After the aural debacle that was Roc Marciano's Marcberg, I decided that now was a good time to unleash this write-up, in an effort to shed some light on some thug rap shit that actually connects with its audience, and not just because the four members of Screwball actually understand how to use a microphone.
Screwball is a Queensbridge-based quartet made up of rappers Blaq Poet, Hostyle, Solo (also known as Kyron), and the late KL, who passed away in 2008 due to complications caused by asthma. They took their name from a late friend who was murdered prior to their formation, which is an interesting way to honor the memory of a dear friend, especially since Screwball works so well as a group name (it isn't any worse a crew moniker than Killarmy, anyway) that it's impossible to imagine these guys working under a different guise. For the most part, Screwball consisted of four separate friends who all had varying degrees of success within our chosen genre before banding together and scoring a deal with Tommy Boy Records: Poet was best known for his early single "Beat You Down", which was a dis to KRS-One, and his cousin KL was better known as Kamakazee, who released a couple of twelve-inch singles prior to the debut group project Y2K. Hostyle and Solo didn't work all that much prior to Y2K (Kyron apparently worked alongside Kamakazee, but I'm not entirely sure how much input he had), but they, along with Poet, moved on to solo careers, although they each continue to revolve around each other's solar systems from time to time.
Y2K was a long-awaited dedication to Queensbridge, a housing project that has somehow spawned some of the greatest rappers in history (and Nicki Minaj) (and Noreaga) (and Big Noyd), and the four pawns in Screwball tried to repay the favor by including as many QB notables as possible (except for Nas, Rakim, Tragedy Khadafi, and Q-Tip, who were all otherwise occupied, I suppose). Production-wise, Screwball ceded duties primarily to Beatnuts affiliate Mike Heron, who handles the majority of the production on Y2K, but also sent invitations to Pete Rock, Marley Marl, Godfather Don, and DJ Premier, all of whom not only accepted, but also brought a dish.
Y2K was never destined to be a top seller, as it was marketed horribly by Tommy Boy Records: in fact, so few copies were pressed, it's relatively difficult to find one today without the use of the Interweb. However, it was well-received by fans of the hardcore New York street sounds of the late 1990s (even though Y2K was released in early 2000), so it remains one of the hidden treasures (okay, not so hidden, since odds are that you two have probably heard of at least Blaq Poet) of the East Coast.
Okay, enough talk.
1. ALBUM INTRO
2. THAT SHIT
Not really the best way to introduce the Screwball crew to an audience that has likely never heard of any of them. Still, they bounce off of each other's energy very well, and Mike Heron's instrumental (save for the sampled wailing) is appropriately attention-grabbing. The reason I'm nonplussed is because of the weak chorus, which relies on the gimmick of repeating the song's title: it leaves listeners feeling that all of Y2K will sound like this. It's probably best that you skip to the next track...right about...now.
Contains the best chorus that M.O.P. never wrote. DJ Premier provides a happy-go-lucky instrumental for Poet's hyper-aggressive “fuck all you bitch ass n----z” rant, and the ingredients all blend together and bake well. There were a lot of hip hop heads who used this song's refrain as a personal mission statement, and I'm sure there are still a few of you out there today still reciting this mantra on a daily basis. I do wonder why the rest of Screwball didn't contribute, though, since this is pretty much the only Screwball song that you absolutely need to hear if you only have five minutes of the rest of your life to spare.
4. TAKE IT THERE (FEAT. CAPONE)
Hostyle's Pac Man reference aside (“I'm ghost like Blinky”? That's fucking hilarious), this is actually a fairly convincing thug rap from three members of Screwball. (KL sits this song out.) Poet sounds better than everyone else, but then again, he usually does. Capone (from Capone-N-Noreaga) comes across as more accomplished on here than he does on CNN's albums, which is saying a fucking lot. Beatnuts affiliate V.I.C.'s instrumental also accurately captured the feeling of a gritty street circus, which is supposed to somehow be a compliment.
As was expected after glancing at the album's title, Screwball tackle the paranoia associated with the new millennium, and instead of shouting about it and then retreating into a large pile of money like Busta Rhymes, the crew gets violently proactive, threatening to take out all adversaries that dare to stand in the way of their continued existence. The performances aren't bad, but Godfather Don's beat doesn't sound like the kind of music one would expect to hear during the Apocalypse: it's alright, but it's not real. Oh well.
