September 22, 2011

Shyheim - A.K.A. The Rugged Child (April 19, 1994)

Unless you're one of those hip hop heads that doesn't really give a damn (like most of HHID's readers), you may have noticed that some of the children of the Wu-Tang Clan's original nine members have started releasing some material of their own.  Probably the best-known of this subset, most likely because of his horribly unoriginal rap name, is Young Dirty Bastard (also known as Boy Jones), the son of, well, if you have to ask, then you're reading the wrong blog; also among this group are the GZA's son Young Justice, U-God's next of kin Intell, Masta Killa's spawn Shamel Irief, and The RZA's daughter, Phineas Finklebottom.  But the Clan's original child star has been and always will be one Shyheim Franklin, the subject of today's post.

Shyheim was born in Brooklyn and was quickly shuttled to Staten Island, because, had things gone otherwise, there would be no story here.  After crashing with, of all people, Ghostface Killah, he became the youngest Wu affiliate at the age of fifteen, releasing his debut album, A.K.A. The Rugged Child, in 1994.  Interestingly enough, even with his partnership with the Clan, his debut album was produced almost solely by RNS and not The RZA (although he was nice enough to contribute one beat), and none of the original crew members even bothered to shop up to the studio.  Instead, Shyheim solidified his allegiance to one of the many Wu offshoots, the group GP Wu (made up of Ghostface's cousin Pop Da Brown Hornet, Down Low Recka, Rubbabandz, and June Luva), by allowing them to grace many of the tracks.

A.K.A. The Rugged Child scored a couple of minor hit singles (relatively speaking) and won Shyheim a much more prestigious spot in our chosen genre than most of the rest of the Wu affiliates.  This is a guy who once shared a stage at Madison Square Garden with both The Notorious B.I.G. and 2Pac at the same time.  This is a man who snagged a guest spot on Big Daddy Kane's massive (and massively ridiculous, in terms of the guest list, at least) posse cut "Show & Prove" alongside future hip hop mogul Jay-Z, who later tried to convince Shyheim to make a cameo on Reasonable Doubt's "Coming Of Age", but failed.  (According to Hova's book Decoded, Shyheim's manager essentially told Jay that he needed Shyheim more than Shyheim needed him.  I wonder if he's regretting that decision today.)  This is a guy who parlayed his success in hip hop into an acting career, popping up in the video for TLC's "Waterfalls" and in the film Original Gangstas.

But before all of that happened, there was A.K.A. The Rugged Child.

Sure, you could see it as ironic that Shyheim's very first song on his very first solo album promises a string of hit songs that never actually materialized during his career, but that would just be mean. Besides, I love the fact that he was so optimistic at the tender age of fifteen. Although he makes it a point to mention his Wu-Tang affiliation (a running theme throughout A.K.A. The Rugged Child), RNS's beat sounds more suited for an old-school, Big Daddy Kane type, and that's exactly the vibe Shyheim runs with, lacing the instrumental with three engaging, if not entirely memorable, verses. As he elected to skip past the rap album intro trope on his debut, though, I give the man a pass on this song, as it isn't even that bad in the first place.

The first single from A.K.A. The Rugged Child boasted a remix from DJ Premier, although I've never read anything where Primo confirmed that shit (sometimes a lie can be so widespread that you can never be sure of the actual truth). I'm pretty skeptical, though: even if Primo came to my house and handcrafted the remix before my very eyes, I'd have my doubts. (Hear that, Primo? I'm inviting you over to my house!) Besides, I don't own the twelve-inch single of “On and On”, so I can't really be sure, although I'm sure you two will probably confirm it for me in the comments). Anyway, “On and On” boasts the foulmouthed Shyheim waxing poetically about his surroundings and the struggles that he has been a witness to, tackling the subject matter with a serious eye that eludes most “adult” artists today. I'm not sure if Shyheim actually wrote these lines himself (although I'm leaning towards “yes”), but the man recites them well. (I wonder exactly how Virgin/EMI sold this album in their marketing materials, however: did they play up the “fifteen-year old cursing up a storm” concept? Or did they just superimpose a Wu-Tang logo over his face? Whose idea was it to give this kid a record deal, anyway? This is the kind of shit that boggles my mind.) Also, I was surprised to learn that Milk D (of Audio Two) actually contributed to the hook, which apparently only sounds like it was borrowed from his performance on “Top Billin'”. Huh.

Shyheim and his invited guests double down on a posse cut over this RNS beat, one that appears to use the same drums as Naughty By Nature's “Hip Hop Hooray”. Truth be told, it was corny as fuck to hear two of these guys (not our host) brag about using “Wu-Tang slang” when they've never appeared on any official Wu-Tang Clan member's project: it reeks of desperation. As a posse cut, though, this was still pretty enjoyable, especially since the listener is left guessing as to how awkward the guests felt with the idea of spitting their thug raps alongside a child, specifically a child who turns in the best verse. The hook was a little much, but so be it.

