If No Pressure was Erick Sermon's bid to prove that he was the sampling wizard behind EPMD, then his sophomore effort, Double Or Nothing, with its title's clever nod to his rap alter-ego E Double, was his take on revisionist history. Aided by his Def Squad brethren Redman and Keith Murray, along with a few folks who recorded cameos and then promptly vanished off of the face of the motherfucking Earth, Erick Sermon attempted to retool his persona, altering it from a sample-heavy behemoth to that of a funk lord. And he probably would have pulled it off, too, if it wasn't for those meddling kids.
Double Or Nothing was Sermon's second solo album on Def Jam, but when you look at just how much of a departure it is from the sound of No Pressure, you'd be forgiven if you mistakenly believed it to be his twelfth. No longer satisfied with occupying one-fourth of EPMD's group name, Erick Sermon wanted to take over the galaxy of hip hop, and he decided that the best way of accomplishing that goal was to appeal to as many people as humanely possible. Double Or Nothing contains salvos created specifically for radio stations, hip hop heads, fans of street tales, stoners, and pretty much every other major demographic, although, curiously, "fans of EPMD" were left crying into their pillows.
Double Or Nothing is one of those albums that nobody seems to have any real feelings about, whether they be positive or negative. It's complete lack of anything offensive makes it relatively easy to forget that it even existed: aside from the existence of one track (which you'll read about in a bit), I even believed Sermon's discography somehow skipped from No Pressure into the EPMD reunion record Back In Business (which I'll get to at a later date). The project's only two singles were radio mainstays around my way, but they would never be considered anybody's favorite anything: quick, tell me what those two singles were and what they sounded like. Without cheating. You can't do it. And if you can, if you could please explain to me why your Erick Sermon fan club never sent me the t-shirt and bumper sticker I sent away for back in 1996, I'd greatly appreciate it.
1. INTRO (SKIT)
One minute into Double Or Nothing and I'm already bored out of my mind.
I guess it makes sense that the first real song on Double Or Nothing is also its first single: what better way to inform the listener that this project will sound nothing like EPMD's past work? Sermon's instrumental eschews the sample-heavy style (although not entirely abandoning it) he and Parrish Smith perfected in favor of a party groove built around a Mary Jane Girls sound bite (taken from “All Night Long”), and his first two verses display a rapper-slash-producer who is eager to please. So “Bomdigi” sounded pleasant enough...until the third verse, which I had apparently blocked out of my mind grapes: desperate to prove himself to any new fans who would have inexplicably picked up this album, E Double starts name-dropping the titles of songs he produced for Redman's Dare Iz A Darkside. A lame-ass way to end an otherwise decent track.
3. FREAK OUT (FEAT. REDMAN)
Redman's Dr. Trevis character introduces this track, which sounds like a refugee from the Dare Iz A Darkside sessions, but that's alright, I suppose, since Reggie Noble appears alongside our host, destroying the man lyrically in a fairly embarrassing fashion. Redman was still in his pre-Muddy Waters days, so the vocal resemblance to the Green-Eyed Bandit is more than a little bit obvious, but he still sounds pretty good over this beat, which is the traditional funky musical housing he resides in when not high as fuck. Sermon sounds fucking ridiculous, though: it almost brings a tear to my eye to see the student surpass the teacher so goddamn effortlessly. Moving on...
4. IN THE HEAT (FEAT. ?)
Our host tackles a storytelling rap that grows increasingly violent as the relatively banging instrumental moves forward, suggesting that he has officially gone crazy because of the heatwave he is apparently suffering through right now. The presence of an uncredited guest artist whose name I cannot place right now is iffy and unnecessary, but Sermon refuses to let him take over, electing to spit out his threats mostly for dolo. I have to admit, I was legitimately disturbed when he threatened to strip his opponent nude and pistol-whip them, but I guess I shouldn't have been that surprised: this is the same guy who bragged about shooting a sheriff, after all.
