The first thing you notice about the cover for Junior M.A.F.I.A.'s debut album Conspiracy are the sheer number of people who appear to be in the crew. There are nine apparent members of the group, and they have each chosen one of two distinct poses: either they're staring dead-eyed into the camera that somehow managed to capture all of them in one place (posing on courthouse steps, which is weirdly coincidental for a scheduled album cover shoot, right?), or they're hiding behind sunglasses, so as to ensure that the camera doesn't take away a piece of their soul. This image is puzzling for two reasons. First off, only six of these people even appear on Conspiracy, so the fact that three people scored an album cover without even putting in any work is mind-boggling.
The other reason this image strikes me as odd is because of who is missing. Christopher Wallace, or The Notorious B.I.G., or Biggie Smalls, or I'm sure someone used to refer to him as Sonny Jim often shouted out his crew, the aforementioned Junior M.A.F.I.A., in his songs, probably most notably on "Big Poppa", which had people singing along to the outro, which contained said shout-out, without even really knowing what the hell Biggie was even talking about. The Junior M.A.F.I.A. could easily be dismissed as Sonny Jim's merry band of weed carriers, the hangers-on who just so happened to know Biggie before he signed his soul away to Sean "Puffy" Combs and the Bad Boy empire and rode a wave of critical and commercial success toward platinum sales and a premature death, and, get this, they had always wanted to be rappers too, so why shouldn't Biggie try to help out his friends from around the way? It's what any good homey would do, or at least that's what has been proven time an again whenever an unknown rapper strikes it big and then suddenly has a bunch of friends appearing on his or her album. After the release of his own debut, Ready To Die, Biggie signed a deal with Lance "Un" Rivera's Undeas imprint to release a crew project for the M.A.F.I.A., Conspiracy, and even agreed to appear on four tracks, as he considered himself a part of the band. (This is important to note because Sonny Jim isn't considered a guest star on any of the songs he appears on; he fully immersed himself into a group mentality, which was admirable, considering his rising star back in 1995.)
The rapping portion of Junior M.A.F.I.A. (which is an acronym, because rappers love those, for Masters At Finding Intelligent Attitudes...no, seriously, that's what that shit means), at least the portion that isn't The Notorious B.I.G. himself, consists of six artists. The most well-known is undoubtedly Lil' Kim, the lone female who used her sex appeal to gain a rather large fanbase before everyone realized that she didn't possess any sort of longevity (as evidenced now by her meandering dis tracks aimed at current alpha female Nicki Minaj) in our chosen genre, but hey, we got a few decent songs out of her, and the straight guys reading this blog probably appreciated her early marketing campaigns, what with her barely-there outfits and all. Unsurprisingly, she became the crew's breakout star and kicked off a solo career probably before Conspiracy was even mastered. Lil' Cease, or Cease-A-Leo (come on, nobody ever actually called him that), is the second most well-known member of the group, merely because he's made outside guest appearances and also has a solo record on the shelves.
The other four guys who appear on this project include Kleptomaniac, Chico Del Vec (who was actually part of a smaller group-within-a-group The 6s with Cease), and rap duo The Snakes (made up of Larceny and Trife, who, despite what part of the Interweb believes, is not the same guy as Trife Da God, of Ghostface Killah's Theodore Unit fame). Your blank stares have confirmed what I already knew: you don't know who these motherfuckers are. And that's okay: there's always someone in any group who the audience isn't fully aware of. That's why it's so surprising if they come out of left field and knock you out with a powerful performance. Please note that I wrote "if" and not "when".
Using all of his industry connections, Biggie secured beats that attempted to straddle the fine line between commercial and street (although, interestingly enough, he sought zero help from his boss-slash-mentor Puff Daddy, although Puffy scored a "thank you" in the liner notes), making some interesting connections that I'll touch on later in this post. Undeas released three singles from Conspiracy, two of which helped the project move more than five hundred thousand units (the third one I don't remember making any sort of impact, but whatever). This is all despite the fact that there isn't a single track on this album that features every single member of the Junior M.A.F.I.A. sharing studio time. Not a single one. Which is weird for a "group" album, right?
