On occasion, hip hop will throw audiences a curveball. Collaborations that are destined to suck will actually turn out pretty great, artists will morph into entirely different versions of themselves, and albums that have been shelved until further notice will actually be released to stores. Today's post is about one of those albums.
Brian Carenard's debut album, The Greatest Story Never Told, was first announced via cave drawing, the noise of which resulted in the messenger being stomped to death by a woolly mammoth. The artist currently known as Saigon, who was working off of a massive buzz caused by the success of his many mixtapes, began the recording process during the fall of Rome, laying down tracks during the discovery of the Americas with his producer, former Roc-A-Fella employee Just Blaze, who has carved quite a niche for himself in our chosen genre after his label home imploded.
Between World Wars, Saigon completed The Greatest Story Never Told for Atlantic Records, his major label home since the Renaissance. Just Blaze, who acted as executive producer, roped in a few of his production peers, including Buckwild and his former coworker Kanye West, to assist on the musical side, while Brian flipped through his newly-filled Rolodex to stack the odds in his favor with guest stars ranging from Q-Tip to Jay-Z. The album was mastered and ready for release, but Atlantic Records had cold feet, and the project was put on an indefinite hiatus.
Saigon posted a blog on his MySpace (which is a true indicator of hos old this project is) complaining about Atlantic Records, inadvertently insulting his producer in the process. Just Blaze responded via his own blog, insinuating that sample clearances were holding up the album's release, but it turns out that he was either lying or just trying to piss off Brian: Atlantic Records soon dropped Saigon from their roster entirely. The Greatest Story Never Told was destined to be one of those projects that grew to mythical proportions in the minds of hip hop heads, leaving us to wonder what might have been while secretly hoping that someone would raid the vaults and just leak the fucking thing.
Things took a strange turn in 2008 when Just Blaze announced that he and Saigon were allowed to have the masters to The Greatest Story Never Told as a condition of his release, allowing him to take the project wherever he wanted. While courting offers from other labels, Saigon released what accidentally ended up being his debut record, the Statik Selektah stunt All In A Day's Work, which was recorded within the span of a single day; this was met with mostly positive feedback. In the meantime, Just Blaze was unhappy with the offers on the table, so he ultimately decided to create his own label, Fort Knocks Entertainment, and quickly signed Brian to a deal which would guarantee the eventual release of The Greatest Story Never Told. And on February 15, 2011, the album hit store shelves, three thousand seven hundred and three years to the day of its original scheduled release date.
Was The Greatest Story Never Told worth the prolonged wait, or have audience expectations doomed the project to fail before it even starts to play? Has the incredibly long delay given Saigon an opportunity to tweak his debut album for the better? And does this mean that Dr. Dre's Detox might actually fucking see the light of day? Some questions have no answers: these are not those questions.
1. STATION IDENTIFICATION (INTRO) (FEAT. FATMAN SCOOP)
Fatman Scoop's line, "This party is so exclusive that you don't even have to go to the party" reminded me of Chris Rock talking about the club that not even air could get into in Pootie Tang. So that made me chuckle. But the rest of this rap album intro was motherfucking useless. The audience had to wait forever for this shit?
2. THE INVITATION (FEAT. Q-TIP)
I suppose the shitty intro leads into "The Invitation", so it isn't entirely without use, but I still found it to be pretty terrible. This song is the shit, though. Saigon rides Just Blaze's beat as though he were on a mission to let everyone know that the British are coming, and Justin feeds him an instrumental that serves as a perfect way to introduce him to the masses. Q-Tip only really provides the chorus, but he does so in a way that invokes A Tribe Called Quest's "Jazz (We've Got)" (from The Low End Theory), not exactly connecting the past with the present, but serving as a valid endorsement regardless. Flourishes aside, "The Invitation" is Saigon's show and the reason why he should no longer be known as just Turtle's former artist on Entourage. This shit was nice.
3. COME ON BABY (FEAT. JAY-Z & SWIZZ BEATZ)
This song, originally labeled as a remix of the original, Shawn Carter-less version of the same track, has been available for quite a while now, so it's a bit surprising that it still managed to find a home on the final mastered version of The Greatest Story Never Told. Then again, it does include a guest verse from Jay-Z, which can only help with the album's sales prospects. So it's too bad that Hova doesn't sound very good on here: not only is he a mismatch with Just Blaze's otherwise interesting beat (which he often is, as I have mentioned before), it's fairly obvious that his contribution was a throwaway on which he doesn't even pretend that he was working with or for Saigon. The inclusion of Swizz Beatz was also questionable, as it always is, so that wasn't a shock. But Saigon sounded invested in his work, and as such, he comes off as much more interesting than the hip hop veteran and the other guy on here.
This sort-of instrumental interlude serves as an overlong intro for the next track.
