November 13, 2009

Black Rob - Life Story (March 7, 2000)


Robert Ross, who goes by the awfully creative moniker Black Rob, is a rapper who was, and may still be (for all I know), signed to Puff Daddy's Bad Boy Records. He made his official debut on a remix to 112's "Come See Me" ( Puffy clearly loved commanding that all of his rappers spit a verse alongside a male R&B quartet (that could actually sing), because there is nothing more hardcore than that shit). He followed that up with appearances on CRU's Da Dirty 30, Puffy's own No Way Out, Ma$e's Harlem World, the soundtrack to Chris Tucker's Money Talks (he co-starred on a song with Puffy entitled "No Way Out", which, I'm assuming, was left over from the No Way Out recording sessions), and The Notorious B.I.G.'s posthumous Born Again. Sadly, even though Biggie himself allegedly co-signed young Robbie's talents and convinced Puffy to give him a shot, he passed away before Rob ever got the opportunity to record with the man.

After a handful of singles that were met with mild success, Black Rob hit the jackpot with the radio-friendly "Whoa!", which was custom-made for mass consumption. His debut album, Life Story, soon followed. Thanks to the media hype machine that is Puff Daddy, Life Story sold over one million copies in less than six months, a tremendous feat when you consider that Bobby wasn't as marketable as, say, Ma$e, and that his album was littered with crime stories and beats that were better suited for dramatic reenactments than for the club. But then again, Puffy helped The Lox sell well over a million units, too, although it took them much longer, as they had nothing as catchy as "Whoa!" on their album.

Some of you two may question the validity of a write-up featuring an artist in Puffy's stable. Biggie Smalls aside, Puff Daddy has essentially proven that he has a tin ear when it comes to signing rap artists. Most hip hop fanatics are prone to an automatic dismissal of any album that Bad Boy releases, because they fear that their preconceived notions of the product will ring true. And yes, that would actually happen for the majority of Bad Boy's artists, especially if you tried to actually listen to something from Yung Joc, Gorilla Zoe, Danity Kane, or Day 26 (or even Diddy himself: has anybody heard that "Angels" song where he sings (sings!) via Auto-Tune over a beat jacked from Jay-Z's "Where I'm From"?). I try not to walk into a room with preconceived notions myself, and I oftentimes fail when it comes to Puffy, but there is one reason why Black Rob deserves a second look.

You ready for it? Okay, here goes.

Dan "The Automator" Nakamura.

Six years prior to signing with Bad Boy Records, Robert Ross was a struggling artist who recorded an entire demo album with the then-unknown San Francisco-based deejay The Automator. To date, the majority of these songs have never seen the light of day. Dan leaked one himself, "Smoothness", on his mixtape Wanna Buy A Monkey?, and it's astonishing to hear how much differently Rob sounds when the beat behind him isn't as glossy as a fashion magazine. (By the way, it goes without saying that, if any of you happen to have some more of these buried treasures, please hit me up at my e-mail in the top right.) The Automator, of course, would go on to producing critical darlings such as Dr. Octagonecologyst, Deltron 3030, and the first Gorillaz album (and has become one of my favorite producers), but hearing him rave about the Black Rob songs he recorded forced me to take a second look at Life Story, an album that I didn't like much when it dropped. While Dan Nakamura had no input on Life Story itself (and, apparently, doesn't even warrant a mention in Rob's thank-you section), the fact that he believed in Robbie's abilities as an artist made me want to revisit the project, with sunglasses on so as to avoid the shiny suits that sporadically pop up.

Let's see what we have here.

1. MRS. BARRY (INTRO)
Unnecessary. Although it is possibly worth noting that Petey Pablo, a longtime associate of Robert's, holds a co-production credit on here, and this was about a year before he started spinning t-shirts over his head.

2. LIFE STORY (FEAT CHERYL PEPSI RILEY & RAQUEL)
Black Rob's lyrical delivery is the closest to the aesthetic of The Notorious B.I.G. that Puffy would ever find (at least until he signed Shyne, I suppose). Nashiem Myrick's instrumental facilitates Robbie's probably-semi-autobiographical-or-at-least-he's-a-good-listener tales, which are paired up with at least one kind-of shocking image: Rob forgiving his mother for once telling him, out of anger (I'm just guessing here), that he should have been aborted (or "flushed", as he puts it). This actually wasn't bad.

3. WHOA!
This song was overtly gimmicky at a time when gimmicks were all the rage in hip hop. Over a string-driven Buckwild beat, Black Rob punctuates his every thought with "Whoa!", not unlike how normal people may use an exclamation point to approximate excitement. This track is corny as shit, but I'll be honest: I really like this song. Always have. And it sounds as good today as it did back then (which, I admit, isn't saying a whole lot). I never cared much for the all-star remix, though, which featured every single semi-popular rapper at the time (and also an early appearance by Petey Pablo), but this original track still works for me.