A complete waste of time.

Oddly, it's taken Shyheim four songs and an interlude to tell the listener what they already figured out: he is not “the Mac Daddy or the Daddy Mac”. Which is probably for the best, as the members of Kris Kross would be swallowed whole by RNS's Wu-Tang-aping instrumental, while Shy sounds like he's been living within it for half of his life. “One's 4 Da Money” was the second single from A.K.A. The Rugged Child, and it was a good choice: even though he goes overboard with the whole Clan thing, he proves over the course of two verses that he is as fully formed an artist as a fifteen-year old could have possibly been given the circumstances. Also, the scratched-in samples of Audio Two's “Top Billin'” were a nice touch: apparently RNS has a thing for the classics.

Shyheim abandons the dark tone of the past few tracks to bring listeners back to an older school of thought: namely, the idea that hip hop started out as feel-good party music. RNS's instrumental is game enough, but our host sounds uncomfortable, as he seems to prefer dark corners to brightly-colored rec rooms. “Here I Am” is the first real misstep of the evening, especially with the phrase, “It's a Wu-Tang thing” repeated as a chorus at one point. We get it, you're down with the Clan. Now please explain why your management team couldn't convince anyone from the actual group to give up a guest verse for your debut album, because that's what we're all wondering.

Guest star Pop Da Brown Hornet, who only provides the intro, ad libs, and various words of encouragement for our host, has a point: most child acts in hip hop only stick around for one or two hit songs. Shyheim tries to buck the trend, and almost convinces me that he could have been one of the more popular Wu affiliates had he received more of a push from his label, as his verses over this darker-than-it-has-any-right-to-be RNS beat display the soul of a rap veteran trapped in the body of a child. There's a crappy made-for-cable movie in that idea somewhere: you two can have it for free. Anyway, this wasn't bad.

For some reason, this song sounded like your nephew, pre-puberty, rapping along to an Onyx song that has never existed. It wasn't a terrible choice, but the shock value of hearing a kid rhyme about the horrifying violent acts that occur around his way about every half hour or so has long since worn off, and as such, Shyheim sounds like any other rapper on the radio, save for his need to consistently shout out his Wu-Tang affiliation. The Guru (R.I.P.) sound bite used during the hook grew tiresome after its third repetition. Actually, the entire song grew pretty tiresome, now that I think about it.

Shyheim and Down Low Recka exhibit a natural chemistry together behind the mic, as they playfully pass the mic back and forth over a jazzier RNS concoction. The invited guest especially sounds as though he had something to prove: his flow is good enough to wish that The RZA could have found another crew to place him with after the disbanding of GP Wu. It's good to hear that Shyheim's overall worldview hasn't become clouded over, and that he still thought it was a good idea to have actual fun in the booth.

As our host has pledged his allegiance to it throughout A.K.A. The Rugged Child, it makes sense that he would dedicate an entire song to his “Napsack” (I have to assume that the manufacturer of his preferred brand was too cheap to spell out the word “knapsack” properly on the tag). Over a dark, drum-heavy production that wouldn't sound entirely out of place on Method Man's Tical, Shyheim boasts about the burner he keeps in his backpack while dissecting exactly why he's a better rapper than you will ever be. At least he has that particular rap album trope down. This was pretty fucking nice.

Another posse cut, although this one gives our host the least interesting verse, as he finds himself inserted in between rappers who bend their bars to amuse themselves and not necessarily to fit the instrumental, which actually bangs. There's even a severe left turn into religion near the end of the track, but the ship rights itself soon after. Shyheim doesn't sound bad at all on here: he's just the more traditional of the four artists who perform, and that's not exactly praiseworthy.

Lest you two think that all of Shyheim's kind words for the Wu were falling on deaf ears, The RZA (credited as the misspelled “Prince Rhakeem” in the liner notes) provides his lone instrumental on what is the shortest song on the entire fucking album. I'd love to say that Prince Rakeem blows all of the rest of the tracks out of the water, but he actually plays it fairly safe, providing musical accompaniment that sounds like everything else on A.K.A. The Rugged Child. Shyheim sounds pretty good over this, though. As it seems to cut off early, I'm left wondering what this could have sounded like with a few extra minutes tacked on.

Shyheim and his uncredited guests (actually, that's a bit unfair, as nearly all of the guests on this album don't receive any credit) all spit a few bars. While the beat sounded decent, I couldn't help continuing to picture a bunch of grown-ass men sharing the mic with a little kid, especially one who seemed to be cursing simply to sound older, so that was a bit distracting.

