August 7, 2015

Something (Sort Of) Different: Cypress Hill - Skull & Bones (April 25, 2000)



The subject of today's post is Cypress Hill's fifth full-length album, the double-disc affair Skull & Bones.  It is remembered as the trio's attempt to cash in on the fact that the kind of douchey asshole that loves to mosh, drink terrible (and terribly cheap) beer, and generally "rock out" to shit also seems to like Cypress Hill's earlier work, most likely because they believed B-Real, Sen Dog, and DJ Muggs to be nonthreatening stoners, and they love weed, looooove it, and they totally know a guy who can hook you up, but right now they need to borrow your phone, they left theirs in the car, and come on, be cool, stop being a bitch, alright?

The first disc, conveniently referred to as Skull, is more of a direct follow-up to IV, an album that I still feel is underrated, which isn't a popular opinion, as it doesn't contain any hard-hitting instant bangers such as "Insane In The Brain", "How I Could Just Kill A Man", or even "Illusions", but I stand by my decision. Early promotional material claimed that Skull featured the "blunted" sound that made the Hill famous in the first place, but that's quite a reach: although founding member DJ Muggs produced the disc in its entirety, it bears very little resemblance to anything the group had released up to that point.  As per usual, B-Real takes the lead, spouting weed-laced threats and boasts 'n bullshit, while Sen Dog plays the Phife Dawg role, sometimes skipping out on tracks entirely because that taco truck posted up across the street from the studio stops serving at three in the morning, how the fuck should I know?  I get that artists need to evolve to remain relevant or even just moderately interesting, but, well, I'm getting ahead of myself, you should just read the review.

The second disc, Bones, is the reason this album appeared squarely on the media's radar.  The music media, anyway: it's not like CNN gives a shit about Cypress Hill album releases.  Anyway, Bones represents the trio dipping their toes into the rap-metal waters, as they run through six tracks of crunchy guitars and actual drums, as opposed to a drum machine; not by coincidence, Muggs brought in folks from the bands Fear Factory and Rage Against The Machine to play the instruments live in the studio.  At least they went all in on the sound, if not on the album's length: had Bones been released separately, it would have been an EP at best.

Muggs produced Bones as well, but at times you can't really tell what it was that he could have been doing, as Cypress Hill mimics the sound of rock radio (in 2000, anyway) fairly accurately (note I didn't say that any of this sounds good).  It could be seen as a thank-you to the fans outside of our chosen genre for helping boost their album and ticket sales: in fact, Bones secured Cypress Hill touring slots alongside other rock acts, territory most rappers would fear to tread, and most certainly expanded their audience, extending the group's lifespan for another decade easily.  Everyone loves "Insane In The Brain"; adding a guitar must have seemed like a no-brainer for the group and their label, Columbia Records (as Ruffhouse, their original home, had folded a year prior, and the group was absorbed by the parent company).

Skull & Bones just screams "cash grab", is what I'm saying.  You two can probably see where the rest of this write-up is going.

DISC ONE: Skull

1.  INTRO
Come on, you two: rap albums and rap album intros tend to go hand-in-hand.  On here, Muggs dives back into paranoid Soul Assassins mode before he remembers that this is supposed to be a fucking Cypress Hill record, switching to an actual beat and allowing some ad-libs to make their way to the listener's ears.  You won't even need to hear this the one time: you already know what to expect from it.

2.  ANOTHER VICTORRY
The fuck is this wack shit?  Over what could possibly be the weakest Muggs beat of his career up to this point (because his ill-advised crossover into dubstep territory hadn't even yet been a sperm when Skull & Bones was recorded), B-Real attempts not to laugh while delivering simple threats and boasts that just do not connect at all.  He doesn't seem like he's even trying, and I mean that as an insult: the bars presented on "Another Victory" don't gel with one another.  When B-Real claims that "my high lyrics constantly brain damagin'", I don't think he meant that listeners' IQs would drop merely by being in the same aural space as this horseshit.  "Another Victory", indeed.

