We've spoken in the past about how the debut album from Queenbridge-based rapper Corey McKay, who only answers to the name "Cormega", was shelved by his first record label, Def Jam, as a result of some poor business decisions and a plunge in Mega's stock after he was dropped from the hip hop supergroup The Firm, which featured AZ, Foxy Brown, and his former friend and ringleader Nas. Cormega was famously replaced in the crew with some dude named Nature, whose mainstream debut was essentially The Firm's first (and, to date, only) collaborative project; Mega channeled his rage into recording his own debut album for Def Jam entitled The Testament. Not that it really mattered much, though: after hearing the final product, the label locked The Testament away in its vaults, never to be heard from again, and quietly booted Mega from his label home. Corey later rebounded, forming his own imprint, Legal Hustle, and made his comeback on the independent scene with The Realness, but there was always that question lingering in the background: What if The Testament had actually been released? Would things be different for Corey?
That question was answered with a resounding "Not really" in 2005, when Cormega purchased the masters for The Testament back from Def Jam and released it himself on his own label.
For hip hop heads, this was exciting for two reasons. For one, it was an attempt at a return to form for Mega, whose last project, 2004's Legal Hustle, was more of a label sampler than a solo album (and a not very entertaining one at that). But more importantly, it was a peek into a world that most music nerds don't get to see that often: a shelved project unleashed upon the public by the original artist in its original form. Fans sat around listening to The Testament and pretended it was 1998 all over again, as Mega's crime tales and existential woe played through their collective consciousness, not unlike how all rap fans used to do in the mid-1990s, back when mp3s didn't really exist and we actually bought albums and sat around and listened to them in order to figure out what was good and what sucked balls. (Kind of like what I do with this blog, you see.)
That last paragraph contains one small item that isn't wholly true, so I'm going to get that out of the way right now: the version of The Testament that finally hit store shelves isn't quite what Cormega had intended it to be back in 1998. There is at least one song included that would have been left on the cutting room floor otherwise, and at least one track, released as a single back in the day, is missing (more on that later), and I'm sure there are a slew of other songs that Corey felt weren't good enough to include on The Testament properly. But what we have in our hands today is close to what was advertised in The Source and on those Survival Of The Illest promotional CDs, which is much more than what we could have asked for fourteen years ago, anyway.
Although Mega does drop a quick verse, this rap album intro is more spoken word poetry than actual rap song, and should be avoided accordingly. Surprisingly, former Bad Boy Hitman Nashiem Myrick produced this shit: given his track record, I feel that this should have sounded much more cinematic and, I don't know, song-like, I guess.
2. 62 PICK UP
The "courtroom as framing device" theme has been done to death in our chosen genre: the fact that Cormega recorded "62 Pick Up" back in the late 1990s doesn't change the fact that it sounded cliche even back then. Over a middling self-produced piano-based loop, our host burns through a one-verse wonder that gives off sparks of the detail-oriented Cormega that we're all familiar with today, but his lack of experience (at that point in time) gives him away, thanks to his non-compelling performance. The audience is left not giving a fuck that our host is handed two concurrent prison sentences at the very end of the track. However, that last tidbit does tie in nicely with the next song, so there you go.
