February 23, 2018

Prince Paul - A Prince Among Thieves (February 23, 1999)




What follows is a write-up for Prince Paul’s A Prince Among Thieves that I wrote over three years ago. I know this because I had to edit one of the sentences within the body of the post itself that dared to make a reference to time. I had been waiting for the opportunity to run this one, and I had big plans which I won't reveal here just in case I end up using them later, but in wanting to make sure I did the project justice, I kept putting it off until I just wasn’t writing anything for two years. This was supposed to run earlier this month, but I discovered that, by pure chance, today is the nineteen-year anniversary of the album’s release, so I held it back to celebrate a milestone that nobody will likely care about, but should. Feel free to refer to this review next year, when Paul is celebrating twenty years of A Prince Among Thieves, as it’ll still sound exactly the same and the notes below will still apply.

Unless Paul uses the milestone as an excuse to re-release the project with extra bonus material. I certainly would be open to that, anyway.

A Prince Among Thieves is credited as “Prince” Paul Huston’s second full-length album, but it came after many years of production duties for the likes of De La Soul, Stetsasonic, Big Daddy Kane, 3rd Bass, and the Gravediggaz, among many many others. Unlike his solo debut, Psychoanalysis (What Is It?), which was a mostly instrumental deep dive into the man’s mental state, A Prince Among Thieves was far more ambitious: Paul had mapped out a legitimate hip hop opera, rendering this as one of the few concept albums in existence where it’s wholly justified why it had to be labeled as a concept album.

After writing the general outline of the tale, which concerns a man named Tariq who lets his dreams of rap stardom blind him to what’s right in front of his face, Paul recruited a bunch of his friends to fill the roles. Being Prince motherfucking Paul, that meant he had a bunch of famous people to call in favors to, which is how he snagged the likes of The RZA, De La Soul, Big Daddy Kane, Kool Keith, Xzibit, and Chris Rock, to name a few, to act out what one could call Prince Paul’s longest hip hop skit, if one were being a complete dick about it.

The lead roles were filled by two artists bubbling in the underground: Tariq, the protagonist, was portrayed by Breezly Brewin’ of The Juggaknots, a crew whose debut album, Clear Blue Skies, has been in my writing pile for seemingly eleven years, while the role of True, Tariq’s friend with questionable motives, was given to Big Sha, an emcee from the rap group Horror City, whose debut album featured wall-to-wall Prince Paul production and was never officially released, at least not until Paul leaked the fucker himself online a few years ago. (A couple of the tracks from the Horror City album ended up on A Prince Among Thieves anyway: Paul was always good with using every part of the buffalo.)

Over the course of thirty-five tracks, Breezly Brewin’ and Big Sha play their roles like professionals, as Paul takes what could have been a cliché-ridden tale about the perils of chasing your dreams and throws in many twists and turns to keep the audience interested. It’s still a fairly predictable story, and the fact that it’s consistently referred to as a hip hop opera may clue you in to how it’s going to end. But it’s clear that Paul put his all into A Prince Among Thieves, even going so far as to plan a film version of the story, but that never gained any traction, sadly. (True story: He was inspired in part by Master P’s movie I’m Bout It, specifically the fact that it was so poorly made but popular as hell: he figured that he could have made his movie for cheap, but nobody took the bait.)

I remember going to Best Buy the day this project dropped and not being able to find it anywhere, not because it was super popular, but because the buyers at the big box store didn't bother ordering any copies. I had to drive to a Blockbuster Music down the street in order to pay the suggested retail price of $18.99 for the disc, and I shelled out the cash without blinking, that's how much I love Prince Paul's work. After ripping open the plastic, I glanced at the liner notes, where I noticed something goofy: the Tommy Boy Records legal department may have forced Paul to put a disclaimer stating that A Prince Among Thieves is a work of fiction in said notes, but our host for the evening hilariously uses even that as an opportunity to promote Psychoanalysis (What Is It?) for those who feel that “this somehow accurately represents you or your life”.

