September 5, 2010
Slick Rick - The Art Of Storytelling (May 25, 1999)
I found it kind of funny that my write-up for the Clipse's Til The Casket Drops somehow stirred up interest in a review for Slick Rick's last album to date, The Art Of Storytelling. Usually, requests of that nature don't happen this quickly, but the randomness of it all made me dig for this disc. So here you go, you two.
In 1996, Slick Rick was released from prison after serving a bid for attempted murder (although, to be fair, his cousin, who Rick was shooting at, did try to have him killed), and in 1999, he finally turned his fourth solo album in to the Def Jam offices. During the years in between, Ricky Walters stocked up on notebooks and fountain pens at Staples and took every single guest appearance spot that was given to him. He was working toward two separate goals: to remind hip hop heads who the top storyteller in our chosen genre was (and, let's be honest, probably always will be, since rappers don't care to tell tales these days: they would rather create shitty dances that are only physically possible when you're drunk), and to vacuum up the spirits of The Ruler's Back and Behind Bars, the two albums that were released while he was in prison and not in the best position to expect any sort of quality control.
Seeing that he could now finally spend his time in the studio and listen to the final product, most fans consider The Art Of Storytelling to be the actual follow-up to his debut, The Great Adventures of Slick Rick. For his official return, Ricky called in favors from the likes of Nas, Canibus, Raekwon, and Outkast (whose "Da Art Of Storytellin' (Remix)", which he was featured on, informed this project's title), while enlisting producers that could help drag his stories kicking and screaming into the new school.
The Art Of Storytelling was allegedly a mild hit for Def Jam Records, earning our host a golden plaque within the span of a single month, the label that stuck by Slick Rick's side throughout all of his legal issues and his recent immigration troubles, but to this day, I wasn't even sure that anybody even bought the damn thing. Rick has yet to release any sort of follow-up, but with a song like "Children's Story" in his catalog, the guy could never rhyme again, and he would still be up to his fucking eyeballs in diamond-encrusted eye patches.
Oooh, this compact disc is shiny!
1. JAIL SKIT (FEAT ED LOVER, REDMAN, & DJ REV. RUN)
The Art Of Storytelling picks up where Behind Bars left off, at least in regard to the fact that Ricky was locked up when the last album was released. Ah, continuity! The artists listed as guests merely appear to spit some of Ricky's rhymes back at him, in a “paying homage but in an ill-advised manner”-kind of way. Otherwise, this was still your typical rap album intro.
2. KILL N----Z
Only Slick Rick would get released from prison for trying to murder someone and then record a song entitled “Kill N----z”. Okay, I'm lying: nearly every rapper in existence would pull the same stunt. DJ Clark Kent's beat moves things along, even of it doesn't sound as all-encompassing as most of our host's early work (and I'm including the hip-house tracks from The Ruler's Back in that general assessment). For his part, Ricky's attention to detail was not at all affected by his stint in the clink, but his choice in subject matter certainly was, as this is easily the most reprehensibly violent song I've heard in his entire catalog thus far. But this is only the second song: we have plenty more to tear through.
3. STREET TALKIN' (FEAT OUTKAST)
Our host (and the back cover of the album) claims that “Slick Rick and Outkast are in this jam”, but only Big Boi spits a verse, so I'm forced to spread a rumor that an Andre 3000 cameo was removed from the final cut and locked in a vault after he threw a hissy fit when Ricky complimented the tattoo of a microphone on his arm. This was the first single, and although the performances are top-notch (except for Ricky's insistence on singing during the hook, which sounds terrible: every time his voice cracks, an angel loses his wings), Jazze Pha's beat is lackluster as it shuffles itself into oblivion. I remember a sequence in the accompanying video, though, where Rick is shown trading in all of his gold jewelry for platinum upgrades. That's how you stay relevant in our chosen genre, folks: when in doubt, just buy more expensive shit.
4. ME & NAS BRING IT TO YOU THE HARDEST (FEAT NAS)
Nasir sounds thrilled to be spitting alongside Ricky (I'm sure the fact that his name appears in the goofy song title helped matters tremendously), but on here he forgets his way, spouting some inane shit that makes him sound as bad as his acting was in Belly. This Trackmasters beat also sounds like an afterthought. Slick Rick sounded like his old self, though, so that has to count for something. Moving on...