5. TELL 'EM (FEAT. KEITH MURRAY & ROZ)
This dark and melodic track is a step in the right direction. Over an instrumental that I'm fairly certain was also used for a Sprite campaign scheduled before Double Or Nothing's release, Sermon teams up with fellow Def Squad member Keith Murray (who sounds in his zone, which is to say that he sounds terrific) and Redman's sister Roz to deliver a quick track that has no need for, nor any room for, bullshit padding, although they still manage to squeeze in a short hook. This spacey declaration of rap dominance is what I had hoped this album would have sounded like in its entirety back when I picked it up back in 1995. Oh well, at least it still holds up today.
6. IN THE STUDIO (SKIT) (FEAT. ?)
Not so much a skit as it is a quick and useless one-verse wonder from an anonymous female rapper who fails to receive a credit in the liner notes. It's nice that Erick was feeling charitable, but this was unnecessary.
7. BOY MEETS WORLD
The Green-Eyed Bandit relays his frustration with juggling homework and newly-acquired adult responsibilities while trying to keep his oddly-named girlfriend Topanga both happy and sexually satisfied. Although that isn't really what this song is about, at least my explanation makes sense: as Erick Sermon is not a “boy”, and he is a seasoned veteran at this point, he wouldn't have been new to the “world” when he recorded this track. I can only assume that he was watching ABC's TGIF comedy lineup one Friday evening while baked, and he thought “Boy Meets World” sounded like as good a song title as any. The instrumental was pretty bland, and Sermon doesn't sound invested in the action, so it's probably best that you skip this track...now.
8. WELCOME (FEAT. AARON HALL & KEITH MURRAY)
I believe this was the other single from Double Or Nothing, and it received a decent amount of airplay, so at least the otherwise superfluous Aaron Hall guest vocal on the chorus didn't go to waste. Sermon sounds alright, too, having completed his transition from rhyming over sample-heavy beats exclusively to also being able to tackle spacey funk (producer Rockwilder, turning in a performance that is far removed from what would make him inexplicably popular later on, plays a pretty big role in how smooth E Double actually comes across on here), and while Keith Murray hardly registers on here, his brief vocal still complements the track nicely. This held up much better than “Bomdigi”, anyway.
9. LIVE IN THE BACKYARD (SKIT)
Apparently, one of the running themes on Double Or Nothing is including a skit that actually doubles as a bonus song (as opposed to your typical rap album interludes, which rear their ugly heads on the back half of this project) while still running in the direction of “pointless”. Here, Erick Sermon attempts to give listeners a quick blues-y obstacle to leap over before they can finally get to “Set It Off”. And I'll say this: my Lord can this man not sing.
10. SET IT OFF (FEAT. KEITH MURRAY)
Perhaps as a sneak preview of his future work on Muddy Waters (which is Redman's most well-rounded album, for my money), Erick Sermon presents listeners with a calm instrumental that is manipulated just enough to sound menacing. Which is appropriate, as “Set It Off” is basically E Double's way of explaining that he has no plans on leaving the rap game anytime soon. (Back in 1995, this was a welcome statement: in 2011, though, I think we should all get together and perform an intervention, stealing away his booked studio time and donating it to an artist in need.) Keith Murray's presence on here is even more questionable than it was on “Welcome”: was there really a reason to have him shout random shit toward the end of the track, when his admirable skills could have been put to better use by having him order takeout? Was there really no better way for you to have ended this track, Sermon?
Erick sticks with his King Of The Mountain theme, but takes on the position of an elder statesman (which he is) who represents old school New York rap while dismissing the West Coast entirely (and then immediately taking that statement back by coming up with some bullshit about how rappers who pretend that they've actually shot people have no place in hip hop). Bet you didn't expect to hear any barbs aimed at the West Coast on an Erick Sermon project, did you? That's probably why E Double has gone out of his way to work with the likes of Xzibit, Eazy-E, Too $hort, and DJ Quik afterward: this way, he could be the rap equivalent of the racist white man who claims he can't be racist because he knows black people. However mixed the message is, though, Sermon's warning against artists who refuse to actually work at their craft is still enjoyable enough today.