Funnily enough, after recording his spots on Conspiracy, Biggie essentially backed off of the whole Junior M.A.F.I.A. movement; yes, he still recorded with Lil' Kimberly, and he still hung out with Cease, who famously caused a car accident that caused Biggie to walk with a cane shortly before his fateful date with the city of Los Angeles, but everyone else in the crew could have evaporated from the face of the Earth as far as Sonny Jim and his blossoming career were concerned.
Of course there's a rap album intro on this shit. Why wouldn't there be?
2. WHITE CHALK
The intro segues not-so-seamlessly from people talking shit about the various members of the Junior M.A.F.I.A. (because they were so well-known back in 1995) into a loose, not-as-cohesive-as-the-group-had-hoped narrative involving a gunshot victim, a narrative kicked off by “White Chalk”, the first actual song on Conspiracy. Personally, I don't see the point of overarching storylines when the artists themselves aren't very interested in continuity, but whatever. The Daddy-O (of Stetsasonic fame, thereby completing my goal of somehow connecting Prince Paul to Conspiracy) and Understanding beat, which incorporates the sound of a slowed-down heartbeat on a heart monitor, is interesting, and the choice of sound bites (one from Biggie, unsurprisingly, and the other from Method Man...taken from a Biggie song) doesn't exactly encourage confidence in the group as a whole, but at least they help set the tone. However, the song is ruined by the actual participants: Trife and (especially) Larceny sound so fucking godawful on the mic that this entire project should have been aborted long before the rest of it was ever recorded. They are easily the worst rappers in the entire goddamn crew, two outcasts from the farm team who were called up to the big leagues in error and then hijinks ensued, just like a bad Disney live-action film that probably doesn't exist, but they are the type of horrible that drags down anyone and everyone even remotely surrounding them. People are incapable of doing their fucking jobs properly when these two are around, they are that incompetent at rapping. Someone should go dig up Biggie's corpse and punch him in the throat for forcing these two assholes upon my ears. And no, I'm not fucking kidding. There are shovels over in the corner.
3. EXCUSE ME...
4. REALMS OF JUNIOR M.A.F.I.A. (FEAT. JAMAL)
This was my favorite song on Conspiracy back in 1995, and it remains so to this day, since it has a sense of playfulness that the rest of the album sorely lacks. This is almost certainly due to the production of both Clark Kent and, I'm not joking, The Notorious B.I.G., which samples ESG's “UFO”, which is a foolproof way to make your song sound fucking terrific. Lil' Cease, Cheek Del Vec, and, oddly, Def Squad's Mally G (also known as Illegal's Jamal) all sound relaxed and at ease with their respective places within the hip hop world, but the song, shockingly, belongs to Biggie Smalls himself, who closes things out with a verse that, honestly, isn't all that great, but is entertaining as shit. (Curiously, Memphis Bleek paid homage to this specific track on M.A.D.E.'s “1, 2 Y'all”, even going so far as to invite original participant Lil' Cease to contribute and having Jay-Z play the closer a la the Notorious one.) This still sounds really goddamn good today.
5. PLAYER'S ANTHEM
Conspiracy's first single, which was also the first time everybody realized that the Junior M.A.F.I.A. weren't just a coterie of Biggie's imaginary jackass friends, and also the first time most people ever heard Lil' Cease and Lil' Kim's voices (because listening to her fake an orgasm during an interlude on Ready To Die doesn't really count). To the surprise of absolutely nobody, Biggie himself appears on the track, mostly because no one would have given a fuck about the group otherwise. This ode to money, cash, hoes, and grabbing your dick/rubbing your tits runs for much longer than I remembered; the final minute is just more of Clark Kent's instrumental. (I seem to remember the remix lasting for several eternities, as well, since it isn't very good.) However, that very action suits the song's mission statement, where excess trumps all in Puff Daddy's Bad Boy-manifested hip hop nightmare. Cease and Kimberly sound just as bland as they did back in 1995, but it makes sense that they were the only two from the crew to score their own solo careers. Sadly, the most interesting thing about this track is how DJ Premier flipped the beat for his production work on Jeru The Damaja's “Ya' Playin' Yaself”, which can, should, and will be interpreted as a direct retaliation against Biggie's shenanigans.