3. ONE LOVE
On his we're-not-arguing-about-this-as-it-is-an-undisputed-classic debut album Illmatic, Nas recorded a song where the verses were composed as letters to many of his friends locked up in the system. Cormega was mentioned during one single bar, mainly because he was actually locked up at the time of the song's recording and Nasir was trying to be accurate, but that's it: one single bar. The song was not written as a letter to Cormega. A lot of hip hop fans and rap scholars seem to forget this fact: all Nas does on the song is basically ask his boy how Corey is doing. That's it. One of the most trumped-up moments on The Testament has always been Cormega's version of "One Love", which was advertised as a response to Nas's original song and as a subtle dis track, and now that it's available for everyone to actually pay attention to, let me shatter your illusions a little bit. First off, this is not a dis track; Corey doesn't say a single negative thing about Nasir Jones on here. "One Love" is merely intended to be a companion piece to Nas's "One Love" and nothing more, which is evident by the fact that Corey takes some of Nasir's original talking points and expands upon them with his own perspective on the situation. Also, if this were really a dis track, wouldn't Mega have swiped Nasir's original Q-Tip-produced instrumental, as opposed to commissioning one that sounds okay, but nothing like Kamaal's track? Secondly, this song also isn't really about Nas, just like the how the original track wasn't about Cormega: Nas simply earns a mention at the very beginning as a way to place the listener into a specific time period so that Corey can lay out his story. I'm sorry to disappoint everyone, but "One Love" is in no way controversial: it's simply Cormega getting his Creative Writing 1302 on. As for the track itself, it's okay, but the inclusion of a goofy chorus makes me long for Nas's track more. It is what it is.
5. ANGEL DUST (FEAT. HAVOC)
Although Havoc is the only credited guest on "Angel Dust" (performing on the chorus only, so don't get too excited, kids), I'm pretty sure that his Mobb Deep partner-in-rhyme Prodigy pops up at the very beginning, twisting some of his lyrics from Nas's "Live N---a Rap" into the retroactive Cormega shout-out that it never was. Anyway, Mega Montana loses points for having the first of two tracks on The Testament to feature Mobb Deep members not be produced by Havoc, but rather by Sha Money XL, who laid down this beat long before becoming involved with Curtis Jackson and his G-Unit cohorts. And I have to say, the instrumental is okay, but it could have been so much more. Corey gives the listener three quick (and decent enough) verses and ducks the fuck out of the studio to pick up some milk and a dime bag, while Havoc sounds entirely unconvincing on his overly-wordy chorus. "Angel Dust" couldn't end soon enough for me.
6. DEAD MAN WALKING
Ah yes, the infamous "Dead Man Walking", the single-verse revenge tale that supposedly was banned in the United States because of its graphic depiction of violent acts (or not, as you'll read later on), and yet the average hip hop head's first exposure to the stark Hot Day and Jae Supreme-looped up sample (taken from Stanley Clarke's "Got To Find My Own Place") was during the rap album intro-slash-Def Jam 'Coming Attractions'-type opening track on Foxy Brown's solo debut Ill Na Na. The hell? This is pretty much the point where The Testament starts picking up, as Mega wastes no time on this track, spelling out for the audience exactly what happened to him (he was robbed, shot at, and left for dead), and then jumping right into exacting his revenge. Having listened to gangsta rap for fucking years at this point (and I'm talking about in 1998, not 2012, mind you), I didn't find anything particularly objectionable about "Dead Man Walking": on its surface, it's a standard eye-for-an-eye tale (except Mega ends up killing two people, but whatever). However, Corey's attention to detail and his ability to force whatever it is that he's thinking at the time into a coherent rhyme scheme is commendable, and the brief length of the track makes the pseudo-reality of the situation that much more dark: the dude doesn't fuck around, and when it's over, he moves on, like a true heartless killer would. I'm glad this song finally received a proper release, because it fucking rocks, even though Jay-Z stole the thunder right out from under Corey with his own "Lyrical Exercise", which utilized the same sample. Hova and Corey are entirely different artists, though, so it's possible to like both tracks, as I do.
7. MONTANA DIARY
Now this is the Nashiem Myrick I'm used to: the guy who crafts cinematic street tales for his collaborators to roll around in, not unlike Scrooge McDuck in his bank vault full of loose coins. The drum selection is a bit off, as though Myrick hadn't quite ditched the Puff Daddy influence, but the rest of the instrumental is a banger, with Corey providing three entertaining verses (and a meh chorus because of course it would be) extolling the virtues and benefits of the criminal lifestyle. These bars don't really read like diary excepts, though.