4. DRIVE BY (INTERLUDE)
...

5. LOOKIN' AT US (FEAT CEE-LO)
The hook on here, which is a bit too wordy, seems to have informed a great deal of Joe Budden's style, but I won't hold that fact against either Rob of special guest star Cee-Lo. Robbie has quickly established that he is comfortable with these dramatic instrumentals, but can also alternate to radio-friendly as needed, which is, if nothing else, a very profitable quality. Cee-Lo sounds both ill-advised and fascinating, proving, yet again, why he is the Goodie Mob member with the successful solo career.

6. DOWN THE LINE JOINT (FEAT G-DEP, MA$E, MARK CURRY, & PUFF DADDY)
To the shock of absolutely nobody, Puff Daddy sounds rather fucking terrible during his lead-off verse. The man sounds barely better spitting the written word than Oprah. Black Robert could have commissioned a cameo from MC Skat Kat with better results. Yogi (the guy from the apparently defunct rap group CRU) provides an instrumental that is frustrating to listen to: the fake scratching only seems to peel a coat of paint off of your level of patience. Also, Pastor Ma$e provides an embarrassing performance on this Bad Boy posse cut. Had he still been around at the time, I'm certain that Biggie Smalls himself would have found a valid reason to not appear on this crap.

7. ESPACIO (FEAT LIL' KIM & G-DEP)
I wasn't seriously thinking that Puff Daddy would have unleashed an album on Bad Boy Records without trying to piss off the hip hop audience by including really shitty, overproduced crossover attempts, but I still had my fingers crossed. Regardless, this song is awful, but I'm sure you two had already figured that shit out when you read that Lil' Kim was one of the featured players. Alas, Robbie's half-hearted attempt to teach the listener Spanish during the chorus will never be heard, nor should it ever be.

8. YOU DON'T KNOW ME (FEAT JOE HOOKER)
I don't remember if this was the first single from Life Story, or if it was "I Dare You": for all intents and purposes, they're both the exact same song, aside from the fact that Joe Hooker's beat on here is much more cinematic in scope. Hooker, or Bad Boy president (and A&R for Life Story, and I understand he would occasionally bring in donuts, too) Harve Pierre, provides vocals that are best known for the fact that the man seems to not be able to actually sing, but the conviction in his performance cannot be denied. Black Rob should exclusively tell his crime stories over beats such as this. Fuck, Black Rob should exclusively read his grocery shopping lists over beats such as this.

9. CAN I LIVE (FEAT THE LOX)
Black Bob borrows the title from a well-known Jay-Z song for his collaboration with all three members of The Lox, who I had forgotten were still signed to Bad Boy when Life Story dropped. Over a D-Dot instrumental that sounds left over from Puffy's No Way Out, Jadakiss, Styles P., Sheek, and Robert all spit some fairly entertaining shit. Robbie is the weakest link on here, but that's only because of how good The Lox sound when they're all together. This was a pleasant surprise.

10. CHAMPIONSHIP (INTERLUDE)
...

11. PD WORLD TOUR (FEAT PUFF DADDY)
Black Rob may be an underrated rhyme spitter (at least he might have been considered as such back in the late 1990s), but he isn't good enough to warrant the unfair comparison he brings upon himself by shouting "Protect Ya Neck!" during the second chorus. Oddly, Puffy sounds like a much better rapper over this simplistic instrumental (credited to both D-Dot and Charlemagne), but that statement only draws attention to the fact that this song sucks. I mean, seriously? Puffy absolutely had to put his rap name initials in the title of the fucking song? How pretentious is that?

12. MUSCLE GAME (FEAT MARK CURRY & MARIO WINANS)
Meh.

13. COP SKIT (INTERLUDE)
...

14. B.R. (FEAT G-DEP)
Not to be outdone by his boss, Black Robbie titles a song after his own rap name initials. This track is calm enough to lull you into a false sense of security, but it's still threatening enough that you'll give up the spider hole that your man who robbed that dice game last Tuesday has been staying at, and you'll actually believe that snitching was a really good idea. It is kind of weird that another rapper appears on a song that was clearly named after our host, but it's not as if that's an unprecedented move.

15. THUG STORY
Black Rob takes a bad idea (jacking the beat and overall theme from Slick Rick's classic "Children's Story") and turns in such a pitiful performance, one which isn't consistent with the rest of Life Story, that I'm convinced this was all Puffy's idea, and I'll give the artist a pass. However, after this shit, any further missteps fall on his own shoulders.