12. MOVE ON (FEAT. PASSION & REDMAN)
Sermon seems to believe that the flavor of this track is “sour cream and onion”: I don't think he knows how songs actually work. However, he smartly gives Reggie Noble the first verse, which absolves him of most sins. The beat may not be especially tasty, but it still sounded alright, and Redman's energy behind the mic elevates E Double's own verse. Filling the obvious Keith Murray slot is female rapper Passion, who pledges her allegiance to the Def Squad but was unceremoniously erased from that crew's history after working alongside their intern, Jamal (of Illegal “fame”). As she sounds like a lost member of the Dealdy Venoms, she doesn't really fit into these proceedings anyway, but the song was still okay otherwise.
13. SMOOTH THOUGHT (SKIT)
More offensive than most hip hop skits tend to be.
14. DO YOUR THING
This alternate-universe take on “Welcome” was boring as fuck. That's all I got.
15. MAN ABOVE (FEAT. JAZZE PHA)
That's probably not what I would have titled a song that talks about getting some friends together at your house as an excuse to fuck all of their friends. Then again, I'm not one-half of EPMD. Sermon stays away from the graphically incestuous descriptions he provided on No Pressure: this time around, he simply seems amazed that there are so many women in the world who are willing to sleep with a guy who is a successful recording artist. Surprise guest star Jazze Pha, in one of his earliest appearances, provides the hook, which apes a couple of bars from Snoop Dogg's “Gin & Juice”, which seems lazy, but it's really hard to be mad at a song that is this laid-back about casual hookups. Not bad, sir.
16. THE MESSAGE (SKIT) (FEAT. TONE CAPONE)
Tone Capone makes a quick appearance to represent a crew that he has nothing to do with today. What was the point of this, exactly?
17. OPEN FIRE (FEAT. KEITH MURRAY & REDMAN)
Double Or Nothing ends with a show of solidarity from the Def Squad, as both Reggie Noble and Keith Murray join up with E Double for a quick posse cut. The beat was pleasant enough, and it contrasted nicely with both the aggressive title and the combative nature of the participants, but it isn't all good: Sermon is the weakest player of the three. Curiously, he includes empty space between the verses ostensibly built for choruses that were never written, choosing instead to fill in the blanks with random bullshit intended to help the listener transition between artists. Murray sounds a bit too awkward, as he attempts to fit more syllables into a single bar than has ever been attempted before, but unlike Redman, whose career began with a flow that aped that of our host, Keith Murray sounds exactly the same on “Open Fire” as he does today. Which should mean something, but it doesn't.
FINAL THOUGHTS: Erick Sermon's Double Or Nothing is successful in that it helps our host move beyond the EPMD sound of old, as we get to hear the incarnation of the minimalist moody funk that has punctuated his work ever since, but it fails in that it's mostly dull. The music misses far more than it hits, which makes it sound like a dusty relic I discovered at the Smithsonian, and Sermon's rhymes leave a lot to be desired. The tracks on which his braggadocio is curbed in order to fit more artists into the booth tend to be more interesting, as he proves that he is, in fact, able to shut the hell up when the occasion calls for it, but he rides by himself more often than not, and without, say, a Parrish Smith-type to bounce his ideas off of, he throws too many punches that don't connect (especially his coded bards aimed at PMD, which aren't very effective). Only a handful of these songs sound remotely relevant today, but that's alright: every artist has a meh period. That doesn't mean you have to suffer through it today, though.
BUY OR BURN? Burn this shit. Too many of the songs lack focus (except, funnily enough, “Focus”), and E Double's over-reliance on dumb fucking interludes and his incessant need to talk himself up will make you long for the glory days of EPMD, where he did the exact same shit, but sounded better doing it.
BEST TRACKS: “Tell 'Em”; “Focus”; “Man Above”
Catch up on Erick Sermon's catalog by clicking here.