My wife chose this write-up as the first one during this week's focus on female rappers because, unlike some of the others who will follow, she actually knows who The Lady of Rage is, but not for the reason you think. She's definitely aware of Dr. Dre's The Chronic and Snoop Doggy Dogg's Doggystyle (and not even because of me!), both of which she made memorable appearances on, but she remembers Rage from her supporting role on The Steve Harvey Show that happened shortly after Death Row Records imploded. So there you go.
Before that happened, though, she was recruited as the first female rapper on Death Row by Dr. Dre himself, after he had heard her contributions to the LA Posse's album They Come In All Colors. Robin Allen is an East Coast transplant from Canada who lucked into getting signed with what is still the most notorious record label in hip hop history, even though it barely exists today.
Dre and Marion "Suge" Knight liked Rage so much that they promised her debut solo album, Eargasms, would be released after The Chronic. Unfortunately, they made this promise right before Rage's labelmate Snoop Doggy Dogg blew the fuck up: hot off of his guest spots on The Chronic (and his introduction on Dre's "Deep Cover"), Doggystyle was moved to the front of the queue, and then Tha Dogg Pound (Snoop's cousin Dat N---a Daz and Philly rapper Kurupt) got a turn, and then Suge signed 2Pac while he was in prison, and then...well, you get the picture.
Robin was able to sneak a couple of guest spots and a well-received solo single, "Afro Puffs" (from Death Row's Above The Rim soundtrack), onto her resume, while politely sitting back and letting everyone else record and release records. Hell, looking at the cover to the soundtrack to Gridlock'd would lead one to believe that Lie To Me's Tim Roth released a CD before The Lady of Rage did. But in 1997, Robin was finally able to drop her debut, now entitled Necessary Roughness, probably not after the movie of the same name.
Sadly, Rage was forced to record her album under the most dire of circumstances, which is my way of saying that Dr. Dre, the guy who fucking hired her in the first place, wasn't around to oversee the process: he was already at his new house setting up Aftermath Records. Thankfully, Rage wasn't the average artist on the roster: although she thrived on West Coast beats from the likes of Dat N---a Daz, she also sounded pretty goddamn good over instrumentals from the East, which she proved by recruiting the likes of Easy Mo Bee and DJ Premier, two of the bigger names in New York boom bap. Both of those guys also worked with the late Notorious B.I.G., which sort of makes Necessary Roughness a truce offering after the East Coast/West Coast feud took the lives of two of the most important artists in our chosen genre.
Necessary Roughness allegedly sold hundreds of thousands of copies, but I call bullshit on that: if she was so fucking successful, she should have been able to secure another record deal immediately after leaving Death Row: any label in the world would have loved to sign a guaranteed moneymaker. Instead, the exact opposite of this happened: Rage has barely appeared on the hip hop radar since this album dropped. Occasional cameo aside (usually alongside her old friend Snoop Dogg), Rage shifted her focus to acting, and has now, to my knowledge, vanished off of the face of the Earth.
1. RIOT INTRO
2. NECESSARY ROUGHNESS
It's unfair to compare Necessary Roughness to the other albums that Death Row Records released in its heyday, but as a part of the original roster, it must be noted that, with this first song, Rage promises a sound that is far removed from Dr. Dre's prescription pad as Antarctica is from the rest of civilization. Easy Mo Bee's instrumental gives this title track an East Coast feel (which Rage agrees with: she even mentions during her first verse that she attacks the mic like a rapper from New York), but our host for the evening fits in very well, as she bends her words and phrases into successful bars. The hook is terrible, but (say it with me now) this is rap music, after all.
3. BIG BAD LADY (FEAT. 2PAC)
Dat N---a Daz's instrumental is minimalist, and I could have done without the singing (I was okay with the repetition of the title, but not so much with the constant “Rage!” that cycles throughout), but The Lady of Rage takes to the mic and destroys it. Listening to this song, it makes perfect sense why Dr. Dre saw potential in her: sadly, it also makes perfect sense why her career didn't exactly go anywhere after Necessary Roughness dropped. Oh, and regardless of what side of the fence you're on concerning Tupac Shakur, it's clear that he was loyal to his labelmates and obviously liked Rage: his “chorus” proves that he was somewhat of a team player when needed. Not that Pac's fans ran out to purchase Necessary Roughness or anything, but still.
4. SHO SHOT
Early on (extremely early on), Sean “Barney” Thomas's beat tricks you into thinking that he has suddenly entered MF Doom-levels of eccentricity, but after a generic phony Shaggy-from-Scooby-Doo fakeout, the instrumental returns to its regularly scheduled programming. Which isn't bad: honestly, a lot of rappers could potentially rip the shit out of this. Robin is one of those rappers, so her cold-hearted boasts and goofy pop culture references sound well-placed. The hook is overly wordy, but otherwise this was fairly entertaining.
5. NO SHORTS
I didn't care for this song. Daz's beat sounds like an afterthought, the singing on the hook is louder than any of the actual lyrics, and Robin doesn't really have much to say. I realize that, after all of the tomfoolery regarding Andre Young versus Death Row records, that “Afro Puffs” (or its really good remix) had absolutely no shot of ever ending up on Necessary Roughness, but it could have easily taken this song's place.