16. JASMINE (FEAT CARL THOMAS)
This song was alright, I suppose, but it runs much longer that it has any right to, considering the fact that the track, which deliberately and methodically takes its time in establishing the mood, setting, and pace, suddenly ends midway through the chorus. Not the most memorable tale Bob has spilled, but the beat (which took three people to create, apparently: D-Dot, Nashiem Myrick, and Carlos "Six July" Brody) was peaceful, so that counts for something.

17. MAD RAPPER (INTERLUDE)
These interludes aren't funny anymore. Also, it's spelled "Madd" when referring to D-Dot's disgruntled rapper, Bad Boy marketing department. Maybe you should do a bit more research next time.

18. I LOVE YOU BABY (FEAT PUFF DADDY)
I've always felt that this was one of the best songs from Puff Daddy's No Way Out, so even though it sounds entirely out of place on Life Story (not to mention dated as hell), I still welcome this exemplary track. Proof positive that not everything Diddy touches turns into horseshit. This was always more of a Black Rob song anyway, so its inclusion kind of makes sense. This shit still sounds really good today, and it helps the listener forgive the atrocities that will take place on the very next track.

19. SPANISH FLY (FEAT JENNIFER LOPEZ)
If I were Madonna, I would beat the shit out of J-Lo for blatantly swiping her "La Isla Bonita" hook, a vastly superior track, for the hook. I realize that radio-friendly piffle is Puffy's bread and butter (that, and sampling songs from the 1980s, and usually not the good ones), and Selena's Jennifer Lopez only appears because she was contractually obligated to as Puffy's girlfriend of the moment (obviously, this was recorded prior to the club shootout that got Shyne locked in the bing), but I've already used too many words to make the following statement: what the fuck is this shit?

20. RISE UP (INTERLUDE)
...

21. I DARE YOU (FEAT JOE HOOKER)
I first heard this song on the soundtrack to Slam, and I have a feeling that its inclusion on Life Story is that of an unofficial bonus track, but this is still very similar in feel to "You Don't Know Me", right down to Joe Hooker's vocals. Younglord's beat (which uses a sample that was also used for the original version of Big Punisher's "The Dream Shatterer") paces Black Bobby's congratulatory run up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (although he's a New York-based artist). And with that, Life Story is now closed.

FINAL THOUGHTS: Life Story is surprisingly consistent today, and I only use the word "surprisingly" because I didn't care much for it upon its original release. Puff Daddy smartly constructs the project around the street tales of Black Rob, an affable storyteller who is up to the challenge. The many dramatic turns Life Story takes serve to make the radio-friendly attempts all the more obvious, but unlike other Bad Boy Records projects, you're more apt to look past the bad to embrace the hood. Black Rob's career didn't pan out beyond this album (there are more, but nobody ever bought them), but this album is still something he can proudly bar his children from listening to, thanks to all of the adult situations, language, nudity, violence, and pervasive drug use.

BUY OR BURN? I want to make this very clear: I recommend a purchase, but I do not feel that you should pay a lot for that muffler. So don't jump online and give up the full retail price. Should you come across this in a used CD store, don't hesitate to throw a couple of bucks Black Rob's way, though. He'll appreciate it, at least, and you'll find something to enjoy on here.

BEST TRACKS: "I Love You Baby"; "Whoa!"; "Can I Live"; "You Don't Know Me"; "I Dare You"; "B.R."; "Lookin' At Us"

-Max

6 comments:

  1. If you buy the CD from a used store, he ain't getting nothin'.

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    Replies
    1. he's gettin nathan, as biggie would say

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  2. this over epmd , you need to clean your ears out

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  3. Eh..I was never a big fan of Black Rob. But with Diddy's artistic bent after Big died it's hard to wish he had fucked up a better artist's career.

    You should review G-Dep's album, if you have it...and put up some of those reader reviews I sent you!

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  4. To the first Anonymous: if you'll notice, I never said he would make any money, just that he would "appreciate" it. The money "goes his way", meaning to the used CD store in his album's name. Fuck, this has already gotten too technical for what was supposed to be a fucking joke.

    To the second Anon - I stand by the EPMD review, too.

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  5. it's been years since i listened to this album, and i can't find my copy.
    but i remember it being pretty solid. and that The Source gave it 4.5 Mics (back when they still meant something).

    just listened to "Jasmine", and it still sounds pretty smooth.

    can u upload that "No Way Out" joint from the Money Talks soundtrack? i don't care what nobody says - i dislike Puffy as much as the next guy - but that album is a CLASSIC, so i'd like to listen to any songs that were left out.

    ReplyDelete