(Today Sir Bonkers, apparently my go-to whenever there's an artist or a project that I don't want to touch with a ten-foot pole, follows up his Reader Review from last year of hip hop punching bag Benzino's debut, The Benzino Project, with a write-up on his sophomore release, Redemption. Leave some notes for him below.)
In 2003, Elektra Records released Redemption, the second solo album from Boston-based rapper Raymond “Benzino” Scott. The project was chock-full of guest appearances by artists more famous than he was, and it received a rating of four-and-a-half mics in The Source, which should mean that it was an instant fucking classic.
Hold on, you can get three free issues of that particular magazine with the purchase of this album?
Yeah, I'm aware that, at this point in his career, Benzino pretty much was The Source, but still, this is just too much. He's not even pretending anymore? This would be hilarious if it wasn't so pathetic. Oh well, I suppose their lack of credibility saves me the trouble of getting pissed that this generous offer has long since expired.
Anyway, Ray Benzino, the guy notorious for destroying The Source's status as hip hop's bible, recorded four albums of original solo material between 2001 and 2007 on four different record labels, none of which moved many units (even when the sales figures are combined, Benzino never managed to sell all that many albums, so he never earned any plaques to hang on his wall). Everybody and their grandmother knows Benzino is top five dead or alive when it comes to being an asshole, but where his work was concerned, people took his evil deeds into consideration and left his albums on the shelf because, hey, he was known for starting shit, not recording music.
As mentioned above, Redemption was Benzino's sophomore album, and because his debut sold approximately two copies, he decided to take a different approach when it came to selecting his beats. You can say what you want about The Benzino Project, but when it came to the actual music and the guest appearances (and Ray knowing when not to get in the way), it was a very tight set that, unlike most albums coming out in 2001, could be called (save for two or three club bangers) a pure hip hop album. In an attempt to cross over into the mainstream and score a few more radio spins, Ray focused almost exclusively on club bangers and songs tailor-made for the ladies for Redemption. The production team responsible for the music on The Benzino Project sounding really good, the Hangmen 3 (a crew that counts Zino among their numbers, interestingly enough), were appointed as Ray’s gophers for all but six tracks, and for the rest of the project, he hooked up with the likes of Mario Winans, L.T. Hutton and L.E.S., none of whom are known for their massive hit singles, in an attempt to create his own version of 50 Cent's Get Rich Or Die Trying, while having his homeboy Dave Mays (his friend and partner from The Source) strong-arm people into appearing on his album.
Ray followed the 50 Cent formula to the letter. Because Curtis found mainstream success dissing an established artist (Ja Rule) during the promotion of his album, Zino decided to verbally attack the biggest rap star in the world, Eminem, on mixtape freestyles and also on one of Redemption's actual songs claiming that this white man was corrupting a culture that, in his mind, was created for the advancement of Black and Latino artists. I find it interesting when an artist, with a hardcore debut record , changes up his entire style in an effort to sell records; you see this happen on major labels all the time, even with names as big as Nas or Jay-Z (and no, I am in no way putting Benzino in the same league as Nas and Jay-Z). This tactic didn't work for Zino, though, since Redemption failed to stir up any interest and Elektra dropped him from their roster soon afterward.
In many ways, Benzino’s numerous failed attempts at becoming a rap star are a good metaphor for the music industry and how it attempts to sell unexceptional rappers to the general public. The difference between Benzino and most generic rappers, though, is that he used to have The Source backing him up, keeping his career on life support when, had he been forced to prove himself without any assistance, it would have been unlikely that any label would have shown interest, let alone help him pay for all of these hot guest appearances and instrumentals. (The proof that he wouldn’t have been so fortunate without the support of his old friend and partner Dave Mays lies in his fourth album, which was released to the sound of crickets after he was fired from The Source, but all in due time.)
So what do we have here?
1. STAYIN’ 4EVA
If you actually sat through The Benzino Project, you’ll be somewhat pleasantly surprised by this track. On his debut, Zino was a terrible, terrible lyricist without any sort of flow. On here, though, he’s an entirely unexceptional lyricist with a decent-enough flow. There’s nothing quotable on here, of course (although his line, “I don’t seem to ever learn my lesson”, is strangely self-aware). As usual, Ray scored himself a hot beat: this one rocks a nice piano, a harp and a bomb-ass bassline. He also purchased some good supporting vocals (from a female singer who, apparently, wasn't important enough to be credited properly on the album). This was not a bad way to kick off an album.