The title track, presented in both of its incarnations on this version of the project, features Mega rocking two verses over a dimly-lit Dave Atkinson instrumental. It isn't bad by any means, but it doesn't exactly feel strong enough to be the title track to anything. The first time I heard this song was on one of the bonus discs Def Jam released during their Survival Of The Illest promotion (I'm fairly confident that The Testament was originally intended to be the fourth component of that campaign, seeing that Cormega was featured on the Survival Of The Illest live album and all), and I have to admit that it holds up well enough. The bars are all generic street hustler piffle, with the art of selling drugs acting as a metaphor for whatever the fuck you want it to at any given point, but Corey sounds good while delivering them, which counts for something. If you have never heard the original take on this song, though, it's hard to appreciate the actual skill Cormega has with the pen and the pad. Luckily, he presents the listener with that very opportunity on the very next track.
9. TESTAMENT (ORIGINAL VERSION)
I highly doubt that Cormega had intended on including both versions of "Testament" on the original tracklisting of The Testament: I'm pretty sure that the inclusion of this early version was a response to Foxy Brown not signing a release for Corey's collaboration with the troubled rapper, "Slow Down", to be included, and he had to fill the space somehow. This first take is infamous for including a sly dis aimed at Nasir Jones, and unlike "One Love", Corey actually did intend for Nas to take offense; however, his attack is limited to just a single line, "Indeed it was written that you would one day betray me", meant as a commentary on his ouster from the supergroup The Firm. Dave Atkinson's instrumental is basically the same as it was on the remake, albeit without some of the polish, and the verses start off the same, but veer off into entirely new territory. The reason why I believe that Cormega's writing skills deserve praise is because both tracks, each with two verses, have a similar theme and structure around the bars themselves, but the actual words are entirely different, conveying an experience that is at once familiar and fresh. In short, the redone "Testament" is sort of like an alternate-universe "Testament", covering the same ground in different ways. This is made all the more evident when you pull up the lyrics for both tracks and read along with them. Neither version is better than the other; I believe that this version is a bit too lackluster to have been considered a title track, too. But both songs work. It's hard to explain, but they do. (Speaking of "Testament", am I hallucinating, or wasn't there an official video shot for the song featuring Mega rapping in front of a fountain late at night or something? I can't find the video on YouTube.)
10. EVERY HOOD (FEAT. FATAL HUSSEIN & NIKO)
Mega Montana calls upon 2Pac's best-known weed carrier, Outlawz member Fatal Hussein (or Hussein Fatal, which he calls himself on alternating days) for a collaboration, and his guest responds in kind by making this sound like a phony Firm reunion. How so? Because Fatal Hussein sounds different on here than I remember: in fact, he sounds exactly like AZ over this R&B-laced Suga Bear track. Which would be unsettling had this song been any good, but alas, it's merely a bit of trivia that will cause "Every Hood" to receive just a few more spins than it rightly deserves. Probably would have interested me more if the "Niko" performing guest vocals on the hook was actually the German singer Nico, but I don't think that anybody else would respond to that imaginary collaboration as well as I would.
11. COCO BUTTER
The closest thing to a love rap that The Testament includes features three Cormega verses that lay the similes thick, since back in the late 1990s Corey was incapable of straight-out telling a female acquaintance how he felt. Then again, there are a lot of allusions to weaponry on here, so he may just be singing to his favorite gun. Either way, this track was slight: inoffensive, but not really something that you would want to listen to a second time.
12. KILLAZ THEME (FEAT. MOBB DEEP)
The finest track on The Testament is so good that Cormega couldn't keep it locked up in the vaults: in addition to twelve-inch singles being pressed up, he also included this as a bonus track on his actual debut, The Realness. Havoc steps behind the boards to lend the entire project some much-needed credibility (and some threatening chants, offering to kill every single listener for undisclosed reasons), while Cellblock P spits a verse that is guaranteed to both get you amped and make you visibly upset that he doesn't sound like this anymore. Cormega slides right into place as if he were the third member of the crew, riding the ominous instrumental on cruise control, which is somehow a good thing, and Havoc, although the weak link lyrically, also provides a standout performance. This song is the tits and deserves to be on every reader's Mobb Deep iTunes playlist. You know the one: you created it shortly after the release of the Mobb's Blood Money as a way to highlight the duo's best tracks while erasing the memory of all of their recent shit. Or was that just me who did that?