3.  (RAP) SUPERSTAR (FEAT. EMINEM & NOREAGA)
The single shipped to "urban" radio stations (as opposed to "(Rock) Superstar", which shipped to rock outlets, which I'll get to later), because for some reason the word "urban" now means "black" and not "city", word to Hannibal Buress.  I hadn't listened to this song since it originally hit fifteen fucking years ago, but when heard within the album's context, it stands out, since you're not only struck by how laser-focused B-Real is with his writing on here (a far cry from the previous song), but by what it is he's saying.  The rap game isn't for everyone, and it's a constant battle to maintain relevancy, with huge sacrifices being made all the livelong day (for B-Real, he claims that his "son don't know me" due to the constant touring he's forced to do to recoup the label's expenses, and there's a lot of nights where he's "chillin' in the hotel room lonely").  Professional rappers Eminem and Noreaga drop in to deliver their two cents, albeit not in rhyme form (booo!), but with brief monologues detailing their respective experiences in the industry, and damned if N.O.R.E. doesn't sound jaded as fuck.  And he's not even nearly as successful as the then-pop wunderkind Marshall Mathers. While I wish retroactive verses from the two could somehow magically appear within the track, B-Real moire than holds his own over the decent Muggs instrumental that's held up over the years, no lie.

4.  CUBAN NECKTIE
Gimmicky to a fault, since nearly every bar is forced to end with an "-o"-sounding syllable, but, conversely, B-Real is forced to focus on his writing in order for said gimmick to make any sense, and honestly, he's not bad.  "Cuban Necktie" is primarily violent threats and goofy boasts ("I'll get your girl off like Robby Shapiro"), but it mostly works, thanks to B-Real's pen and Muggerund's low-intensity violin loop.  I wish the song itself were much more of a banger, but that just means there's still room within our chosen genre for another artist to come up with a more definitive "Cuban Necktie" song.

5.  WHAT U WANT FROM ME
A much better song, or at least something that entertains me for three goddamn minutes.  Obviously.

6.  STANK ASS HOE
I suppose I should note that Sen Dog made his first rapping appearance on Skull & Bones on the previous track.  Not like it matters, since it sounds fucking horrible, like our hosts are both just whining over a shitty beat.  Sen Dog pops up on "Stank Ass Hoe", too, but just in an ad-libbing capacity.  Muggs at least makes a minor effort on here, as the instrumental adopts an eerie feel during the (awful) hook and throughout, and B-Real does the best he can with his three verses and the (awful) hook, reciting threats as though he isn't even really thinking about what it is he's saying.  At least the song isn't entirely about disparaging promiscuous women, although it does use the titular phrase as an insult directed toward dudes they don't care for, which, honestly, someone has to have come up with a better insult by now, right?  There's isn't much good on this one, folks.  The brief instrumental that plays before the next song kicks in was reused by Muggs as the beat for "Heart Of The Assassin" off of Soul Assassins II, though, so, trivia!

7.  HIGHLIFE
The Muggs instrumental is too... I don't know, polished? for B-Real: this beat is so shiny that you can fix your hair or makeup with it.  I guess I shouldn't be shocked, since the track is called "Highlife", after all, but I don't listen to Cypress Hill for materialistic rhymes.  I don't care how much money B-Real and Sen Dog claim to have, since I naturally assume that they spend most of their discretionary income on weed anyway, but even still, "Highlife" rings false.  Skip this motherfucker.

8.  CERTIFIED BOMB
Welp, it looks like Muggs doesn't have any more hard, dusty beats for his boys to use.  I remember there being some pretty good stuff on Soul Assassins II and Intermission, so it isn't like he didn't have it in him anymore (and yes, I realize Muggs didn't produce a lot of the beats on Intermission), but his mind is obviously entirely elsewhere, which, unfortunately, shines a light on why B-Real and Sen Dog won't be awarded any medals for exceptional lyricism anytime soon.  Holy fuck was this shit weak.  I could use the song's title as a pun regarding how I felt about it, but I have more sense than that.

9.  CAN I GET A HIT
I don't buy for a second that anyone in Cypress motherfucking Hill has to beg for weed, so this song was complete bullshit to me.  And of course, Muggerund's instrumental interlude toward the end was better than the actual beats used on the album it appears on.  The fuck?

10.  WE LIVE THIS SHIT
This song was frustrating as hell.  Both Sen Dog and (especially) B-Real actually sound really goddamn good on "We Live This Shit".  I'm talking Black Sunday-level performances here.  Not on the chorus, that was awful, but the actual verses, yes.  But none of that really matters, since the music behind them is garbage.  Muggerund's beat is so polished that you'll be afraid that the help will try to pilfer it.  I can't back something like this.  I definitely hipe these guys no longer "live this shit", because that would be unfortunate.