2. CALL MY NAME (FEAT. JADAKISS)
The guest star gets to go first over this L.E.S. beat, which grooves along nicely. Despite Ray not embarrassing himself behind the mic, he still gets completely blown off the map by Jadakiss (from The Lox). As a whole, though, this was alright.
3. ROCK THE PARTY (FEAT. MARIO WINANS)
The mandatory “In Da Club”-esque rump-shaker. I really liked Mario Winans’ solo hit single “I Don’t Wanna Know”; I've always wondered where his career went. Anyway, he performs double-duty on here, both guest-starring and producing this Neptunes-ripoff of an instrumental (just like everyone else who wasn't named Dr. Dre was doing in 2003). Unless you’re specifically looking for originality, this track isn’t all that bad. Raymond’s lyrics are a rather literal description of a champagne-drenched, marijuana-laced party attended by a lot of gun-toting thugs, which, while being nothing special, is perfectly functional for this type of song. I believe this was an actual charting single, but the degree of its success is unknown to me.
4. WOULD YOU (FEAT. MARIO WINANS & LISA RAYE)
This sounds like a poor “21 Questions” imitation, and Lisa Raye’s bratty, nasal voice annoys the shit out of me. I guess they couldn’t get Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes to show up to the studio because she was kind of dead at the time, although something as trivial as dying never stopped 2Pac.
5. MAKES YOU WANNA HOLLA
The Hangmen 3 are some of the best and most underrated producers in the game, in my opinion. Although this isn’t their finest hour by any stretch, this was still decent enough. Once again, Zino doesn’t embarrass himself on here, which, considering his track record on The Benzino Project, is impressive, but if he is ever capable of spitting an remotely interesting verse, he sure does go out of his way to hide that fact from the listener.
6. NEVER SHUVIN’ (FEAT. WYCLEF JEAN & M3)
Wyclef Jean both sings and raps on here, stealing the show from our host. The instrumental sounds like he could very well have produced it, too, but the Hangmen 3 are credited for the beat. I'm not entirely sure who the group M3 are supposed to be, but they sound competent and unimaginative. Zino doesn’t do anything particularly good or bad on “Never Shuvin'”, but this is still definitely a highlight of Redemption. It’s too bad that a superior rapper (such as, say, Nas) didn't get the opportunity to utilize this beat, because then, gentlemen, we would have had a classic record on our hands. And for all of you who believe Nas would rather perform fellatio on Jay-Z than record a song with Benzino: Raymond actually produced the title track to Stillmatic. So there.
7. GANGSTA’S TOUCH (FEAT. CADDILAC TAH & BLACK CHILD)
Since Benzino was doing battle with the Shady Records bunch (well, mostly Eminem, but the rest of the label's roster fell into the beef by default) at the same time that Ja Rule and Irv Gotti's Murder Inc. collective were verbally sparring with them, it makes sense that the two parties would team up at some point. I will say that you should definitely consider retiring from hip hop when Mitsubishi Tah & Crack Child out-rap you on your own fucking song, as is the case here. (I wonder why Ja Rule decided to not put in an appearance himself: I doubt it was an integrity issue.) All that said, everyone sounds much better than they should on this song, mostly because of the exotic Hangmen 3 creation, which samples Moroccan singer Cheb Khaled (of whom I am a fan). The lyrics on here are ass, but I suppose that, like a lot of songs on Redemption, you can still enjoy it on simply a musical level.
8. REDEMPTION (ROSARY) (FEAT. HUSSEIN FATAL & KID JAVI)
Apparently Fatal (late of 2Pac's merry band Tha Outlawz) was also beefing with Shady/Aftermath/G-Unit/Interscope around this time, since he was featured no less than four times on Ja Rule’s bullshit attempt at warfare with said label conglomerate, Blood In My Eye. So it makes sense that Benzino recruited him for Redemption as well. Ray had been actively trying to appeal to Pac’s fans on the album he released in between his debut and this effort, The Benzino Remix Project (which is exactly what it sounds like) by featuring all the other Outlawz on a track, and even goes so far as to imitate 2Pac while Tone Capone channels the “Hail Mary” instrumental. While the results sound eerily like a lost track from The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory, there are better avenues to take if you want to hear some Shakur-esque songs. There’s Tha Realest, Ja Rule, and, oh, I don't know, 2Pac himself?
9. X-TRA HOT (FEAT. DAZ & JEWELL)
Given the guest list, this track was probably intended to emulate Death Row Records in its heyday. However, it sounds more like a half-assed Scott Storch effort, which fits with everything actual producer L.T. Hutton has produced in this millennium.