5. I OWN AMERICA PART 1
Prison hasn't dulled Slick Rick's edge, as he attacks the track with a viciousness that recalls his earlier work. The sarcastic comments and elegantly obscene boasts come at a fast and furious clip, making our host's performance the most enjoyable aspect of the song, as Tyrone Fyffe's instrumental sounded incomplete. At least it still sounds streets ahead of most of The Ruler's Back, though.
6. BUGSY RADIO SKIT (FEAT BUGSY)
7. WHO ROTTEN 'EM
Ricky adopts a much more subdued tone than we're used to, and inadvertently sends the audience to Dreamland, where they spend the majority of their vacation trying to escape the constant threat of death by boredom. Okay, that metaphor isn't one of my best. But this song does suck.
8. 2 WAY STREET
This wasn't that bad, though. Clark Kent's beat is a simple loop, but it sets up the rhythm without intruding on the lyrics, and Ricky's tale of trying to fins the perfect woman who won't mind his frequent indiscretions is fair enough, even if it isn't very realistic. He takes the subject matter seriously, though, and that dedication sells what otherwise could have been an absurd Penthouse letter to the editor.
9. KING PIECE IN THE CHESS GAME (FEAT CANIBUS)
Ricky doesn't sound married to the idea of the beat: it's almost as though producer Tyrone Fyffe (or Ty Fyffe, an alias you may be better acquainted with) promised to craft something more grandiose, but asked our host to spit over this filler track as a reference tool, and then went behind his back and included it on The Art Of Storytelling anyway. Canibus, who flat-out is not a good enough artist to appear on a comeback project of this caliber, provides hook duties, and right when you think he's going to kick yet another shitty verse, he cuts himself off, so thanks for the self-restraint, Germaine.
10. TRAPPED BY ME
The drums at the very beginning interested me briefly, but the song itself falls into the trap (no pun intended) of failing to include anything for the audience to grab on to. This was pretty fucking boring. So far, listening to The Art Of Storytelling again has turned into the aural equivalent of cleaning your bathroom armed with only a toothbrush.
11. IMPRESS THE KID (FEAT DJ S&S)
The song's very title evokes nostalgic feelings from the early days of the cocky Slick Rick's career, but the track itself fails to keep that promise, thanks to an odd DJ S&S beat that seems to be far more concerned with satisfying Def Jam executives than it is actually trying to entertain anyone. I'm not impressed, Ricky. Maybe the world didn't actually need a fourth album from hip hop's preeminent storyteller if it's going to sound this bad.
12. Q-TIP & PETER GUNZ SKIT (FEAT Q-TIP & PETER GUNZ) (DUH)
I get why Kamaal appears on here, but the inclusion of Peter Gunz dates this album more than the copyright on the back of the album cover does. So off of the strength of one song with Lord Tariq, Peter Gunz became a big enough player in the game to score a cameo on a Slick Rick album? How the fuck do those magnets work?
13. I RUN THIS
Perhaps my comments on “Impress The Kid” were premature, as this track successfully combines an homage to our host with a 1999 upgrade, thereby making the argument that Slick Rick is still relevant. The beat, co-produced by Raymond Deal and Rev. Run from Run-DMC, is poppier than I remembered, but Slicky attacks it with skill and ease, and the simple hook falls right in line with how Ricky carries himself within our chosen genre. Nice!
14. FROZEN (FEAT RAEKWON)
The Wu stan in me was immediately drawn to “Frozen” upon unwrapping the cellophane from The Art Of Storytelling for the obvious reason, but I wasn't satisfied back in 1999, and I'm still not very happy with the final product today. The back-and-forth between our host and the Chef works very well, much better than it should have (Ghostface Killah would have made a better sparring partner, but Rae handles himself well), but the 1980's-flavored synth-heavy beat is downright lazy, and it also seems to have subconsciously directed all of Rae's sleepy performances from 1999 moving forward, so for that, it will never be forgiven.
15. WHY, WHY, WHY
I could have done without Ricky's singing during the chorus. Actually, to be honest, I could have done without this song entirely. His self-produced simple instrumental wasn't that bad, though: it reminded me of something old school artists such as Big Daddy Kane or Kool G Rap might have used during the Juice Crew days.