11.  WORLDWIDE
The instrumental for "Worldwide" sounded so similar to "We Live This Shit" (in terribleness) that I wasn't convinced that the track had changed until I looked at the screen on my iPod.  It's nice that Sen Dog was given a chance to shine: although B-Real contributes a brief verse, this may as well have been a Sen Dog solo effort, and he steps up to the challenge admirably.  But, yeah, the music though.  While it's slightly better than "We Live This Shit", you honestly won't care, because you turned this album off after "(Rap) Superstar", so.

DISC TWO: Bones

1.  VALLEY OF CHROME
The Bones disc reinforces the "rap metal" portion of the evening with a guitar loop that evolves into actual guitar playing and live drums by the time the chorus hits.  Truth be told, aside from the overly loud hook, which clashes with the more mellow (and actually quite decent) music during the verses, "Valley Of Chrome" isn't all that bad.  All forms of rap-rock are mostly bullshit, and I lived through its height in the late 1990s and early 2000s.  I've also not ashamed to admit that I've listened to Korn and Limp Bizkit albums in their entirety.  While some of the songs were admittedly catchy, I found most of it to be, well, corny, and there was no chance in hell that it would last long as its own bastard sub-genre.  So while I understand why Cypress Hill took a detour in this direction, that doesn't make me shake my head any less.  At least there's some scratching tossed in here, I suppose.

2.  GET OUT OF MY HEAD
Clearly through with the bullshit, Muggs and company break out all of the guitars and instruct B-Real to not really rap so much as pretend to sing, which makes for a terrible song, truly.  It's not the "rock" part of "rap/rock hybrid" that I have an issue with: I listen to tons of different artists, most of whom I'll never wrote about on this blog.  But, just like with hip hop, sometimes the music sounds paint-by-numbers and boring as shit, so while this could, in theory, work on rock radio, it's still pretty fucking generic.

3.  CAN'T GET THE BEST OF ME
I stopped paying attention to the marketing of Skull & Bones after playing it in its entirety just once fifteen fucking years ago, so I don't know is there were any singles released aside from the two versions of "Superstar" made to cater to the broadest audience possible, but "Can't Get The Best Of Me" wins the award for most obvious bid for mainstream acceptance: a charging (and dull-ish) beat, combined with a hook that is designed for drunken frat boys and skaters to shout at the top of their goddamn lungs, would seem to indicate as much, anyway.  Again, Sen Dog is given the starring role, with B-Real only contributing a single verse and some back-and-forth on the overly-long hook.  But you won't give a shit.

4.  A MAN
There's a rock radio station around my way that still plays shit from the late 1990s and early 2000s (think Staind, Godsmack, that one Drowning Pool song) as though they're brand-spanking new: "A Man" sounds like it would slide onto that playlist flawlessly.  That's not a compliment: everything about "A Man" seems to be calculated for mass consumption.  B-Real doesn't even bother to participate, leaving Sen Dog to truly handle this one for dolo, and honestly, he doesn't say anything on here that wouldn't have sounded better on an early Cypress Hill album.  Except for that hook.  My ears just started bleeding again because I dared to think about that chorus.  Groan.

5.  DUST
DJ Muggs loves the word "dust", having named his own trip-hop solo album Dust, and even recording with something called Dust on that Soul Assassins album Intermission.  By the by, that album was allegedly supposed to be a legit "intermission" that both teased and led directly into another Soul Assassins album, but then Muggs went all dubstep instead.  We could use another one of those compilations, is what I'm saying, Muggerund.  Oh, this "Dust"?  Sucks.  Why do you ask?

6.  (ROCK) SUPERSTAR (FEAT. CHINO MORENO & EVERLAST)
Essentially the same song as before, albeit with some crunchy guitars and live drums on the instrumental and an additional verse from Sen Dog for some fucking reason.  Eminem and Noreaga are swapped out for Deftones vocalist Chino Moreno and at-this-point-popular-for-his-non-rapping-solo-work Everlast (who Muggs already had a working relationship with, thanks to Everlast's past with House Of Pain) (by the way, Everlast was beefing with Eminem around the time the two versions of "Superstar" dropped, if I'm not mistaken about the timeline, a little factoid that's funny to me), who both spout some more advice regarding the big bad music industry.  Sen Dog appears on every fucking track on the Bones disc, which makes me think he was the catalyst for this bizarre genre-switching experiment (which is obvious when you recall that he once briefly quit Cypress Hill to form a rap/rock group): maybe he was sick of rap, as he definitely does not appear on "(Rap) Superstar".  Anyway, this still works today, too, but less so than its hip hop counterpart: the live instruments make it weirdly sound dated.  However, it isn't very often that one hears Chino Moreno on what is ostensibly a rap album, so.