I’ve waited on this one long enough, so let’s get started, so that I can begin putting off Prince Paul’s third album for another four years or some shit.

WARNING: SPOILERS ABOUND FOR A NINETEEN-YEAR OLD ALBUM. IF YOU HAVE NEVER LISTENED TO A PRINCE AMONG THIEVES BEFORE, YOU MAY WISH TO DO SO BEFORE PROCEEDING. YOU CAN’T SAY I DIDN'T FUCKING WARN YOU. ALSO, ASSUME EVERY TRACK FEATURES BREEZLY BREWIN’ AND BIG SHA UNLESS I SAY OTHERWISE. ARE YOU STILL READING THIS? WHY? LET’S GOOOOOOO!

1.  TARIQ'S DILEMMA (INTRO)
As this is considered a “hip hop opera”, I certainly hope you weren't expecting this to not be depressing. 

2.  PAIN
To set the proper mood, Paul unleashes a moving instrumental loop that sounds like he's borrowed a trick or two from the El-P playbook while remaining true to his work. (Side note: allegedly El-Producto is an uncredited background extra somewhere on this album, but I haven’t found certifiable proof yet.) True and Tariq each get a verse in, describing how they both feel at this very moment, a moment described during this opener: Sha's been shot, but is obviously still alive, since he's rhyming and all, and Tariq feels uneasy about the entire situation and is actively looking for a way out, the path of least resistance. A strong opening to a story that is surprisingly intriguing right from the jump, even if Big Sha's bars aren't exactly lightning-quick or anything.

3.  HOW IT ALL STARTED
Obviously, there must be some sort of chain of events that would lead us to that point in the tale, so Tariq rewinds the world for the studio audience.

4.  STEADY SLOBBIN' (FEAT. SHEILA COLEY)
“How It All Started” quickly summed up Breezy Brewin's character Tariq: he's a wannabe rapper who holds a crappy day job while his non-supportive mother derides him for not having any ambition, kind of like the overall concept Consequence was going for on his own project, Don't Quit Your Day Job. In short, Tariq is a loser, and that part of his persona is stretched out, in song form, on this goofy parody of Ice Cube's “Steady Mobbin'”, except the artist is a burnout who somehow manages to get some pussy (from the ultimate last resort) and still doesn't quite know what to do with it. The track is amusing, in that Prince Paul essentially recreates the same beat from O'Shea's classic, but it doesn't accomplish anything that extending the previous interlude couldn't have done.

5.  JUST ANOTHER DAY
So Tariq has this friend, True, who has his shit together. He used to dream of being a rapper, but gave up after Tariq bested him in a battle (or something as equally improbable). Tariq has a meeting scheduled with the Wu-Tang Clan later in the week, but needs extra money to finish up his demo. I wasn't aware that the Wu would just take meetings with random artists back in 1999, but suspension of disbelief and all that (I hear that's how Cilvaringz got his foot in the door). This skit runs a bit long, but that is a lot of exposition to give an audience.

6.  WHAT U GOT (THE DEMO)
Breezly goes in over the (dope) beat to Big Daddy Kane's “Young, Gifted, & Black” (a fact Tariq and True acknowledge almost immediately), spitting a verse while simultaneously explaining to True just how he would format the track, even going so far as to sort-of lay out what the hook will sound like. He then convinces his friend to kick his own verse, one of several mistakes the gut has already made today (but I'm getting too far ahead of myself). Both Breezly Brewin’ and Big Sha excel over the playful, grandiose production, which succeeds in making A Prince Among Thieves a tale that most people would actually want to continue listening to.

7.  THE HUSTLE'S ON (FEAT. EVERLAST [OFFICER O'MALEY BITCHKOWSKI])
When you find out this late in the game that your best friend pays off crooked cops on a regular basis.  Dun dun DUN! Foreshadowing! You should probably ignore the guest credit I just wrote down for the time being.