10. I REMEMBER (FEAT. MARIO WINANS)
I don’t know how many women actually listen to Benzino (although the man sold so few albums throughout his career that breaking down the demographics of those who actually did purchase Redemption is probably scientifically impossible), but this syrupy song for the ladies is so cliché that, despite there being nothing really bad about this musically or lyrically, it’s just boring. Which is a worse offense than actually recording truly shitty music. (Exhibit A: Jay-Z's “I Know What Girls Like”, which makes me laugh out loud for three hours straight when I'm baked.)
11. GET IT ON
This one was boring, too.
12. THE 44CAL KILLA (FEAT. SCARFACE & M3)
I generally have no real opinion on the work of production team the Trackmasters, but this beat is pretty damn fresh. The acoustic guitars have a way of creeping down your spine, which is appropriate, as this song is about a serial killer (who prefers to use a 44-caliber gun, in case you missed the subtlety in the song title). Scarface kills this shit, which makes me wish he’d have gotten this instrumental to himself.
13. HOOLA HOOP
Benzino jumps on both the Sean Paul and the T-Pain bandwagons (before Mr. Pain was even a blip on hip hop's radar), to appalling results.
14. DIFFEREN KIND OF LADY
15. PULL YOUR SKIRT UP
Eminem stans, you've probably actually heard of this particular track. This would be the infamous Slim Shady dis record that stirred up a bit of controversy back in 2003. The fact that Eminem actually put this song on one of his own mixtapes tells you everything you need to know about the overall effectiveness of the attack: not one memorable line is dropped, and the Tone Capone beat is easily the worst one on the entire album. I suppose Funkmaster Flex could use this track to back up his claim that Benzino is the worst rapper on the planet, but most hip hop heads are perfectly willing to hate on Ray, so it wouldn't really be necessary.
16. ROCK THE PARTY (YOUNG HEFF REMIX) (FEAT. LIL’ KIM, PETEY PABLO, & MARIO WINANS)
Lil’ Kim’s verse and extended hook are okay, but that still wasn't a valid reason to include two versions of the same song on Redemption. Since Petey Pablo abso-fucking-lutely annoys the shit out of me whenever he makes a non-crunk guest appearance, I would probably stick with the original.
Redemption ends the evening with a bonus track.
17. UNTITLED HIDDEN BONUS TRACK/ I GOT LOVE (FEAT. L.O.)
While he doesn’t spit overly complex bars on here, this is still the most lyrical I have ever heard Ray act. He pulls the song off well, and unknown rapper L.O. also gives a decent performance. Of course, it does help that this track features the best beat (by the Hangmen 3) on the entire album by a wide margin. I wonder why Ray decided to not only use this as a bonus track, but also not mention this on the back cover. Still, it was a good way to end your album.
FINAL THOUGHTS: While Benzino's Redemption showcases a man who has grown noticeably better as an emcee since his debut, he still gets ripped a new asshole by each and every guest that Dave Mays bribed for a guest appearance. As a whole, Redemption is plain boring for the most part. The Benzino Project featured some great instrumentals that couldn't really be classified as crossover attempts, with enough interesting guest turns to obscure the host, even if he did manage to drop fat too many clumsy verses. On Redemption, though, he goes the 50 Cent Get Rich Or Die Trying route: club bangers + songs for the ladies + songs for the streets + a beef to get people to pay attention + jumping on every hip hop bandwagon imaginable. Unfortunately, Benzino is too poor of an emcee to actually pull it off. Redemption isn’t even a funny failure (save for maybe the Eminem dis track). However, I must say that this is no worse than any post-The Massacre G-Unit album, and it definitely could have potentially charted when it was released in 2003, had it not been for Benzino's tendency to piss off The Source's global fanbase, because this is a professionally-constructed piece of mainstream rap. Despite the fact that Redemption marked the point where Benzino, The Source, and Dave Mays (who took the odd stance of standing by Ray Dog's side when the beef with Eminem escalated, thereby dooming the respective careers of everyone caught in the crossfire except, well, Eminem) all fell into the hip hop abyss, there are still a handful of songs on here that I feel are worth your attention.
BUY OR BURN: You should burn the tracks listed below and find “Pull Ya Skirt Up” on YouTube. Even though it sucks balls both as a dis record and as an actual song, you should still listen to it all the way through at least once for historical purposes.
BEST TRACKS: “Stayin’ 4eva”; “Call My Name”; “Never Shuvin’”; “Gangsta’s Touch”; “44 Cal Killa”; “I Got Love”
(Questions? Comments? Confusion? Leave your thoughts below.)