6. SEEN IT ALL
Primo's other production contribution to Y2K is a majestic, sweeping affair that still mixes it up with enough of his patented boom-bap to capture the ears (and hearts) of hip hop heads. Hostyle, KL, and Poet rhyme about random events in their lives that have left them so jaded that absolutely nothing can faze them ever again, doing the beat justice, even though it kind of sounds like M.O.P. featuring Blaq Poet and nobody else and even minus M.O.P. at times. This was still much better track than I had remembered.
7. SOMEBODY'S GOT TO DO IT (FEAT. TRIPLE SEIS)
So far, one of Screwball's strengths is their beat selection: nearly every single beat on Y2K up to this point fucking knocks. Mike Heron's work on here even makes Terror Squad's Triple Seis, already a curious choice for a guest spot, sound really goddamn good. Hostyle and Solo both manage to tear shit up, as well: I'm left wondering just how long Screwball can keep up with this unrelenting pace.
8. YOU LOVE TO HEAR THE STORIES (FEAT. MC SHAN)
Blaq Poet teams up with old-school legend (and Snow apologist) MC Shan, relating the rise of his fellow Queensbridge rappers (such as Nas and Mobb Deep) over some surprisingly moving Pete Rock production work. While this is still a pretty entertaining song, it seems to exist merely to evoke feelings of nostalgia that aren't earned: it's like Seth Rogen making a movie with Steve Martin, with the audience expected to be excited about Martin's mere presence. Although I like both of those guys, so that's probably not the best example. Anyway, Shan sounds fucking awkward on here, which may be proof that he can't really hang with the cool kids today. But “The Bridge” is still my shit.
9. THE HEAT IS ON (FEAT. PRODIGY & GODFATHER DON)
Nope, this still isn't the Glenn Frey cover I pined for when I first wrote about this song, which also appeared on Mobb Deep's Free Agents: The Murda Mixtape (albeit in a different, “unreleased” format). Mike Heron's instrumental is actually pretty weak, which was eventually going to happen: no rap album will ever be filled with wall-to-wall banging beats, not even Illmatic. Yeah, I fucking said it. Anyway, de facto leader Blaq Poet spits alongside a coherent Cellblock P, who gives the best performance I've heard from him in fucking years. (I guess it helps that this is not a recent recording.) However, the beat sabotages the proceedings. Godfather Don also has nearly nothing to do, handling only the hook: exactly why was he invited to be on here again?
10. THE BLOCKS (FEAT. NATURE)
Sure, Nature (who replaced Cormega in supergroup The Firm) may not be your first choice for a guest star, but Screwball was actively trying to recruit their Queensbridge peers for Y2K. (As to why Capone makes an appearance and not Noreaga, ask yourself this question: if you were given a choice between trying to appeal to a street audience versus making a radio hit, who the hell would you choose?) A Kid Called Roots lends the two members of Screwball who pop up on here a guitar-driven beat that keeps things moving, but the track itself wasn't anything I could identify in a police lineup.
11. NO EXCEPTIONS (FEAT. BIG NOYD)
Rapper Noyd makes a very good point during his opening verse: he has actually rhymed alongside Rakim (on Mobb Deep's “Hoodlum”, from the soundtrack to the film of the same name). However, the way he says it seems to almost taunt Hostyle, KL, and Poet, who probably won't ever receive the same consideration, unless DJ Premier interferes or something. Noyd doesn't seem to understand that he lucked into that shit because Rakim Allah wanted to work with Mobb Deep. You'll notice that I haven't really written all that much about “No Exceptions”.
12. THE OPERATION (FEAT. NASHAWN)
“The Operation” moves things back in the right direction. Mike Heron's beat sounds like the soundtrack to planning a profitable, if predictable, heist (although it also reminds me of scenes in older movies where newspapers spin toward the audience and reveal the headline: SCREWBALL RELEASES GOOD SONG, MAX REJOICES), and everyone involved sounds, well, involved, including guest star Nashawn, who must be hating the love and appreciation that West Coast rapper Fashawn is receiving right now. If only you chose a different consonant to start your rap moniker, you might have reaped the rewards. Sorry, buddy.
13. URBAN WARFARE
Hostyle's solo shot takes place over a Mike Heron instrumental that could also introduce a remake of The Untouchables if it wasn't already busy that evening. I was pretty impressed that the beat accurately captured the titular concept, so the fact that Hostyle's lyrics were well-performed was just cherry.