16. ADULTS ONLY
Ricky is one of the elder statesmen when it comes to the hip hop sub-genre known as the sex rap. His attention to detail is unparalleled (the title contains a warning that younger readers should heed), but the fact that he focuses so heavily on anal sex adds an overall goofy tone. Dame Grease's beat stays out of the way of this triple-X throwdown for the most part. Rick has done better, but this was alright, and the fact that he snuck it onto an album that is, relatively speaking, mostly for general audiences is kind of funny to me.
Ricky explores the depths of his mind, stringing together random thoughts (such as watching Shaft in a movie theater or laughing at low long cars used to be) into coherent verses that sound as stream-of-consciousness as fucking James Joyce. This wasn't bad, but I wish the musical backing was better.
18. UNIFY (KID CAPRI FEAT SNOOP DOGGY DOGG & SLICK RICK)
This track was lifted directly from Kid Capri's Soundtrack To The Streets project. Given how well Snoop Dogg (whose name is misspelled on the back cover – one of the most popular rap artists of all time and Def Jam can't be bothered to spell his name properly?) handled “Lodi Dodi”, one would have hoped that a collaboratioon between our host and his seemingly heir apparent would have sounded better. Not me, though: once I heard this piss-poor Kid Capri beat, all of my expectations fell out of a fucking fifth story window into a busy intersection to be trampled on by horses, as I happen to live in the early 1900s.
19. BUGSY RADIO SKIT (FEAT BUGSY)
20. I OWN AMERICA PART 2
A remix of a track that played earlier in the program. This beat is far more polished than on the original, but it still doesn't really work, as magic and whimsy don't immediately come to mind whenever Slick Rick starts to brag. Oh well; at least this version sounds better.
21. CEO OUTRO
That's it? That's the album outro? Why even waste the space?
The following songs are considered to be bonus tracks on The Art Of Storytelling.
22. WE TURN IT ON (FEAT DOUG E. FRESH)
Slick Rick reunites with his old partner Doug E. Fresh for an all-new collaboration (or, at least it was new to me) that doesn't hit quite as hard as their previous work (see: the next two tracks), but “The Show Part 2”, as Ricky refers to it at one point, succeeds in bringing back the old-school feel that was mostly missing from The Art Of Storytelling. Also, it was kind of funny to hear Ricky drop some profane bars alongside the very religious Douglas Edward Fresh.
23. LA DI DA DI LIVE (FEAT DOUG E. FRESH)
Plays out exactly as it reads, Rick is clearly catering to his older fans while trying to teach the kids something (mainly that this was his song first, not Snoop's) (okay, technically it was Doug's song first, but shut up), but that doesn't mean that it isn't interesting.
24. THE SHOW LIVE (FEAT DOUG E. FRESH)
FINAL THOUGHTS: Slick Rick's The Art Of Storytelling is an overstuffed turkey intended to complement a full Thanksgiving dinner for one person only. In other words, it's much too much, and beyond the first few bites, it doesn't even fucking taste good anymore. Slick Rick's skills behind the mic survive incarceration intact, with a minimal of adjustment to meet the cost of inflation, but he runs out of shit to say after about seven tracks. Probably because he couldn't have had many new life experiences behind bars, I assume. The main problem with The Art Of Storytelling lies with the beats, most of which sound like half-remembered dreams with no sense of closure or coherence, and this tactic leaves Ricky in the dark as to how his rhymes are being received. The Art Of Storytelling was ultimately a misfire. Another legend bows to the pressure of being a relevant rap artist in today's rap game. Sigh. Better luck next time, Ricky. (As of this writing, it has been eleven years since the release of this project. There were also eleven years between his debut album and this one. Coincidence? Probably, but that doesn't mean that I don't want to hear another Slick Rick album. Get to work, man!)
BUY OR BURN? Burn this shit. Slick Rick apologists will probably find something to love on here, and I even liked two of these songs, but most of this project isn't appealing enough to warrant a purchase. It is what it is.
BEST TRACKS: “I Run This”; “We Turn It On”
You can find more on Slick Rick's albums by clicking here.