13. LOVE IS LOVE (FEAT. TIFFANY)
Producer Nashiem Myrick closes out The Testament with a familiar-sounding instrumental, one that uses the same sample as Killah Priest's "B.I.B.L.E. (Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth)" and a terrible-sounding hook performed by Tiffany (not the chick that toured the country's malls in the 1980s, although that would have been pretty impressive). Corey utilizes the beat in much the same way that the Wu-Tang affiliate did a few years prior: he lays down his mission statement, shows love to his fans and his friends, and essentially declares that he isn't going anywhere in this rap shit, vowing to remain in the streets as long as they will have him. "Love Is Love" isn't a bad way to end things, but it sounds a bit weird placed here right after "Killaz Theme". Still, I liked it overall. If someone could get me a version with Tiffany's atrocious vocals erased from it, I may like it a lot more, though.
The final song on The Testament is labeled as a hidden track.
14. BONUS SONG (a/k/a DEAD MAN WALKING 2)
Although there appear to be conflicting reports online, this specific track is allegedly the version of "Dead Man Walking" that was once banned in the United States due to its graphic depiction of violence. Which makes absolutely no fucking sense when you actually sit down and listen to the record, given that you've all heard and seen much more violent acts played out in movies and on television. Unless what Def Jam and its censors were really reacting to was Cormega's complete and blatant lack of remorse: this sequel-slash-remix-slash-original take-slash-whatever the fuck this is supposed to be is fucking cold, and I mean that in the best possible way. Mega picks up right where the first "Dead Man Walking" ended, using the same Hot Day and Jae Supreme-produced loop to explain to the guy who tried to take him out, who our host has just killed, just how he failed and why things went down the way they did, and then he even takes shit to the next level by attending the guy's fucking wake and talking shit to the fucking corpse. (Okay, that last sentence makes it sound much more hardcore than it really is: it's not like Corey yanks the body out of the casket and performs his interpretation of Weekend At Bernie's or anything.) Mega Montana's lyricism, which isn't exactly underrated but hasn't ever received the acclaim that it deserves, is top-notch on this track, especially when he rationalizes the entire situation to his deceased foe: "Your own gun created your death / Look at you now, a reminder of consequences / In the street, but loyalty is nearly non-existent." I could have done without the tacked-on "That's deep" right after that last line, since its subtlety bashes you in the face with a hammer of justice, but otherwise this song is the shit.
FINAL THOUGHTS: Although it starts off slow, The Testament ultimately sounds like a project that could have and should have slid onto store shelves seamlessly in the late 1990s. Its overall sound is one from a bygone era: while none of the instrumentals stand out as among the best ever produced or anything, the tone of The Testament is mostly consistent, and Cormega's lyricism shines more often than not. The conscious decision to not bog down the proceedings with multiple guest stars helps Mega Montana get his point across, and the listener is left wondering just what could have been of Mega's career had Def Jam seen fit to actually release The Testament as they had originally planned. Corey's only gotten better with time, and his respect for the culture is obvious, so I understand why he decided to let The Testament run free after all this time: there are tons of us hip hop nerds who love to hear things that they were never supposed to hear. So I have to give the man credit for giving the people what they want. I highly doubt that this would have been a hot seller for Def Jam back in 1998, though: there are no obvious radio singles, and a guest appearance from Fatal Hussein isn't going to win over that guy's core audience of 2Pac worshipers. Still, I'm just glad it actually came out.
BUY OR BURN? As a curiosity piece, you should buy this shit. As another Cormega album, you should definitely buy this, although you should be warned that the Corey that appears on here has long since grown up. And as a fan of early Mobb Deep (read: back when they were awesome), you should buy this for "Killaz Theme" alone.
BEST TRACKS: "Killaz Theme"; "Dead Man Walking" and its remix/sequel/whatever; "Montana Diary"