Three years after the release of their sophomore album All We Got Iz Us, the rap trio Onyx unleashed their third magnum opus, Shut 'Em Down, to both (mild) critical and commercial acclaim. The project dropped after a brief quiet spell where members Fredro Starr and Sticky Fingaz saw their hip hop stock rise exponentially when Hollywood noticed that both of those guys could actually act, while third member Sonee Seeza chose to remain in the background, as he was prone to do.
It's easy to believe that Shut 'Em Down was recorded as a way for Fredro and Sticky to get the fuck off out of their contract for Def Jam Records in order to focus on their budding acting careers, which is where all of the real money is, but that simply isn't the case. Shut 'Em Down serves a dual purpose: it presents the fanbase with a third album, something that had been long-awaited at that point (even though All We Got Iz Us is Onyx's finest hour, a point I absolutely will not argue with anybody about because I am absolutely correct, it wasn't a very successful venture for the trio, as their fans were expecting something along the line of their debut, Bacdafucup), and it was an excuse for Onyx to introduce the next chapter in their story, which is a euphemism for using Shut 'Em Down as a vehicle to introduce their weed carriers (most notably Sticky's brother, the late X1, who appears on multiple tracks) to the masses, as the trio had high hopes that the heads who followed them would naturally also follow the likes of All City. Alas, that was not to be, but that's a story for another time.
Unlike what they're accused of doing on a regular basis these days, Def Jam actually put their marketing muscle behind Shut 'Em Down. The first single, the title track, featured DMX, who was scorching the rap scene at the time and guaranteed at least a few hundred thousand albums sold. They even included Shut 'Em Down in their 1998 promotional campaign dubbed Survival Of The Illest, which was their way of promoting the shit out of Onyx, DMX's solo debut It's Dark and Hell Is Hot, and the first Def Squad compilation project El Nino. Shut 'Em Down was the second component of the promotion, which culminated in a brief tour featuring all of the acts and a live album.
I'll be honest with you two: that Survival Of The Illest promotion is the reason why I bought Shut 'Em Down the day it was released in the first place, as I really wanted the promo disc that it came bundled with, which amounted to a blatant advertisement for El Nino, not unlike how the bonus disc attached to DMX's project was a long commercial for Shut 'Em Down. I've long since lost those bonus discs to the ravages of time and/or multiple moves, so if any of you two happen to know where someone may be able to find them, I would appreciate it. But for now, let's focus on Onyx.
1. IT WAS ONYX
The intro on All We Got Iz Us was dark, but it fit the overall mood of that project. This rap album intro, however, sounds like generic thug rap piffle playing to the cheap seats. Pass.
2. RAZE IT UP
The first actual song on Shut 'Em Down doesn't follow through on the pseudo-threatening vibe the intro attempted: instead, Onyx simply reintroduces themselves to a hip hop audience who may not have remembered who they are. Fredro Starr takes the lead, dropping a verse that wasn't particularly memorable, but he at least sounded like he had performed on a rap song before, thanks to Keith Horne's simplistic instrumental. Sonee Seeza follows suit. Sticky Fingaz walks away with the track, as he is prone to do, with his hyperactive conversation-style flow that hasn't seemed to change since Bacdafucup. This wasn't a terrible song, but there really wasn't much to it.
3. STREET N----Z (FEAT. X1)
On their third album, Onyx looked beyond simply employing their weed carriers, choosing instead to install artists onto the project who could potentially expand upon the Onyx brand in the future. That's my explanation as to why Sticky Fingaz's brother X1 makes so many goddamn appearances on Shut 'Em Down, anyway. He doesn't quite sound like the long-missing fourth member of the crew (R.I.P. Big DS), but for his part, the late X1 does alright over a jazzy piano-sampled loop that isn't anywhere close to what you would actually want to hear the trio rhyme over. Speaking of the trio, they all sound okay (Sticky, um, sticks out more than the others, as per usual), but this song, with its DJ Scratch beat that was undoubtedly rejected by Busta Rhymes first, wasn't anything special.
4. SHUT 'EM DOWN (FEAT. DMX)
The first single from the project goes back to the well to a degree, as Onyx chooses a chorus that is made up of a simple repetition of the song's title, which brings up more of a memory of “Slam” than, say, “Last Dayz”. Self's instrumental sounds like it should have been much more, but it's actually pretty flimsy when placed on the examination table: the parts don't even seem to be connected to each other. However, Fredro and Sonee kick the track off alright enough, and Sticky and their guest star, Def Jam labelmate and cameo king DMX, turn in the best performances, as both men complement each other's gruff deliveries during their pair of verses. “Shut 'Em Down” was released after Earl's debut, It's Dark and Hell Is Hot, but it was recorded during the time when he always tried to outdo everyone on every song that would have him, so it's not very surprising that he's the most entertaining aspect of this piece.