8.  MC HUSTLER (FEAT. HORROR CITY)
The first track on A Prince Among Thieves that actually isn't about the ongoing narrative: “MC Hustler” is an alternate take of a song Paul produced for Big Sha's crew, Horror City, for that previously-mentioned never-officially-released debut album. So, as expected, the themes don't exactly line up with the opera Prince Paul is trying to conduct. But when taken out of the context, this is actually fairly decent, as our host's low-key production mirrors what I would expect a post-Ummah A Tribe Called Quest album to sound like, and Superstar and Mic Teeluxe from Horror City sound alright (but not great) over it. It's just weird that Paul felt the need to throw an actual song from an outside project onto A Prince Among Thieves, but hey, at least he's being green about it.

9.  THE CALL
In which a phone call is made  You all saw that coming, right?

10.  THE OTHER LINE (FEAT. HEROINE [TAMMY])
Back in 1999, I was drawn to this track merely because Paul's beat reminded me of Portishead's “Mysterons” (which opened their (fantastic) debut, Dummy) more than what is probably legally allowed. Still does, to be fair. But “The Other Line” isn't bad as a song, either: Tariq calls his girlfriend Tammy (played by Heroine), begging her to call in to work on both his own and True's behalf so that he can go hustle enough to get that demo finished up. Which is kind of ridiculous: every job I've had, the only person who could call in for me was me. And even if I let the idea of Tariq's girl calling in for him slip by, how the fuck would she be able to call in for True, a guy she has no real connection with aside from Tariq? What? It's a story? It doesn’t have to make complete sense? Ugh. Fine.  Having the track end while Paul's cronies sing their own version of the Wings track “Let 'Em In” was also an interesting creative choice: here's hoping Paul McCartney never gets word that this exists.

11.  CRAZY LOU'S HIDEOUT (FEAT. HEROINE & KOOL KEITH [CRAZY LOU])
Paul's gotten some mileage out of Heroine's “Love you too” response, having it pop up on at least one other song in his catalog (something off of Itstrumental, if I'm not mistaken). Anyway, neatly freed from his day job commitments, Tariq follows True to the business establishment of...

12.  WEAPON WORLD (FEAT. KOOL KEITH)
...”Kool” Keith Thornton, playing Crazy Lou, an ex-Marine who was discharged (for “sexual misconduct with a deadly weapon”, which is about as silly as some of the backstories he makes up for himself) and now fancies himself as a weird scientist, but with guns (at least, if the ridiculous sound effects during “Crazy Lou's Hideout” are any indication). Prince Paul does an excellent job at complementing Keith with an unhinged, loopy instrumental that still bangs today, and Keith plays well with others, sticking to Paul's script while tossing in his own flourishes (among the many options he lists during the track are Desert Eagles that can “stop a dragon”). As a Kool Keith fan, of course I gravitated to this song first, and I still love it today. It actually leaked to a Keith fan site prior to A Prince Among Thieves hitting record store shelves, and even without the aid of context, it still worked as a typically deranged Keith Thornton masterpiece. Nice work.

13.  MY BIG CHANCE (FEAT. KOOL KEITH & SPECIAL ED [BREAKNECK])
Now fully strapped, Tariq follows True to his connection to make him “official”. Dude sure is moving up in the world quickly. This all seems like an awful lot of work for a guy who originally only needed some extra cash to finish recording a demo.

14.  WAR PARTY (FEAT. HORROR CITY)
Big Sha brings his crew back for a second track, under the guise that everyone in his loosely-connected Amityville group Horror City is a part of this gang that Tariq is auditioning for. Although the guys “introducing” themselves isn't exactly what happens, they still manage to spit multiple entertaining verses over an annoying-at-first-but-you-get-over-it-no-I'm-serious-you-will Paul creation. Doesn't further the story, but it isn't intended to, so no harm, no foul.

15.  COUNT MACULA (FEAT. BIG DADDY KANE [COUNT MACULA]& SPECIAL ED)
During his audition, Tariq ends up on a side street where Count Macula (Big Daddy Kane) promises to hook him up with whatever girl he desires.  Kind of out of place, but serves as a good enough excuse to get a song out of the man.

