Although you see nary a mention of this fact whenever you read about Lason Jackson's career on other blogs, the artist known as La the Darkman is actually a Wu-Tang Clan affiliate. You're forgiven if you had no idea about this: most recently, La has aligned himself with his younger brother, Willie Da Kid (a blogger favorite), and Gangsta Grillz mixtape series creator DJ Drama in an effort to re-brand himself as a formidable emcee, because bragging about your allegiance with hip hop's elder statesmen isn't the best decision from a marketing standpoint these days. Sad, but true.
But in 1996, La the Darkman was all about the Wu, as was everyone else in the known universe. I remember flipping through old issues of The Source (back when it mattered, of course) and seeing advertisements paid for by an unknown label called Fo' Real Records (I can't be the only person who remembers this), announcing the arrival of an artist who used to go by the moniker L'a the Darkman (apparently the apostrophe was intentional). This was a big deal for me, because as a Wu stan even back then, I was excited by the presence of Raekwon the Chef on the twelve-inch single being advertised ("I Want It All" b/w "As The World Turns") and the promise of Wu-Tang affiliation long before everyone else was throwing up the letter "W" with their hands and using a killer bee motif on their album cover. (At this point, only Sunz of Man and, to a much lesser extent, Killarmy had officially been named as official Wu-Tang Clan farm teams.)
Of course, the magazine itself had little to nothing about La the Darkman himself, and back then it was much harder to find information on the Interweb. It was also impossible to find anything from L'a at my local record shop (because Fo' Real Records didn't have the best distribution plan), so I was left hoping that the man would eventually release an actual album that I could hold in my hands.
Lo and behold, La actually pulled that trick off: two years later, he released his debut album Heist Of The Century on Supreme Team Entertainment, another unknown label that specialized in cheap album artwork and even cheaper liner notes. Why La wasn't set up with a contract from The RZA's vanity imprints Razor Sharp Records (through Epic) or Wu-Tang Records (through Priority) is a mystery to me: perhaps there wasn't a lot of good faith surrounding Heist Of The Century.
Not that you could tell by looking through said liner notes, though. La the Darkman stacked the odds in his favor by including some of his new friends, including The RZA, 4th Disciple, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Masta Killa, and U-God, in addition to some outside help from the likes of Havoc and DJ Muggs. He also hooked up with Carlos "Six July" Brody, one of the members of Puff Daddy's Hitmen production team, to craft the majority of Heist Of The Century. With his debut album, La went out of his way to embrace all thirty-six chambers of Shaolin, while attempting to form his own identity as a New York rapper who needed to stand out from the crowd of Wu-Tang b-teamers who were growing exponentialy by the minute.
These days, La the Darkman maintains his Wu connections, but downplays them at every turn. I suspect that's because Heist Of The Century sold almost zero copies and failed to make him a household name. La should have learned from every other Wu-Tang Clan b-teamer: the only folks in the crew that are ever going to become stars are the original nine members themselves.
(Wikipedia seems to believe that La the Darkman is considered the twelfth member of the Wu, behind such luminaries as Cappadonna, Cilvaringz, and maybe Redman (depending on how you interpret Reggie's lyrics). I call bullshit on that: if he was an actual member, he would have appeared on 8 Diagrams, and that's final.)
Heist Of The Century starts off with a sound bite from a kung-fu flick, which always works for me. Six July's instrumental also approximates the kind of Wu-Tang sound Cappadonna was probably shooting for on his debut, The Pillage. La's delivery sounds like that of a more articulate and sleepy Prodigy (from Mobb Deep), which helps him stand out when alongside other artists, but is a detriment when he's riding for dolo: his flow is interesting, but not interesting enough to hold an audience's attention for longer than the span of a single verse. Here's hoping that I'm remembering this album incorrectly. I still liked La's version of the Wu's “C.R.E.A.M.”, which is essentially what this was, but I wish it was more than that.
La's flow sounds much more amped up on here, but it's wasted over this poor Six July synth-driven instrumental that sounds like is was meant for Raekwon's Immobilarity and was also recorded in 1986. Also, the Darkman manages to make sex sound entirely unappealing by using the mental image of fucking a girl “through her piss hole”. The hook is generic, as well. This was the polar opposite of “Lucci” in nearly every way. This doesn't bode well for my enjoyment.