5. BROKE WILLIES
This is the first song on Shut 'Em Down that actually holds up today, thanks solely to its subject matter, which is a parody-slash-commentary of the materialistic hip hop that was prevalent at the time, one that plays much better today than it did back in 1998, where it was buried beneath a pile of really crappy music. Onyx and X1 eschew their typical violent chants in favor of a playful back-and-forth, passing the mic around like some baldheaded Beastie Boys over a subdued Keith Horne instrumental that keeps things moving nicely. Nobody truly stands out on “Broke Willies”, which is a good thing: it proves that they still knew how to work as a unit. The pairing of Sticky Fingaz and Sonee Seeza during the second verse was also pretty inspired, as they even each other out. Not bad.
6. FOR NOTHIN'
7. ROB & VIC (FEAT. X1 & CHOCOLATE)
Back in 1998 when I bought Shut 'Em Down, “Rob & Vic” was the point where I started skipping tracks, so this was the first time I had listened to it all the way through in more than a decade. And I have to say, today's Max appreciates it a bit more. Only a bit, though. Over a Keith Horne loop that sounds both ominous and manages to get old very quickly, Sticky and X1 play the titular roles of brothers (a real stretch, I know) who gain their financial security by any means necessary, with Sticky playing the loose cannon, of course. Their attempt at a storytelling rap isn't awful, and they showcase a chemistry that makes you believe that they really are related (that sounds like it should be a given, but it's really not), but Fredro and Sonee, who apparently had the day off, are missed, and the chorus, as crooned by Chocolate, kind of gives away the ending to the entire goddamn song. Still, this was alright.
8. FACE DOWN
I didn't care for Self's instrumental: those high-pitched tones being played on a loop summoned every dog in my neighborhood to my doorstep, and the drums sounded like they cost about twenty-three cents to throw together. However, the rhymes were entertaining as hell: Fredro and Sonee return to Shut 'Em Down to bookend the piece with long, unobstructed verses that prove that they are more than capable of holding their own when they need to, while Sticky plays lucky Pierre with a Cappadonna “Winter Warz”-esque performance (by the way, I love that I can use that as a description and you two know exactly what I'm talking about) performed in his subdued, existential hitman-like voice, which forces you to pay closer attention to every line. Too bad these guys were on fire over such a shitty beat.
10. CONSPIRACY (FEAT. CLAY THE RAIDER & X1)
I couldn't get into this song. There wasn't anything especially memorable about any of the verses (even those from the guest stars), nor was the overly-wordy chorus all that catchy. But I pin most of the blame on the crappy DJ Scratch instrumental, which sounded like it was originally intended for Capone-N-Noreaga but was stolen at gunpoint by the members of Onyx. I suppose it was interesting that Sticky dies at the end of his verse, though: his conspiracy theories much be the most accurate, as there really were people coming after him (on the song, anyway).
11. BLACK DUST (FEAT. X1)
What the fuck was this shit? And what was with that second verse? Did these guys really believe that shit sounded good when they recorded it and then played it back? There is no reason for this song (which is oddly censored at the very beginning) to exist. DJ Scratch's beat wasn't that bad, though: it probably should have been reserved for the non-existent second Flipmode Squad album, though.
12. ONE NATION
13. REACT (FEAT. X1, BONIFUCCO, STILL LIVIN', & 50 CENT)
Pairing Curtis Jackson (before his career-defining shooting occurred) with Onyx isn't all that farfetched: both acts were discovered by the late Jam Master Jay, so it makes sense that they would at least know each other. The video for this song, which features all of its participants playing hockey for some reason, is silly as shit, but I still like this song, which borrows the beat from Slick Rick's “Mona Lisa” and retains The Ruler's sense of ease and playfulness. There are way too many artists featured on “React”, but that forces everyone to keep their verses short and sweet, so as not to wear out their respective welcomes, and it all somehow works. Yeah, I'm surprised, too.
This storytelling rap is an anomaly in our chosen genre because all of our protagonists lose. Shit, I gave the ending away. Whoops! Anyway, all three members of Onyx participate this time around, as they hole up in the home of Sticky's girl Veronica while they plot their revenge against the guys who killed their boy, but the titular character sells them out, and they all die. At least Sticky Fingaz got the opportunity to hit that before getting brutally murdered, I suppose. This was like the dark indie-film version of a rap song: it's kind of hard to believe that this was released by a major label. Kudos, Onyx and Def Jam. Could have used a better backing instrumental, though.
15. FUCK DAT (FEAT. BUBBA SMITH, GREG VALENTINE, J MEGA, SUNSHINE, & X1)
This was an interesting place to insert a weed carrier-dominated posse cut. Almost as though our hosts wanted to prepare the listener for a world where they really were set up by Veronica and shot the fuck up, Onyx present “Fuck Dat”, a track that showcases what they believed to be the future, their way to keep their name out there. And for some reason, Sticky Fingaz contributes a verse (Fredro introduces all of the artists, including X1, All City's Greg Valentine and J Mega, and Bubba Smith), while Sonee went out to pick up a fifth of vodka and a cheese sandwich), but forget about that for a moment: this song is all about celebrating the next generation. In that respect, it isn't that bad, as none of the rappers are overly offensive to my senses. But “Fuck Dat” sounds like the generic posse cut that appears on everyone else's rap albums, so Onyx don't exactly earn any points for creativity. Oh well.