5. BRING ME DOWN, PT. 2
This Just Blaze-slash-DJ Corbett instrumental uses guitar-driven force to drive home the fact that Saigon is being set up as an artist who isn't going anywhere anytime soon: hell, this track could even fill the radio slot currently occupied by B.o.B., thanks to its mainstream sound (why do rap songs have to sound like rock songs in order to go "mainstream"?) and the positive message (during the chorus, at least). For his part, Saigon sounds like a fully-formed rapper that already knows which direction he is headed in: all of those years pushing his mixtapes appear to have paid off. I'm not usually a fan of when an artist includes a sequel or a remix to a song on an album on which the original isn't also included (I think the original "Bring Me Down" was from one of his mixtapes or the original version of The Greatest Story Never Told, and also on a specific retailer-exclusive bonus disc version of this album that I don't have, but I don't know Saigiddy's work well enough to find out), but I still found this to be pretty fucking catchy. (Shortly after this album leaked to the Interweb, Saigon unleashed "Bring Me Down, Pt. 3", his hatchet-burying track with former foe Joe Budden. Man, that guy knows how to rack up enemies in our chosen genre, doesn't he? Do you think Royce da 5'9" and Crooked I get annoyed every time he opens his mouth, because they're more than likely going to have to fight his battles for him?)
Saigon's two verses over this D. Allen production are dealt with a heavy hand: his metaphor for the streets not really being your friend smacks you in the back of the head with its bluntness. Also, the hook, which Saigon decided to sort-of sing for some reason, is on the weak side. But otherwise, this song was a pretty interesting cautionary tale. Our host isn't talking about anything new, especially when it comes to hip hop, but he makes "Enemies" sound fresh with his unique phrasings and attention to detail, and that is very much appreciated.
If you found the previous song to be a bit too subtle, Brian brings listeners a quick follow-up that hammers his message home: the streets don't fucking like you, and they will kill you as soon as they get the chance, and they will use you and replace you in the blink of an eye, and also, the streets will steal your wallet and fuck your girlfriend, and it will probably taste your cooking and say it likes it, but then quietly spit it into your trash can while your back is turned. Truthfully, the fact that Saigon has now devoted two consecutive tracks to this concept leads me to believe that he doesn't have any faith that his audience will understand his point of view, which is more than a little bit condescending. At least this shit lasts for only one verse.
8. THE GREATEST STORY NEVER TOLD
This title track should sound like a personal anthem for Saigon, but instead it limps along like a man with a bad leg and a broken dick. Our host's verses sound decent enough, but I couldn't get behind the other elements of the song: Just Blaze's instrumental sounds like a Memphis Bleek reject (although I will admit that the scratching at the end nearly changed my mind), and the hook is really fucking stupid, as though Brian was simply filling in the gaps so that he could go back and lay down a proper chorus later, but then ran out of time before The Greatest Story Never Told was mastered. Dude, you've had several years to clean up this project. What gives?
9. CLAP (FEAT. FAITH EVANS)
I heard this song on the radio the other day, but while it's accessible enough to fill the airwaves, "Clap" still works within the context of The Greatest Story Never Told. Just Blaze's beat on here is catchy as fuck: our host should have used this shit for his title track. For his part, Saigon doesn't water himself down for mainstream acceptance, and as a result, this song sounds fucking good. Including Faith Evans on the hook was a questionable decision, though, as she wasn't even a relevant artist when "Clap" was originally recorded some thirty-odd years ago. Ending the song with an overlong skit that leads into the next track was unnecessary, even though I laughed at the "Usher Raymond" line; you'll know what I'm talking about when you listen to it the one time.
10. PREACHER (FEAT. LEE FIELDS & THE EXPRESSIONS)
Saigiddy sounds like a more loquacious Curtis Jackson on this diatribe against crooked preachers, those who are "extorting us on the weekends". A valid point, one our host makes without talking shit about any specific religion: he's attacking only the people who are supposedly there to guide us. Collecting money from the parish and then using it to make a car payment? We've all seen that shit, even if you don't go to church. Just Blaze's beat reminded me of Kanye West's work on The Game's "Dreams", so this took me a bit longer to get into, but our host's verses ultimately won me over.
11. IT'S ALRIGHT (FEAT. MARSHA AMBROSIUS)
Speaking of Kanye, he obviously produced this track well before his My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy revamp, as it sounds like one of those generic soulful beats that he used to sell to the highest bidder in order to make his own car payments. Everything about this track sounds like it was recycled from a much better source: Saigon's rhymes sound so plain that you couldn't pick them out of a lineup even if they robbed you in broad daylight (although, admittedly, the part about political prisoners at the end added a bit of spice), and the Marsha Ambrosius hook seems to have been imported from an entirely different song. Nothing to see here, folks: move it along.
12. BELIEVE IT
The 1980s synth sounds at the end of "It's Alright" lead into this particular song rather beautifully. Just Blaze handles the beat while a T-Pain impersonation fills the hook (and not awfully, which was a surprise), and Saigon commits to his battle against adversity and complacency. Adding to the anachronistic sound of the track is The Yardfather's reference to T.I.'s previous prison sentence (the one that was a result of Clifford trying to purchase assault weapons or some shit), but fuck it, I really enjoyed this shit anyway. All of these skits on The Greatest Story Never Told are pissing me off, though.
