which gives the song its title, comes across as apathetic. Wonderful. Psycho Lester tries his best to claim that The Originators is for the fans who have stuck around all these years, but even he doesn't seem to be all that convinced. Also, Lester refers to himself as “Big Psych” so often on The Originators (he's done it before, but it happens a lot on this project) that I wonder how 2Pac's weed carrier feels. Junkyard Juju carries the swagger a bit more successfully, but all in all, I did not like this shit one bit. Groan.
3. YAE YO (FEAT. ILL BILL & PROBLEMZ)
A good bit of misdirection at the very beginning, when Lester and Juju allow a section of Giorgio Moroder and Debbie Harry's “Rush Rush”, best known for its use in the Al Pacino / Brian De Palma Scarface and for its inspiration of misspelled slang for cocaine in hip hop, including within this very song's own title, before the actual music kicks in. I'm a New Wave junkie, so of course I didn't mind, but what was nice is how the rest of “Yae Yo” doesn't feel like a bait-and-switch. The Beatnuts and their invited guests, Ill Billiam and Problemz (who comes across as a more concise Juju) all rap about drugs or guns or something, it doesn't matter, but each participant commands their respective verses, making this a late-career gem for our hosts. Huh.
4. DRUNK SKIT
5. BUYING OUT THE BAR (FEAT. CHRIS CHANDLER)
A goofy lark that is punctured by the inclusion of an R&B hook (courtesy of guest star Chris Chandler). I honestly can't imagine Lester and Juju sitting around in the studio drunk, high, and feeling the vibe of an R&B hook, but then again, I can't really picture most rappers doing that shit, and yet hip hop tracks with R&B hooks are crafted at a very rapid pace. For less than five cents a day, you, too, can help prevent this kind of song mutation from being released into the wild, and you'll be honoring the artist's original intention, which is to entertain and stick to their roots without selling out. (*cue Sarah McLachlan song*)
6. WORK THAT POLE (FEAT. TONY TOUCH, BIG ANG, & CHRIS CHANDLER)
The 'Nuts and Tony Toca connect once again, this time for an ode to strippers because, well, they like strippers. And why wouldn't they? “Additional vocals by” guest Big Ang uses the hook to croon about how she doesn't “wanna fight” and is all about just “getting [her] paper”, and our trio are certainly feeling both passive and generous this evening. Mixtape deejay Tony Touch does his thing while Juju's verse comes off as a bit inattentive, not of the subject matter but of the act of rapping in general, but what I remembered the most was Lester's bizarre boast of being “too hot for TV, too cold for video”. The fuck is that supposed to mean?
7. ORIGINATE (FEAT. LARGE PROFESSOR)
The sort-of title track is a celebration of digging through the crates in order to find that perfect sample for your beat, or at least it is for Juju, so it's entire appropriate that The Beatnuts brought on fellow digger Large Professor to contribute. Extra P and Juju discuss their craft in enjoyable and entertaining ways: indeed, Juju seems to be excited to not be rhyming about bitches and brew. Psycho Lester falls into his usual traps, but even his verse is a cut above most of the shit we've heard thus far. I would actually love to hear these guys talk about the actual process, maybe alongside some of their other peers, but for now, I'll take this, since the song is actually pretty good. It is a bit weird that they would hire Extra P and not commission a beat from him, though.
8. MY MUSIC (FEAT. AMARETTA & PROBLEMZ)
Juju doesn't appear on “My Music”, but you two can pretend his presence is felt, since his more articulate soundalike Problemz spits the final verse. The Beatnuts mirror the format of the seminal posse cut that all others dream of being when they grow up, Marley Marl's Juice Crew-filled “The Symphony”, if not the beat itself, allowing for Problemz, female rapper Amaretta (yeah, me neither), and Psycho Lester to each spit a stanza unencumbered by concepts such as “context”, “cohesion”, and even “concept” itself. Enjoyable, if slight, and Juju's absence is felt when you're waiting around at the very end, hoping that he didn't forget to pick you up from soccer practice again.
9. U CRAZY (FEAT. CORMEGA)
The Beatnuts bring Mega Montana an instrumental that very closely resembles something the guy would purchase for one of his own crime tale-riddled solo projects anyway, so obviously the guy feels right at home and outshines his hosts easily. Lester and Juju have never been the strongest lyricists (see: the shitty chorus), but even when working around their limitations, they still manage to turn in decent-to-good efforts. I'm just happy to hear our hosts giving a shit again, to be honest.
10. YA BETTA BELIEVE IT (FEAT. CHRIS CHANDLER)
Ah fuck, I spoke too soon.
11. ROUTINE (FEAT. WILLIE STUBZ)
A misfire, but a semi-interesting one, thanks to the out-of-left-field low-key instrumental that hits the target. Juju, Lester, and an uncredited-for-some-reason Willie Stubz don't bring much to the table lyrically, though, so the boasts of their “daily routine[s]” are diffused by the hook's commands to “clap your hands” and dance, which, wait, what?
12. BIONIC (FEAT. AL TARIQ & EL GANT)
The Beatnuts invite their former bandmate
Kool Fashion Al Tariq to
play, because what the fuck else was he doing, really? But Juju takes the
day off anyway (his slot is filled by something called an El Gant),
which is for the best, as this collaboration is awful. It all starts
with the instrumental, which is annoying and doesn't seem like
something a bunch of rappers should spit over, and goes south from
there, as Lester and his friends fail to notice how annoying the
music is and proceed to spit over it. Their respective verses are
nowhere near as good enough to shift the tides. Oh my fuck, was this
13. BECKS 'N BRANSON (FEAT. TRIPLE SEIS & MARLEY METAL)
As if he sensed that he was needed or something, Juju kicks off yet another posse cut, although this one has a much grander, commanding sound thanks to some sampled chanting throughout. The Beatnuts and their weed carriers give “Becks 'N Branson” their all, with only the poorly-named Marley Metal faltering, although that isn't much of a critique as it is a commentary on the fact that someone statistically always has to be the worst in a group, right? Not bad at all.
14. BACK 2 BACK
The Originators ends not with a Greg Nice cameo (no bullshit, twelve years on and I just realized he isn't on this project at all), but with a Psycho Lester solo shot, on which he boasts about “mak[ing] hits” and the five-million-dollar cribs there's no fucking way he would be able to afford at this point. “Back 2 Back” focuses solely on shit-talking, which is fine, but Les has run out of ways to say the same things, and where the hell is his partner in all of this?
BUY OR BURN? Maybe don't pay full price for the thing, but you should pick this one up regardless. The Originators is almost good enough to erase your memory of Take It Or Squeeze It entirely, which is quite a feat indeed.
BEST TRACKS: “Originate”; “U Crazy”; “Yae Yo”; maybe “Becks 'N Branson” if you're feeling charitable
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