I had always had my suspicions, but they weren't confirmed until I did the research for the opening paragraphs of this write-up: producer-slash-rapper Jermaine Dupri specifically chose to work with Chicago native Shawntae Harris, who calls herself Da Brat to this day even though I'm sure she's at least thirty-seven years old, because he was absolutely convinced that he could mold her into the female Snoop Doggy Dogg.
Because that's what the rap game needed, of course.
Shawntae first tasted success back in 1992, when she won a contest sponsored by MTV, with the grand prize being an opportunity to meet Kris Kross, the hitmaking duo (well, "Jump" was really their only massive hit, but whatever) who were signed by Jermaine Dupri. JD, as he likes to refer to himself, was impressed by her lyrical delivery, and quickly signed her to a deal with his vanity label, So So Def: in quick succession, she was a featured player on the second Kris Kross album, the more "mature" (meaning "they used curse words this time around") Da Bomb (best known for cover art, which caused it to get banned in Japan thanks to its image of a mushroom cloud after an atomic bomb was detonated - very sensitive, that JD), and she recorded and released her solo debut EP, Funkdafied, in 1994, which resulted in Da Brat becoming the first female solo rap artist to sell over one million copies of her album. Yes, you read that right.
There was once a time when the hits came easy to Jermaine Dupri, who produced the entire project and pops up to play the Puff Daddy to Da Brat's Ma$e on more than one occasion on Funkdafied. Shawntae sat back and watched as her three singles connected with an audience, gaining radio and video airplay (especially on MTV) at a rapid clip. Musically, the Funkdafied project attempted to approach the middle ground between Chicago and Atlanta, JD's home turf, ending up with something that mimicked the sound the West Coast was best known for.
Indeed, Shawntae's flow could very easily be mistaken for a Snoop Doggy Dogg performance, and I don't mean in a Nas playing Scarlett kind of way: this chick actually sounded exactly like that motherfucker. When I was younger, I wondered how she could get away with this so egregiously. Years later, when she started playing up her sexuality in an attempt to revamp her image, I finally understood: in the right light, she was actually kind of cute. In the wrong light, however, she looked like the missing third member of Kris Kross who missed the bus, so it's probably a good thing that all of the songs on Funkdafied focus on smoking weed, partying, or a combination of the two.
1. DA SHIT YA CAN'T FUC WIT (FEAT. JERMAINE DUPRI)
Bypassing the typical rap album intro trope, Da Brat chooses instead to spit two verses in such polished fashion that you're tricked into believing that she's been embedded in our chosen genre since the tenth day of forever. She still sounds like a female Snoop Doggy Dogg today, though, and Jermaine Dupri's G-Funk-tinted beat only adds to that distracting comparison. Shawntae sounds alright enough (even though her chorus is as awful as expected), but I grew tired of hearing Dupri chime in randomly like the poor man's Puff Daddy, but repeating entire bars instead of merely ad-libbing. Dude obviously wanted the spotlight all for himself: the way he repeats the lyrics makes me think that he probably wrote them for Da Brat, too. Anyone have any confirmation or an official denial of this?
2. FA ALL Y'ALL (FEAT. KANDI)
JD's Dr. Dre impersonation goes for broke on “Fa All Y'all”, although it lacks the soul that Andre was once able to include effortlessly, before he became sidetracked with pimping out his own brand of cognac and some overpriced headphones instead of fucking releasing Detox already. I'm already sick of hearing Da Brat refer to herself as “the Brat-tat-tat-tat”, but fuck it, whatever it takes to help the listener find you in a sea of generic rap artists, right? This was the second single from Funkdafied, and while it was a hit, it didn't leave as much of a dent as the title track did. Brat's delivery is assured enough, but it's really hard to shake the Snoop thing. Thanks a fucking lot, JD.
3. FIRE IT UP (CELEBRATION TIME)
Thus far, Da Brat sounds like a rapper without a country: her West Coast-flavored instrumentals and New York sensibilities don't jive with her Chicago hometown. (Keep in mind that Funkdafied was released in the days before fellow Chi-Town resident Kanye West.) She rides up to this weed anthem with an undeniably smooth and still banging JD musical creation, so even though the chorus is tacky and the skit attached to the end is unnecessary on an album that only contains nine songs to begin with, Da Brat manages to walk away with a catchy affair that sounds about as relaxed as most people are after smoking a bowl. No amount of weed will make you want to add this song to your iTunes playlist, though.