There isn't anything fun about this track, no matter what the song title wants you to believe, but it was still enjoyable enough, especially when the Wendy Rene “After Laughter (Comes Tears)” sample (also used on the Wu's “Tearz”) kicks in during the hook. For his part, Shyheim ends his final verse of the project with the disturbing imagery of him fucking a bunch of chicks: although the undercurrent was clearly laid throughout the album, it still sounds icky, as though every single “hottie” that approached Shyheim to get “pumped” during the recording of this album should be brought up on charges of statutory rape.

Ending on an interlude, Shy? Well, stranger things have happened, I guess. This is just your typical rap album outro, one where our host thanks everybody for their help on wax.

FINAL THOUGHTS: The novelty of a child cursing wears off quickly, not unlike watching Bobb'e J. Thompson on Human Giant or in Role Models, but thanks to some quality production from RNS, Shyheim's debut, A.K.A. The Rugged Child, is an enjoyable, if a bit disturbing, excursion into Staten Island, as seen through the eyes of a teenager. His oft-referenced Wu-Tang affiliation will gets heads into the room, but Shy's fully-formed persona will keep them in their seats, as he sounds more comfortable on his debut project than most artists to five albums into their careers. (Yes, this may only be because there were zero expectations for Shyheim, and as such, he had nothing to feel uncomfortable about, but that's another story.) It is extraordinarily frustrating to hear Shyheim shout out the Wu so fucking often without any real payoff: even the members of Killarmy don't talk about their affiliation all that much. A lone two-minute beat from The RZA comes across as a bone thrown to a hungry audience member after he has already eaten everyone else in the crowd: too little, too late. But RNS handles the bulk of the musical backing with ease, so as long as you're not specifically looking for kung-fu flick samples and dusty drums from the basement of the Wu Mansion, you'll find yourself enjoying A.K.A. The Rugged Child.

BUY OR BURN? You can probably find this for relatively cheap, so you may as well spend the money. A.K.A. The Rugged Child is a nice blast from the past, and the 1994 model year Shyheim is a hell of a lot more enjoyable and interesting than he is today.

BEST TRACKS: “Napsack”; “You The Man”; “On and On”; “Little Rascals”; “One's 4 Da Money”




  1. For a while I was pretty on the fence with this album but in the past couple years I've really come to appreciate it.

  2. Here come the Hits is fuckin on fire, best track by Shyheim, can't imagine a 14-15 year old did that track!

  3. I could never get past his annoying, pre-pubescent voice. This album is kinda meh to me even though the production is right up my alley. It's just... his voice!

    Btw you didn't mention Sun God in the intro.

  4. hey Max do you know if the song Furious Anger by Big L & Shyheim was an original recording or if it was arranged posthumously? And could you review Binary Star's album Masters of the Universe? I'm sure you have it in your catalog

  5. The thing that's tough about this album is... It can be therapeutic for a teenager to describe the difficult circumstances of their young lives. So should one person's therapy session qualify as entertainment? If Shyheim isn't exorcising any demons here then I don't feel as guilty for enjoying the album, but I do feel disturbed about a teenager perfectly comfortable with, and celebrating, a harsh and destructive way of life. So either way this album has always been a pass for me. Not a judgement on Shyheim, I of course don't know him from Adam and haven't walked a single step in his shoes.

  6. Don't know much about the whole album, i know it only because of On and On, which is an interesting song wit good lyrics and an enjoyable beat...

  7. I'm gonna second that Binary Star review.

  8. stop toking Max it only slows you down

  9. the first time I'm hearing this. I admire the ambitions, it takes a lot to make it in this game and you doin your thing so props for that. I have a hip hop blog about everything I like and find so you should check out what I post. The flow you got is nice, keep it up and you can reach no limit.

  10. black milk either tronic or album of the year? lol sorry if this nagging is lengthening your absence

  11. listening to shyheim forever is a better use of your time than listening to binary star's album all the way through even once

  12. i must say being 14 at the time of this release it was pretty cool to c this young cat repin wu giving young kids some hope it may have been possible to b doing the same things as the now legends. the productions on this album is tight and for a 14 or so year old not too bad on the lyrics but 94 was an amazing year for hip hop so its hard to stand out even if you're a wu affiliate but still a good album for the memory banks.


    On & On 12" clearly states about Primo's credits. Wtf are you talkin about??

    Album is not bad

  14. soo...this blog's done??

  15. Clearly you don't pay attention to the Facebook page or the Twitter feed.

  16. Great review. I personally have a lot of love for this album. Shy' had more personality and charisma than pretty much any and all of the Wu Affiliates - he had more charm than Masta Killa and U-God. I still frequently listen to this album (much, much better than the follow-up).

    As for the On & On 12" Remix, maybe I'm missing the joke, but, yes, it's a DJ Premier (Works Of Mart) remix. I played the heck out of that record, but nowadays I think I prefer the original version.

    Anyways, nice review.