16.  MACULA'S THEORY (FEAT. BIG DADDY KANE)
After a ridiculously corny joke to get you into the correct frame of mind, Big Daddy Kane takes this Count Macula character to the highest of the heights, delivering two verses filled with the nimble wordplay and shit-talking that made him a star to begin with. When it comes to more current projects, I feel that a little bit of Kane goes a long way, and, just as he did on his far more recent (relatively speaking) cameos on Big L's “Platinum Plus” and Jurassic 5's “A Day At The Races”, he does. Not. Disappoint. Paul hooks him up with a glorious sweeping instrumental, one that doesn't really sound like anything an actual pimp would want to use: instead, it comes across as something an actual pimp who believes himself to have a higher calling would utilize. This shit was great.

17.  MR. LARGE (FEAT. CHUBB ROCK [MR. LARGE], BIZ MARKIE [DIEHARD], & BUCKSHOT)
Don't let the run time fool you: although “Mr. Large” is short enough to be an interlude, it's actually a one-verse wonder performed by an over-the-top Chubb Rock (as the titular character), with a backing beat coming straight from the mouth of Biz Markie. Chubb's bars are often hilarious and delivered with panache: I'm kind of surprised that A Prince Among Thieves didn't generate more of a renewed interest in the man. Fans of boasts-n-bullshit will find themselves right at home on this.

18.  CAN YOU HANDLE IT (FEAT. CHUBB ROCK)
Prince Paul always kills me with the goofy line readings he elicits from his various casts. The way he directed Breezly to say “Resume?” had me rolling more than the absurd fact that a resume would be required for this line of work in the first place.

19.  PUT THE NEXT MAN ON
Although it exists as a very silly setup for Tariq to prove to Mr. Large that he has what it takes to successfully hustle, “Put The Next Man On” is pretty good in a low-key way. Breezly gets two verses to Sha's one, which makes sense, since his character has more to prove than True, but Sha's contribution is far more sinister, thanks to Paul's masterful use of foreshadowing: it's so subtle that you'll only hear how evil his tone actually is after getting further into the story and then rewinding. Not bad.

20.  I WAS IN (FEAT. CHUBB ROCK)
Chubb Rock ends this interlude on a funny note. That's all I got.

21.  MY FIRST DAY (FEAT. QUEEN BEE [CRACKHEAD GIRL] & CHRIS ROCK [CRACKHEAD])
Newly ingrained in the hustling lifestyle, Tariq has turned out to be so successful (one his first and only day so far, naturally) that he has at least one regular customer, played by Prince Paul's good friend Chris Rock (Paul has produced Rock's last three comedy albums, all of which are hilarious and should be purchased immediately, and all of which have also earned Rock Grammys, although I don’t think Recording Academy rules mean that he shared them with Paul), who's apparently channeling his role as Pookie in New Jack City. Those of you with prior knowledge of Rock's comedy will laugh out loud at his callback to tossing salads, but while it sort-of furthers the story, this track as a while runs a bit too long, dragging down the album's momentum. (Chris Rock also apparently owns the story rights to A Prince Among Thieves, according to an interview with Paul, and at one point planned on turning it into a full-length feature, but it isn't clear whether that's still in the cards, being that it's nineteen years after the fact and all.)

22.  MORE THAN YOU KNOW (FEAT. DE LA SOUL)
This song could work outside of the context of A Prince Among Thieves as an extended metaphor, which is actually pretty high praise for a track featured on a hip hop concept album. De La Soul slide back into old habits on this playful Prince Paul production that contrasts sharply with the overall theme (drug addiction) without ever playing it for laughs. Trugoy the Dave (not a typo) and Posdnuos rule the roost with their inventive verses, which will have you following along proudly because you cracked their not-so-much-a-secret code. Now if Paul would only produce a full De La album again...