16. GHETTO STARZ (FEAT. X1 & LOST BOYZ)
“Broke Willies” works better as satire today than it did in 1998, but “Ghetto Starz” sucks even more so now than it did upon its release: if Onyx had intended on playing a cruel joke on its fans, they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams with this asinine attempt at clubland. Bud'da's blingy instrumental sounds so paint-by-numbers that Puff Daddy himself would walk to the other side of the street to avoid it, and the inclusion of the Lost Boyz (or, more specifically, just Mr. Cheeks) is a headscratcher. How anyone in Onyx ever thought that this shit would be a winner is beyond me: Fredro, Sonee, and Sticky all may as well be wearing their respective grandmothers's hand-knitted sweaters, as they all sound pretty goddamn uncomfortable. Damn.
17. TAKE THAT
A quick one-verse wonder from Sticky Fingaz that, unfortunately, lasts one verse too many. It comes across as his version of therapeutic primal screaming, so if that's your thing, enjoy, but for the rest of us non-fucked-up listeners, there's very little to like on here.
18. THE WORST (FEAT. RAEKWON, KILLA SIN, METHOD MAN, & X1)
This collaborative effort (which first appeared on the soundtrack to some movie called Ride which absolutely nobody remembers, a film that not only co-starred both Fredro and Sticky, but also marked the onscreen debut of Cedric The Entertainer) was first billed as being 'Onyx featuring the Wu-Tang Clan', but what the listener ultimately receives is only two members of the actual group, Raekwon and Method Man, alongside Killarmy's Killa Sin for some reason. False advertising? You're goddamn right it's false advertising. The song itself isn't that bad, though: Onyx (and X1) hold their own alongside Rae's performance and a sort-of impressive Killa Sin, and Method Man and Sticky Fingaz (who last shared a mic on Onyx's “Evil Streets (Remix)”) bounce off each other fairly effortlessly. (The accompanying video famously features Meth driving a car with a fucked-up right hand, as he was hellbent on disfiguring himself in some way so as to not become a sex symbol of any sort, while Sticky Fingaz leaps onto the hood of his car with some of the cheapest CGI I've seen in a while.) If anything, I wish this song was a little less dark, but it's called “The Worst”, so what can you do. (The presence of an Ol' Dirty Bastard vocal sample makes me wish that Big Baby Jesus had received an opportunity to work alongside Onyx in his lifetime.)
For some strange reason, the next song shares an audio track with “The Worst” and is considered a hidden track, even though Onyx gave away the surprise on the fucking back cover of Shut 'Em Down.
OVERSHINE (FEAT. ALL CITY)
The only excuse I can come up with for “Overshine” being considered a hidden track when there is still more album to go is that “The Worst” was probably originally conceived to be the final song on Shut 'Em Down. At least that's what the long-ass period of dead air between “The Worst” and “Overshine” tells me. Our hosts use a R&B-inflected Keith Horne beat that would be a better fit for the likes of AZ to wax philosophically about the importance of success and what have you. Truth be told, the song is boring as shit, and I'm really surprised that I've used up this many words describing it.
19. SHUT 'EM DOWN (REMIX) (FEAT. NOREAGA & BIG PUN)
Onyx goes out of their way to show love to their New York-based peers by including Noreaga and Big Punisher, two of the most popular rappers of the day, on the remix to the title track. Over a Self instrumental that tweaks what the original version was going for, everyone spits nonessential verses (there's a reason why “Shut 'Em Down (Remix)” is largely forgotten whenever people think about memorable cameos from the late Big Pun), aside from Sticky, who caps his album-length descent into studio-approved madness with an entertaining effort that still manages to sound restrained, and I mean that in a bad way. And with that, I'm (finally) done.
FINAL THOUGHTS: Onyx's third full-length effort Shut 'Em Down is detrimental to their legacy in hip hop. None of the songs on here, even the actual good ones, should be considered essential listening, and the project runs for far too long, so long that, with each passing track, your opinion on Fredro Starr, Sonee Seeza, and Sticky Fingaz changes for the worse. Lyrically, all three participants have kept up with their peers, with Sticky winning the belt once again, but this time around, Onyx are failed by their selection of beats: Shut 'Em Down sounds like generic Def Jam product that could have been handed over as is, with all the vocals deleted, to DMX without missing a step. There are a few balls-out performances from the trio that should be praised, but you have to wade through a bunch of bullshit to find them, which just isn't worth the effort.
BUY OR BURN? Burn this if you absolutely must. Better yet, you should pick up Bacdafucup and All We Got Iz Us and listen to those instead. It's easier to forget that Shut 'Em Down exists that way.
BEST TRACKS: “Broke Willies”; “React”