6. I NEED YOU TONIGHT (FEAT. AALIYAH)
I have to give Undeas/Big Beat/Atlantic credit: my mind remembers the second single from Conspiracy being the Biggie-assisted “Get Money”, but apparently it was this track, one which Christopher Wallace had fuck-all to do with. So at least the label was trying to establish the Junior M.A.F.I.A. as a separate entity (before resorting to its old ways when nobody gave a fuck about “I Need You Tonight”). Anyway, guest star Aaliyah (R.I.P.) channels Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam's “Take You Home” (an infinitely better song than this mess) for her hook over Clark Kent's boring Patrice Rushen “Remind Me”-sampled beat, over which Trife and Kleptomaniac bookend Kimberly's breakdown of her gold-digging ways (she helpfully explains that she'll gladly fuck you if you ply her with expensive trinkets and top shelf liquor, a deal that she may even be willing to honor in the present day, given her complete lack of relevance in our chosen genre today). This song sucked.
7. GET MONEY
It sure was convenient of the Junior M.A.F.I.A. to place all three singles from Conspiracy all within a three-track block during the first half of the album, wasn't it? No need to listen to the rest of this shit, I suppose. If only it were that easy. Biggie reunites with his
side piece mistress apprentice Lil' Kim, who I just
noticed was featured on all three of this project's singles (no
wonder she became the early breakout star) for one of his best
verses, one where he somehow pulls off feeling shocked that his woman
is fucking around on him...all while he fucks around on her at any
given opportunity. (Bonus points for sort-of inspiring the hook for
his later “Kick In The Door”.) Kim gets hilariously graphic with
her talk about counting out her money while getting her pussy eaten
(it's even funnier if you remember that Biggie wrote all of her
verses on this album and, as such, there's probably a reference track
floating around somewhere where The Notorious B.I.G. talks about
getting his pussy eaten), but then gets upset and takes her ball home
by shooting down all other fantasy scenarios with her “Nah, I ain't
gay, this ain't no lesbo flow”, completely apropos to nothing,
since I hardly believe anybody listening to the song back in 1995 was
ever remotely considering that she may not be all about the cock. (That last
sentence sounds incredibly sexist, I know, but you have to remember
that Lil' Kimberly said all of this stuff herself.) EZ Elpee's
instrumental still feels punchy today, and the creative choice to
envelop the song with the ambient sounds of an indecipherable
conversation that Biggie and Kim occasionally contribute to somehow
adds to a party atmosphere that doesn't feel earned, but still works.
I even remember that video for this song, which featured Biggie's
other side piece mistress apprentice Charli Baltimore
playing the role of his wife, even going so far as to have her
dressed up as Faith Evans, which I'm absolutely sure she still loves
to hear about to this day. I also remember the remix to this song
sucking donkey balls through straws (not unlike the remix to “Players
Anthem”; the Junior M.A.F.I.A. should have just left well enough
alone), but it's been a while since I've listened to it, so I could
be wrong; please let me know in the comments, since I have no plans
to look for it right now.
8. I'VE BEEN...
Because “White Lines” went so fucking well, Biggie thought it would be a fantastic idea to give Larceny and Trife another track all to themselves, and, as expected, it's terrible. The Clark Kent instrumental sounds bland, although a better rapper might have made it work, and the performances on here are similar to listening to wannabe rappers performing at a junior high talent show without ever having heard a single rap song themselves. There's a reason why the rest of the crew doesn't appear on “Crazaay”: they clearly had a prior engagement. Wait, what did you think I was going to say?
10. BACK STABBERS (FEAT. JIMMY COZIER)
Ever notice how Lil' Kim hardly ever works with female rappers? (Her remix to “Not Tonight” doesn't count, since that song was put together by studio heads trying to sell the soundtrack to Nothing To Lose, and besides, radio personality Angie Martinez is barely a rapper in the first place.) This solo Kimberly track tells us why: she doesn't trust any “bitches”. She spends the entire duration of this song dismissing said bitches because all they want is her money (a fact she refers to so often on here that I lost count – surely there must be another reason why she doesn't have any female friends?), all while producer Daddy-O apes the famous O'Jays song of the same name for the chorus. Kim's flow sounds completely different on here than it does throughout the rest of her career: she comes across as cold and calculated, as opposed to like a female Biggie, which was disorienting enough for me to believe that this song didn't entirely suck. There was no reason for it to run for longer than five minutes, though.