23.  ROOM 69 (FEAT. SWEET DEE [HOOKER])
Paul must love producing and directing hip hop album skits, as the medium (which is exclusively audio in execution) affords him the opportunity to take certain liberties and chances with the medium that his brethren in film and television production simply cannot. Such as on “Room 69”, where a woman attempts to get a line of dialogue out while a dick is occupying the space in her mouth. It actually comes off funnier than that crude description reads, though.

24.  MOOD FOR LOVE (FEAT. DON NEWKIRK & SHEILA COLEY)
Tariq has been doing so well at this hustling thing (it's been a busy few hours, apparently) that his boy True got him a gift: a piece of ass. Sexist, absolutely, but Paul is trying to tell a story, and sometimes it's easier for an audience to relate to the obvious temptations in life. This clearly won’t end well. Anyway, to set the mood, Paul lends his boy Don Newkirk an oddly charismatic beat that almost certainly informed his work on side project The Dix's The Art Of Picking Up Women. “Mood For Love” undercuts the attempted sensuality on the previous interlude by actually bring pretty funny: at one point, Tariq explains that his companion's “love” (read: pussy) is better because he “didn't pay money”, and Newkirk himself even prematurely ejaculates on the track, telling Paul that “you can cut now, we're through”, which is an amazing way to end any song, really.

25.  THE BUST (FEAT. SWEET DEE & EVERLAST)
Raise your hand if you saw this coming. Is that everyone? Okay then. 

26.  THE MEN IN BLUE (FEAT. EVERLAST)
After having busted Tariq for having weapons and some weed on him, Officer Bitchkowski decides to rap his mindstate to the audience, as this is a musical, after all. Everlast plays the racist, crooked cop with obvious relish: you walk away from this track hating not just him, but all police officers, which probably doesn't really help given the current climate, but it is what it is. Eric uses Paul's banging beat (one that sounds a lot like the work DJ Muggs and The Baka Boys put in on Everlast's prior crew House Of Pain's “Back From The Dead”, weirdly) to his advantage, delivering three vicious verses, one even including what is possibly the lone justifiable occasion for a white rapper to ever use the “n-word” on a song: he's playing a racist cop, so what the fuck else would he say? He limits it to just the one use, so as not to piss off Paul or everyone else associated with the project, of course. But this shit was dope.

27.  CENTRAL BOOKING (FEAT. EVERLAST & DANNY MADORSKI [POLICE CAPTAIN])
Nice callback to that whole “resume” thing, Paul.

28.  HANDLE YOUR TIME (FEAT. XZIBIT, SADAT X, & KID CREOLE [CONVICTS])
While waiting for his mom to send the Reverend over to help bail him out, Tariq finds himself sharing a cell with Xzibit and Sadat X, who, most conveniently, both decide to rhyme about their circumstances at the very moment that the focus shifts to them. They're most certainly an odd pair, sure, and the song doesn't entirely work (Sadat's hook is too wordy, and Paul's beat can't decide on what kind of feelings it wishes to evoke), but it did make me wish that Xzibit would take more chances as an artist and work with acts one wouldn't typically expect, such as, oh, let's just say Sadat X and Prince Paul.

29.  THE REV (FEAT. PHIL PAINSON [POLICE OFFICER #2] & DOM DOM [THE REVEREND])
Hey, he showed up. Good for him.

30.  SERMON (FEAT. DOM DOM)
This didn't really need to be a separate track from “The Rev”, did it?

31.  SHOWDOWN (FEAT. DOM DOM, KAMALA GORDON [WU RECEPTIONIST], & THE RZA [HIMSELF])
In which Tariq discovers that True swiped both his music and his meeting with the Wu (thanks to an excitable performance from The RZA, playing himself). “What U Got (The Demo)” plays in the background, but if you play close attention, you'll hear that Paul actually got Big Sha to re-record his own version of the song, just to underscore the fact that he swiped the track from Tariq. A nice touch of realism that I never actually caught before. Anyway, after losing everything, Tariq does the only thing he can think of: plotting revenge and confronting the motherfucker, obviously.