6. GET WITH THE WICKEDNESS (FLOW LIKE THAT) (REMIX)
It is kind of goofy that the remixed version of this track would appear before the original, but it is what it is. Daz's beat attempts to smooth out the rough edges that the lyrics contain, and they end up battling each other viciously over the course of the track, rendering the entire effort unnecessary. Rage sounds okay, and when presented with a valid opportunity, she could sell the shit out of these verses. You'll see what I'm talking about in a few minutes. Also, the beat isn't good enough to warrant an extra minute of it tacked on to the very end. This was just bad.
7. RAW DEAL
The third weak song in a row (although (SPOILER ALERT!) that all changes with the next track). Robin never sounds quite sure of herself over Easy Mo Bee's instrumental, and she had the misfortune of signing off on a chorus consisting of sound bites, one of which could be misconstrued as her taking a shit. Which isn't an image that anybody really wanted to have, but now you do, so there you go. You're welcome.
9. ROUGH RUGGED & RAW (FEAT. SNOOP DOGGY DOGG & DAT N---A DAZ)
Kinda-sorta a Death Row posse cut, except that Snoop barely registers and Kurupt is missing in action. Dat N---a Daz also sounds pretty terrible with his verse, which runs about ninety bars too long. But Robin steps up to the plate, knocks it out of the park, hits a home run, passes out all of the peanuts and Cracker Jacks, and utilizes whatever other baseball metaphors exist for writers to use when indicating that The Lady of Rage sounds really fucking good over this Reg Flair beat. If only the rest of the song were up to her standards. It was nice to hear Snoop providing moral support, though.
10. SUPER SUPREME
Kenny Parker's funky, low-key instrumental slides onto Necessary Roughness seamlessly, and Rage murders it, although I have to admit that hearing Robin continuously talk shit can grow pretty tiring. She attacks this track as an homage to a more lyrical time in hip hop, though, so I can dig it.
11. SOME SHIT
Occasionally, DJ Premier will give a beat to a charity case that doesn't sound like a natural fit (see: Limp Bizkit (or, technically, Fred Durst on Limp Bizkit's “N 2 Gether Now”), Group Home, Paula Cole). This is not one of those occasions: Rage actually has the skills to do boom-bap justice, as she proves during her overly-long one-verse wonder. She kind of sounds like a certain Tupac Shakur for a few bars, and she cuts herself off at the end, as this is presented as a practice session used by Primo to set the levels for the next track, but it still sounds really fucking good. Huh.
12. MICROPHONE PON COK (FEAT. MADD 1)
The “real” DJ Premier-produced cut that the previous song was ostensibly practice for. Primo's sweeping beat sounds typical of what his output is today, but it still comes across as pretty good. Madd 1, the other rapper on here, sounds great: I wonder whose ass he kissed in order to end up on a Primo beat. But Rage is fucking fantastic, as she is entirely in her element no matter which coast provides the musical backing. I would buy a Lady of Rage album entirely produced by Premier immediately. I don't know what is with the shitty reggae-tinted chorus, but that's really the only misstep on here.
13. GET WITH DA WICKEDNESS (FLOW LIKE THAT)
It's strange to listen to this song when its remix appeared earlier in the program, but Rage's self-produced hard drums, combined with some ethereal cooing, blend perfectly for Rage to lyrically demolish. She loses focus toward the end, but up until that piont, this is a masterful freestyle session that just happens to include room for a chorus. This plays much better than the earlier remix, and as a bonus, there are one hundred percent less Daz Dillinger ad-libs on here.
Easily the most ambitious song on Necessary Roughness, if only because Rage eschews the shit-talking prevalent throughout the rest of the project in favor of a monologue directed toward God, or at least to her pastor. When Robin focuses on a singular topic, her lyrics actually sound even better. The singing on here exists merely to set the tone, and Rage sounds genuinely concerned for her soul in the afterlife during this, her version of The Notorious B.I.G.'s “Suicidal Thoughts” and “Mind Playin' Tricks On Me” from The Geto Boys, two tracks that are offhandedly name-checked. This was a great way to cap things off.
FINAL THOUGHTS: The Lady of Rage's Necessary Roughness is a surprisingly solid debut album, one which still sounds pretty good today, especially when compared to what passes for a female emcee in today's bastardization of our chosen genre. Her lyrics and her flow haven't diminished since her mainstream debut, and her choice in beats showcase her writing ability as she performs over music considered both safe (Daz Dillinger) and challenging (DJ Premier), mastering both ends of the spectrum with ease. She may have missed out on the golden years of Death Row Records, but The Lady of Rage is a proven talent that deserves to be revisited. Necessary Roughness sounds exactly like where Robin would be, music-wise, if she were a part of the Diggin' In The Crates crew. (Which isn't a bad idea, actually: it's not as though the original Death Row roster is ever going to get back together. Maybe Buckwild and Lord Finesse should reach out to her.) I imagine that she isn't very thrilled with the direction hip hop has gone since this album dropped, but Rage should be proud to know that her lone solo contribution to the game is worthy of a much wider audience. This shit was really good.
BUY OR BURN? If you can find this anywhere, you should pick it up. I highly doubt the new Death Row will include this project on its schedule of reissues, so you may have to dig a bit, but it is worth it. Also, have you seen that price below?
BEST TRACKS: “Some Shit”; “Microphone Pon Cok”; “Confessions”; “Sho Shot”; “Super Supreme”; “Get With Da Wickedness (Flow Like That)”