13. GIVE IT TO ME (FEAT. RAHEEM DEVAUGHN)
The song was ridiculous in and of itself: Saigon spends the entire running time hitting on chicks and demanding pussy in return for the briefest amount of affection known to mankind, and guest crooner Raheem DeVaughn sings along as though this type of behavior is perfectly acceptable (and not illegal in the least bit) in today's culture. So I didn't care for this all that much. The skit at the very end, though, shocked the shit out of me, as our host has apparently convinced Snoop Dogg to ease up his iron grip on the fictional WBALLS radio station. That short interlude took me all the way back to fucking 1993.
14. WHAT THE LOVERS DO (FEAT. DEVIN THE DUDE)
This was pretty much the same song as "Give It To Me", except Saigon is focusing all of his attention on just one woman who won't sleep with him, as opposed to almost-raping numerous chicks at the club. Instead of respecting her wishes and appreciating what she will do for him (up to and including giving him head), he goes the brutally honest route and complains about everything (at one point he even mentions that he wants to hit her father with his car because he was so successful in teaching her the discipline and self-control that she is exhibiting), and he comes off as a bit of a whiny bitch. Still, this song wasn't entirely unfunny, even though stoner general Devin the Dude is completely underused in his role as the guy who sings the hook.
15. BETTER WAY (FEAT. LAYZIE BONE)
A horrible misfire in any era. Saigon takes the reflective route but sounds about as sincere as a talking head on Fox News, as he risks losing his entire fucking audience over an error in judgment. Just Blaze's piano-heavy instrumental sounds more adult contemporary than edgy, so much so that it's hard to give a damn about our host's struggles. And it has to be said: who in the fuck approved of a Layzie Bone chorus? Is Saigon trying to be ironic by reaching out to a rapper who hasn't been popular since the late 1990s? This song was just a fucking mess, and it has no place on any album, let alone this one.
16. OH YEAH (OUR BABIES)
Saigon uses the made-up word "homocitical" in order to rhyme a line about how children are becoming murderous bastards with the word "pitiful". Which probably tells you all you need to know about this track. With the previous track and now this shit, it has become blatantly obvious that Saigon only thrives over high-energy beats that facilitate an immense amount of shit-talking, as these slower songs force him to become serious, which isn't a good look for him. I'm all for artists adding new things to their bag of tricks, but not if the resulting music is boring as shit. Oh well. The bullshit at the end with the record skipping was also unnecessary.
17. AND THE WINNER IS... (FEAT. BUN B)
This was strange. I understand that this song was a late addition to The Greatest Story Never Told, but I was expecting an all-new track: instead, what I seem to have is a remix of "Enemies" (with a slightly different beat, if I'm not mistaken), one that starts halfway through the program, with an additional verse of Bun B that is of no consequence, tweaked to pretend that this is a "live" performance at an awards show. The song ends with some light applause, a brief skit, a twist ending that is depressing as fuck, and then a long stretch of dead air. (Maybe that's just on my copy.) This was an incredibly bad way to end an album. Doesn't Saigon have people around to help him avoid fucking up this badly?
The following is a bonus track that isn't listed on the back of the CD case for The Greatest Story Never Told, although it is listed on iTunes, and its guest appearance is advertised on the sticker affixed to the front cover.
18. TOO LONG (FEAT. BLACK THOUGHT)
Black Thought (of The Roots, the Money Making Jam Boys, and Late Night With Jimmy Fallon fame) sure seems to be making the rounds with his once-infrequent cameo appearances: first Ghostface Killah and now Saigon (who he had already worked alongside on "Criminal" from Rising Down). Black Thought is one of my favorite rappers, so this should be considered a good development, but this late addition to the program is meh at best. Thought sounds as good as he possibly can over DJ Corbett's plodding instrumental, but Saigiddy loses steam and turns in a poor performance.
THE LAST WORD: I'm happy that Saigon's debut album The Greatest Story Never Told has finally been released, just because he'll no longer be known as a hip hop punchline with that self-fulfilling prophecy of an album title. It helps that the man has obvious talent behind the mic, and this has earned him a lot of fans within the industry. However, The Greatest Story Never Told is far from perfect. The first half of the album is pretty fucking entertaining, I will admit, with Saigon's bars keeping the audience engaged while his beatsmiths (mainly Just Blaze) do what they do best. But the second half (save for "Believe It") fumbles the ball, and the multiple ill-advised skits run the project into the fucking ground. The back end of The Greatest Story Never Told is boring as fuck. The front end, however, was worth the long delay, and is almost good enough to override the project's faults. In short, The Greatest Story Never Told is an alright album with enough bangers to keep you interested, but it is far from one of the best albums of 2011 thus far. It helps if you have zero expectations going in to it.