I believe Cypress Hill fans overseas may have a bonus track or two, but I don't have any of those, so if you're privy, you can leave your thoughts in the comments if you want.

FINAL THOUGHTS:  This probably goes without saying, but I can't leave the review without a proper ending, so here goes: Skull & Bones is pretty bad, folks.  Awful at times, even.  The rap half, Skull, doesn't even really sound like it belongs to Cypress Hill (save for one track) as much as it does a Cypress Hill-inspired rap act birthed by a group of rich teenagers with nothing else better to do, from the un-gritty lyrics (which still have plenty of weed references, but somehow sounds forced on here) all the way down to the actual music, which DJ Muggs must have run through a car wash prior to mastering the album, so as to leave all of the grime behind.  As for the rap-metal half, Bones: while B-Real and company infrequently prove themselves to be decent-enough mimics of the culture, they still stand out like a sore green thumb, playing caricatures of themselves instead of living that shit.  I'm not surprised that Skull & Bones never really took off as a project, since it's terrible and all, but I am a little shocked that Cypress Hill haven't yet attempted some sort of revisionist history by revealing that the whole thing was a psychological experiment intended to prove that slapping the group's name on anything would cause an audience to gather around store shelves.  Nobody you know has this album in their collection except for me, and I really want to donate the fucker to Goodwill now, but I know I won't follow through.  Damn this collector's gene!

BUY OR BURN?  I wouldn't piss on this double-disc album if it were on fire, but that doesn't imply that one should burn it.  Pretending it doesn't exists works wonders for one's psyche.

BEST TRACKS:  "(Rap) Superstar"; I suppose "(Rock) Superstar" by default, but that's it

-Max

RELATED POSTS:
There's some more phuncky Cypress Hill shit to read about here.


9 comments:

  1. I have heard a bunch of these songs over the years randomly, and the "Superstar" songs are the only ones worth hearing, so yeah.

    I know Dr Dre's new album just came out, but could a review for "Murder was the Case" be slotted in sometime? I finally purchased the CD for it a few days ago and was amazed at how much I liked some of the R&B and weed carrier songs.

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  2. while I admit to liking some of the songs on here, this will never count among Cypress Hill's better work. With the notable exception of Rock Superstar, which is Cypress Hill perfection to me. Even though I wish Sen Dog was more focused with his lone verse on it, as he's admittedly been pretty good on both cd's with his verses.

    One more thing, the hooks on this entire album (again, sans the Superstar medley) make me want to use each member's mouth as a tampon disposal can when my wife's on her period, especially the hooks provided by MUGGS HIMSELF. I mean that last insult in the most offensive manner possible.

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  3. Shame about what happened to these guys.

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  4. Unrelated but not gonna lie I don't give a shit about this album lol. RIP Sean P.... I swear when I saw him at Rock the Bells he was mugging me because I knew all the Random Axe lyrics and I'm a little Jew boy bitch but man he contributed a lot to hip hop.. one of a kind lyricist. :(

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  5. Cypress kind of went downhill after their third album (although I quite like bits and pieces of their fifth LP). But then again, the whole nu-metal thing has never really worked wonders for me.
    Speaking of rap and rock mixes, do you have any plans of reviewing Blakroc? It probably wouldn't fit in with your current West Coast focus, but it's well worth a listen, with great musical backdrops and some brilliant verses by Q-Tip, several Wu-Tangers, Mos Def, etc.

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    1. A reader beat me to it:

      http://hiphopisntdead.blogspot.com/2010/04/reader-review-black-keys-with-various.html

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    2. Oh, I guess I didn't search well enough. Cheers!

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    3. the 4th album was excellent

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  6. this album was classic to any fan of rap-metal (like myself). True not many of us out there, but the 2nd disc on this album was truly excellent, 1st was crap and I like rap as much as rock, perhaps more. Cypress Hill did excellent dubstep album with Rusko also recently, which I suppose you hated also. You (and those who follow you) hate this album not because it is bad but because you simply cannot allow yourself to like the crossover aspect. Which is fair enough I suppose, I can't stand jazzy hip hop crap usually.

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