3. CITY LIGHTS
After a thorty-second skit that goes absolutely nowhere, La takes over one of Havoc's Hell On Earth rejects for a crime tale of his own. The Darkman's attitude toward the streets is best summed up with his line, “These n----z lookin' for me, I'ma shoot they ass a lesson”, foregoing any sort of dialogue or mediation in favor of violence. His attention to detail is commendable, but “City Lights” (a song title that Method Man and Redman used to much better effect on their Blackout! 2) ends up sounding like an inferior version of Inspectah Deck's “Word On The Street”, and La really needs to establish his own identity at this point.
4. WHAT THUGS DO (FEAT. DJ ROGERS JR. & PUFF)
Thanks to the old-school drums and the decidedly 1980's feel of the instrumental, you're forgiven if you thought for a split second that the Puff featured on here was actually Puff Daddy. (Relax, you two.) It's just too bad that the beat, once again provided by Six July, is the only memorable aspect of this track. Listening to Heist Of The Century is going to be harder than I thought.
5. HEIST OF THE CENTURY (FEAT. KILLA SIN)
By that last sentence, I meant the album as a whole and not this song, which rocks. DJ Muggs hands a simple piano-based loop to La the Darkman and Killarmy's Killa Sin to work with, and they fuck the shit out of it and then buy it breakfast afterward. These two lace their heist tale with an almost ridiculous amount of detail (the only misstep is the sound of the Interweb dial-up connection – welcome to 1998, everybody!), and they bounce off of each other like sumo wrestlers. This is the most accessible track on Heist Of The Century (even with La's attempt at a twist ending and a bullshit wordy hook), and it's possibly the best that La will ever manage to pull off ever. Yeah, I went there.
6. FIFTH DISCIPLE
4th Disciple's instrumental (I see what you did with the title there, La) sounds like the twisted reflection of his past work, holding on to La's one-verse wonder as long as it possibly can before it vanishes like an unfit mother who's just won the lottery. It goes without saying that the limited airtime of this song forces La to add the much-needed element of focus to his rhymes, and even though he still comes across as a more thugged-out Killah priest, this should-have-been-an-interlude was alright.
7. NOW Y
La slows his delivery down by a couple of degrees to match Six's dark instrumental, and the result isn't transcendent or anything, but it sounds alright. The Darkman doesn't say anything out of character: random boasts coupled with a hint of pseudo-religious hyperbabble is the order of the day. But at least this shit was entertaining enough, even if you won't remember it after an hour.
8. SPRING WATER (FEAT. RAEKWON)
Surprisingly, special guest star Raekwon steps behind the boards for “Spring Water”, providing a much more upbeat track than one would expect from a guy best known for his crime tales and his narcolepsy. But it still doesn't sound like Wu: this is more like the poppy R&B that played on the radio in the 1980s, except instead of DeBarge singing, Rae does it himself (a little bit, anyway). La is obviously invigorated by the idea of spitting alongside the Chef, and his rhymes are more polished than usual, but in all, this track made me uncomfortable with its mediocrity.
9. 4 SOULS (FEAT. SHOTTI SCREWFACE)
6 July provides La and his invited weed carrier with a sparse, dusty beat that could have made the final cut of Method Man's Tical had The RZA not been in the midst of his five-year plan at the time. The Darkman obviously thinks so, anyway: his flow takes on traits that Johnny Blaze is better known for, while Shotti Screwface is stuck playing the role of Streetlife. Thankfully, both man run rampant without resorting to a chorus to break the tension, but the song itself (not counting the useless skit at the end) runs nearly five minutes long, which is a bit much for only two guys. Still, I liked this much more than I had remembered.
10. STREET LIFE (FEAT. TEKITHA)
I don't care if La did borrow Tekitha in order to make this song sound more like a Wu-Tang Clan soul-tinged banger, it still fucking sucked.
11. LOVE (FEAT. MAIA CAMPBELL)
La gives his mandatory love rap the most generic title he could think of in the three seconds he had free before spitting his lone verse. The beat is more downbeat than you would expect, but it isn't that bad: it's just a bit slow, and the samples used as the majority of the “hook” are kind of annoying. What's more interesting to me is that the Interweb believes the guest performer Maia Campbell to be the same Maia Campbell that co-starred with LL Cool J on In The House (and appeared in a famous Coca-Cola commercial starring Tyrese before he hit it big) before her career took a nosedive. Anybody have any real confirmation of this? Her voice wasn't that bad, and she was pretty cute while she was on the show.