4. FUNKDAFIED (FEAT. JERMAINE DUPRI)
Da Brat and JD pass the mic back and forth over this first single from the project (and Shawntae's debut solo song). Due to overexposure, I am far more familiar with the radio edit, so I actually found all of the profanity on here damn near gratuitous, and I curse a damn hell motherfucking lot (and I've also heard this album before, so why am I so surprised?). It's almost as though these two go out of their way to create holes within the song itself, and then double back to pave over them with swears because they could. The instrumental is smooth and, yes, funky, but Da Brat doesn't do much to differentiate herself from Snoop (her biting is so blatant on here that it cycles right back to “subtle”; still, I'm left wondering if Snoop Dogg ever found himself considering filing a lawsuit), or from Jermaine Dupri, for that matter. Man, that guy really wanted all of the glory, didn't he?
5. MAY DA FUNK BE WIT' CHA (FEAT. LATOCHA SCOTT)
Part two of two in Da Brat's “Funk Suite” manages to bury the Schooly D “P.S.K. (What Does It Mean?)” sample far enough in the background that you probably haven't noticed it until just now, when you read about it. Da Brat's lyrics aren't memorable, which is a side effect of a lack of focus in your subject matter. JD's beat is artificially calm: I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, or for the track to magically blend itself with into Siouxsie & The Banshees' “Kiss Them For Me”. That would have been fucking interesting, unlike this weak shit.
6. AIN'T NO THANG (FEAT. Y-TEE)
That song title could only be more generic if it were changed to “Rollin'”. Which probably could have also worked: JD's attempt at a West Coast beat sounds like it's dying to be the soundtrack to a failed drive-by. Shawntae goes needlessly violent with her verses, much more so than anybody would have expected from anyone who worked with motherfucking Kris Kross. This song is store brand hip hop: it uses the same ingredients as your name brand gangsta rap (and is even manufactured in the same factory), but it doesn't taste nearly as good. Y-Tee's verse at the beginning also sounded annoying as shit: was that side trip into reggae really fucking necessary from an artistic standpoint?
7. COME AND GET SOME (FEAT. MAC DADDY)
The fact that Da Brat is female holds almost no bearing on her verses: she may as well be a guy, since she chooses to let her rhymes create her identity without helping the audience along (when she's not calling herself a “bitch”, anyway). I'm not sure if that's a compliment or not. Either way, there is no reason for anybody to ever listen to this shit, unless you're just chomping at the bit for a new album from Kris Kross, whose Mac Daddy provides the second verse and might have been wearing his clothes backwards while recording it. I can dream, anyway.
8. MIND BLOWIN
I feel like I'm in hell right now.
9. GIVE IT 2 YOU
The third (and, as far as I know, final) single from Funkdafied ends the project on a higher note than it deserves. JD's party wind-down beat still sounds alright enough, but Da Brat's cavalier attitude toward writing a verse that actually fucking means something is almost enough to make you wish that hip hip would just up and die already. Somehow, Shawntae has turned in nine separate songs that all describe how “real” in quotation marks she is as a self-proclaimed “bitch” and how much she likes to drink and smoke. Maybe she just didn't have enough time to record something reflective, or maybe she really wanted to share her political views, but JD and So So Def had a deadline to meet. But this entire excursion was tiring. I like drinking and smoking too, but if that's all I wrote about, this blog would be really fucking boring.
An alternate version of Funkdafied was also released, entitled Funkdafied (Da EP) – Rated PG. True to its title, it features the radio edits of the tracks that most of the audience would be more familiar with, but it also included a couple of remixes and an unreleased song, “Da B-Side”, a duet with The Notorious B.I.G. It isn't a very good song, but given the potential for more sales, it's still puzzling to me as to why this collaboration wasn't included on the original effort.
FINAL THOUGHTS: I hadn't revisited Da Brat's Funkdafied since it originally dropped, and today I realized why: it isn't very good. Everything about the project screams “straight to DVD sequel”: Da Brat's lyrics were obviously originally crafted for Snoop Doggy Dogg, who demanded too much money, and the gender of his main character was adjusted instead. Jermaine Dupri's instrumentals all sound like cheap knockoffs of Dr. Dre and DJ Quik, too. Funkdafied is most certainly a product of a less stressful time in hip hop, one where the mere concept of a female thug rapper over party beats was enough of a novelty to move over one million units. Shawntae rarely deviates from her wheelhouse lyrically, rendering every single one of these songs as different versions of each other, and Jermaine's insistence on sharing the microphone doesn't exactly help his artist establish her own identity. This may have been short (how does an album with only nine tracks not get classified as an EP?), but just because it won't use up a lot of your valuable time doesn't mean you should consider ever actually listening to it. Da Brat delivers her performance with the confidence and poise of a veteran, though: one wonders what her catalog could have sounded like, had it not been for JD's constant intervention.
BUY OR BURN? Burn this if you must. The only readers that will be even remotely interested in Funkdafied will be the ones who actually remember when the videos played on MTV anyway, so you younger folks are forgiven if you have absolutely no idea who you just read about.
BEST TRACKS: Maybe “Fire It Up (Celebration Time)” if I'm feeling especially charitable.