14. WHO SHOT RUDY?
Quite the controversial single for Screwball at the time, for obvious reasons: they aren't talking about the little girl from The Cosby Show, after all. Hostyle and Solo tackle a fantasy sequence that other rappers didn't have the balls to do, and their attention to detail regarding the death of Rudy Giuliani is portrayed in such a distinct manner that listeners will be convinced that it actually happened. Which, I suppose, makes Screwball the hip hop equivalent of Phillip K. Dick or Phillip Roth. On a related note, Screwball should look into titling any future follow-up album Phillip. Oh, and the song sounds pretty good, too.
15. BIZ INTERLUDE (FEAT. BIZ MARKIE)
Including Biz Markie somewhere on your album is hardly ever a bad thing, as long as he's given something to do. For instance, on here he provides the human beatbox.
Poet may be the guy positioned to be the breakout star, but Hostyle actually spits more verses on Y2K, including on this, his signature track. I hate how the word “money” is spelled out during the chorus, but aside from that, Hostyle takes what should be a corny-ass instrumental from Mike Heron and turns it into an entrance theme. This leaves me with little doubt as to why he was the other guy in Screwball to branch out and make outside cameos. His third “verse” consists of nothing but shout-outs, but I forgive him anyway.
17. COMMUNICATIONS (FEAT. PRINCE AD)
This KL solo song (Prince AD factors only on the hook) isn't bad, even though it sounds like a carbon copy of something Capone-N-Noreaga would come up with. EZ Elpee's instrumental, disembodied vocals and all, is fairly haunting (even though that clearly wasn't the intention), and it meets the lyrics halfway. This was actually pretty fucking good.
Unlike this shit, which was weak. Channeling Snoop Dogg's verse from Dr. Dre's “Bitches Ain't Shit” was interesting for exactly one second. This was pretty awful, and everyone here (all four members pop up on this track) sounds as though they checked out of the hotel six days prior.
19. ATTN: A&R DEPARTMENT
After a corny, creepy-sounding gag, Poet, Hostyle, KL, and Solo take on the music industry directly, and their arguments are all clear and concise. Eddie Sancho's beat is militant with its efficiency, and the hook actually works (considering the subject matter, that's kind of shocking). Some of these complaints may help explain why the members of Screwball aren't as well known as some of their Queensbridge brethren within hip hop's context. This shit was fucking good.
20. ON THE REAL (FEAT. CORMEGA & HAVOC)
I'm a little bit confused about this track: allegedly, Nas (arguably the biggest name from QB today, and seemingly the only important new-school guy from there to not appear on Y2K) originally contributed a verse alongside KL and Solo over this simple Marley Marl production, but the Interweb doesn't seem to know if this is actually true, or if Nas simply released a similarly-titled song around the same time. Oh well. This chugged along fairly slowly, but everyone here sounded really goddamn good, ending Y2K on a high note. Predictably, Mega Montana (who might have replaced Nas on here, if that rumor is even true) murders his collaborators, chopping up their bodies and disposing of the pieces in the river, but everyone seems to be having so much fun, so who cares?
FINAL THOUGHTS: Y2K actually holds up surprisingly well a full decade removed from its release. Signing Screwball to a major label deal probably wouldn't have been my first move, but Poet, Hostyle, KL, and Solo all acquit themselves nicely when stretched out over twenty tracks (eighteen songs and two skits) that are almost consistently entertaining. None of these guys are great lyricists or anything, but the team's chemistry lends a lot of credence to the group efforts, and the tracks that feature only one or two members all sounds as though these guys could handle the pressures of a solo album with a bit more practice. The production work on here is top notch, and most of the guests bring their A-game, making Y2K one of the better hip hop contributions from Queensbridge, and probably one that most of you two haven't heard of until now. Go ahead and give this one a shot.
BUY OR BURN? I think you'll enjoy this one, especially if you appreciate late-1990s New York hip hop like I do, so you should pick it up if you can. (The links scattered throughout this post would be a good first option (hint, hint).) The entertainment value alone helps to override some of the project's imperfections.
BEST TRACKS: “F.A.Y.B.A.N.”; “Attn: A&R Department”; “Seen It All”; “The Operation”; “Who Shot Rudy?”; “Communications”; “On The Real”; “Urban Warfare”