There sure are a lot of fucking skits on Conspiracy, huh?
12. LYRICAL WIZARDRY
Since you two are more familiar with Lil' Cease than you are of any other dude in the Junior M.A.F.I.A., you were probably expecting him to receive a solo showcase on Conspiracy, especially since Kimberly just got one. And you would be out of luck. Kleptomaniac gets his chance to shine over a slightly awkward, slightly dope Akshun instrumental, and although he's a work in progress, this track was still pretty good, even with the fact that he eschews actual lyrical wizardry in favor of violent crime tales. This was decent enough to make me feel bad for his stalled-out career. Oh well.
13. OH MY LORD
Starts off kind of weak, but The Notorious B.I.G.'s first verse on this Special Ed (!) production sounds like such a perfect marriage of simplistic beat and rhyme that it has a revisionist history-effect on Kleptomaniac's contributions, making him sound even better in hindsight. Let me qualify that statement: this is not a great track. But it is an entertaining one, as Biggie seems to have selected a nimble rhyme partner in Klepto, who continues to prove that he should have received Lil' Cease's career. I'm left wishing that there was more to this song overall, though.
14. MURDER ONEZ
Causes Conspiracy to end rather unceremoniously. Kleptomaniac, Chico Del Vec, Trife, and Larceny all team up for an ode to homicide and other rap clichés over a boring Akshun beat that brings nothing to the table, although it isn't as though any of the artists involved would have ever sounded that great anyway. The pervasive generic tone to “Murder Onez” has undoubtedly contributed to the apathetic response Junior M.A.F.I.A. received in hip hop circles after the death of their benefactor Biggie Smalls, who was smart enough to pass on this trifling bullshit. Meh.
And with this final skit, Conspiracy is over, as are the careers of the majority of the crew.
FINAL THOUGHTS: Those of you looking for a Notorious B.I.G.-led side project in Junior M.A.F.I.A.'s Conspiracy might as well give up all hope right now: aside from his four guest appearances, he doesn't seem to have had much input in the team's overall direction. This particular leadership method doesn't work, but Conspiracy isn't an outright failure: there are a few tracks on here that stand up to the test of time. It's just that all of the other songs suck ass. Lil' Kim was clearly groomed to be the standout in the Junior M.A.F.I.A., and probably would have been even if she were a guy (although having her pose with hardly anything on in various media definitely sold more copies of this album than Undeas/Big Beat/Atlantic deserved): the surprise is that her performances on “Get Money” and “Back Stabbers” still sound pretty good today. Kleptomaniac isn't as well known, or even remembered by anyone except for maybe his mother, but he lends his verses an energy that everyone else doesn't even attempt to reach. Kim and Klepto are the only two decent artists in the camp: Chico Del Vec doesn't appear often enough for me to pass judgment, and neither does Lil' Cease, which is interesting, since his is the second name your brain conjured up when you read the group's name in the title of this post. Trife, who has apparently since changed his rap handle to Blake C, and Larceny (who now goes by Banger, as if that helps) both sound fucking awful: Larceny, in particular, sounds so fucking functionally retarded behind the mic that I'm convinced that Biggie allowed him into the group as his Make-A-Wish. As expected, The Notorious B.I.G. contributes the best verses, but none of these songs will ever top any of the proper ones in his solo catalog (no, not even his verse on “Get Money”). The scattershot production attempts to ride the fine line between gangsta and jiggy (not unlike what Puffy tried to do with Biggie himself), succeeding at neither for the most part. This Conspiracy is a bust.
BUY OR BURN? Although Conspiracy is technically a better Biggie project than either Born Again or Duets: The Final Chapter (undoubtedly because the man was still alive to both record and promote it), the Junior M.A.F.I.A.'s first group effort isn't that great of an album anyway, so a burn is more than sufficient. You can give the tracks listed below a shot, but the rest of Conspiracy should be thrown to the fucking wolves.
BEST TRACKS: “Realms Of Junior M.A.F.I.A.”; “Get Money”; “Oh My Lord”