32.  YOU GOT SHOT
Interesting transition: Paul takes us from an interlude featuring The RZA to a song seemingly built around (but not really) an Ol' Dirty Bastard vocal sample. Anyway, motherfuckers get shot on here. But the track sounds great.

33.  EVERY BEGINNING MUST HAVE AN ENDING (FEAT. RODD HOUSTON [PARAMEDIC #1] & WENDY DAY [PARAMEDIC #2])
And this is where we came in.

34.  THE NEW JOINT (DJ'S DELITE)
Given the tragic ending to the previous interlude (and the subsequent twist), where else were you expecting this story to go?

35.  A PRINCE AMONG THIEIVES (FEAT. T-BONE)
In which Big Sha solidifies his role as the villain of the piece. Presented as True's hot new single, “A Prince Among Thieves” is surprisingly low-key, hardly the kind of joint all of those deejays who made cameo appearances on the previous track would get all that excited over. The song isn't bad, but Sha's verses (all of which reference the deceased Tariq), along with the evil gleam in his eye that you can almost see through your speakers, fuck up the listening experience. As it was designed to, of course. You'll want to punch Sha in the throat by the end of the last verse: that means he did his job really fucking well.

Although the companion film never materialized, Tommy Boy Records did finance a single video for A Prince Among Thieves, one that serves as a trailer for the project, as opposed to being a straight music video. Stills from this trailer appear in the liner notes.


FINAL THOUGHTS: Upon its release, A Prince Among Thieves was considered a masterwork that critics praised to the highest of heavens, but nobody actually bought the album, which led to Prince Paul’s subsequent departure from Tommy Boy Records. Some of this is the fault of the label: their marketing team had no fucking idea how to promote a hip hop opera with no visual component, and Paul’s still a fairly niche artist, one with a massive cult following that is still just a “cult” following. But here’s the thing: A Prince Among Thieves is an actual masterpiece. It may go down in hip hop history as Prince Paul’s finest hour: he takes all of the lessons learned from many years of producing and editing songs and skits (an art form he’s still the best at, in my opinion) and puts them all to great use, so even though not every song works on its own, and some of the speaking roles aren’t the best (Kool Keith is kind of a terrible actor, although hilariously so), when listened to within the context of the story, everything clicks. I’ve always thought A Prince Among Thieves was a bit too long, with maybe one or two twists too many, and the flashback structure is already overused in film and television, so to hear that first thing on this project was a little worrisome, but Paul manages to make even that seem fresh. A Prince Among Thieves is a high point in our chosen genre, and if you consider yourself a fan of creativity in hip hop, you just need to buy this shit.

BUY OR BURN? Buy this shit. Buy this shit. Buy this shit. Maybe if enough people give him enough money, Paul will make another one of these ambitious-as-fuck projects: reward the man for his effort.

BEST TRACKS:  While it's difficult to name individual tracks from what is supposed to be a cohesive story, “Weapon World” has always made it to my Kool Keith playlist. But they’re all pretty good.

-Max

RELATED POSTS:
Catch up with Prince Paul by clicking here.



7 comments:

  1. Always wondered why there was no review for this given your love of Prince Paul...and now we got it! I'm also relived that you loved it :D

    ReplyDelete
  2. wait, didn’t you already write about this one? Why else would I own this cd? I’m pretty drunk tbf, but surely only you would’ve recommended this who else

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm pretty sure I've mentioned it multiple times throughout the past eleven years, but no, never actually wrote about it.

      Delete
  3. i'm obsessed with this album, i re-did all the transcriptions on Genius to make it read like a movie script because it is one and it's so fucking good

    ReplyDelete
  4. All the 80s alumni were in top form. They provided my favorite moments of the album. Weirdly enough, RZA was merely aight.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. RZA doesn't even rap on here, though, so I don't think that counts, unless you're referring to the acting, to which I say, RZA was worse that that descriptor. But he doesn't have to carry the project, so it's fine.

      Delete
    2. They can’t all be winners. Actually, I think RZA was never that serious an actor. Him & GZA are comedic gold, though.

      Delete