12. FIGARO CHAIN (FEAT. HAVOC)
Since I mentioned earlier that La's flow kind of reminded me of Prodigy, it makes perfect sense that his Mobb Deep partner Havoc would eventually make an appearance behind the mic, in addition to providing the beat, which is relatively weak and repetitive by Hav's standards. This wasn't that bad overall, though: if La were seeking affiliation with another entity aside from the Wu and DJ Drama, the Infamous Mobb might have an opening.
13. POLLUTED WISDOM
For obvious reasons, I gravitated to this RZA-produced song as soon as I unwrapped the plastic from Heist Of The Century. My blind Wu stannery led me to overlook the fact that Prince Rakeem's beat underneath La's story (which features a female character who somehow ends up with gasoline poured “in her cunt” - yeesh) is the epitome of looped-up boredom. Then I read somewhere that this wasn't really a RZA track at all: the rumor is that, through a series of wacky coincidences, it is believed that The RZA and True Master traded production credits for this song and Inspectah Deck's “R.E.C. Room” in an effort to sell more units of Heist Of The Century (which didn't impact Deck nearly as much, since he had a couple of other RZA tracks in his pocket). Regardless of how true that tall tale may actually be, this song was much more dull than I recalled, and the fact that the beat carries on for nearly two minutes without La's involvement reeks of overkill.
14. GUN RULE
Six's piano-driven beat is appropriately dark, but it gets old after hearing it for about a minute: it could have used some flourishes or at least a change of some sort. La takes on three verses that each sound like the last: consistency is definitely not one of the man's flaws. However, as he sticks with his tales of street life on the majority of Heist Of The Century, now might have been a great time to throw the audience a curve ball.
15. ELEMENT OF SURPRISE (FEAT. MASTA KILLA & U-GOD)
La aligns himself with the two least popular members of the Wu-Tang Clan in this demo tape for possible inclusion in the crew proper, but he didn't count on 4th Disciple's beat blending into the background (in a bad way) and both Masta Killa and Baby Huey dominating their host behind the mic. This song won't ever enter the conversation when the best Wu posse cuts are debated, but for what it was, it wasn't horrible.
16. AS THE WORLD TURNZ (FEAT. RAEKWON)
This was one of the songs advertised in The Source that first led me to realize that La was a Wu b-teamer (“I Want It All” was its A-side), but I have no idea if this is the same version as the one on the twelve-inch single. I hope it isn't: 4th Disciple's beat plods along while Rae and La spit nothing of importance. The drums were alright, I guess, but this isn't the type of track that a new artist should release as a teaser single.
17. WU-BLOOD KIN (FEAT. GHOSTFACE KILLAH & 12 O'CLOCK)
Ghostface Killah, arguably the biggest guest star on Heist Of The Century, only provides the (shitty) hook, so the song is left for La and Ol' Dirty Bastard's brother 12 O'Clock, which makes the song's title weirdly accurate. I normally appreciate 12's work, since he sounds like a more coherent version of the Russell Jones we all know and love, but everything about this song sucked balls. That's all I got.
18. I WANT IT ALL
La the Darkman's version of The Notorious B.I.G.'s “Juicy”, except that he's wishing for success instead of already bathing in it, like Biggie was. This was a boring way to end the evening.
FINAL THOUGHTS: Heist Of The Century is a difficult listen, whether you're a Wu-Tang stan or not, although if you aren't an avid follower of the Clan, you won't be listening to this anyway. La the Darkman is an obviously accomplished rapper, coming out of the gate with his crime tales polished and his allegiances strong, but during the recording process, he forgot to create an album that people would actually enjoy listening to. His crime sagas all sound too similar, and they grow tired by the third song, and although there are sparks of inspiration sprinkled throughout Heist Of The Century, I'm convinced that La the Darkman is the kind of artist who thrives in a collaborative environment, which is just a nice way of saying that a little bit of him goes a long way. He's chosen a pretty interesting producer in Carlos “Six July” Brody, although he's given better beats to Royce da 5'9” (Brody's other major collaborator), and the outside help he receives is, if nothing else, tolerable, but as a whole, Heist Of The Century is almost fucking impossible to listen to in one sitting. It took me three days to write about this album. Three days. And it's only eighteen tracks long. That's never a good sign.
BUY OR BURN? You don't have to do either one. La the Darkman is one of the more interesting Wu-Tang Clan b-teamers, but this album isn't even mandatory listening for stans such as myself. You can stick with the tracks listed below.
BEST TRACKS: “Heist Of The Century”; Lucci”; “4 Souls”