By Noah Callahan-Bever
Someone once said that the rap game reminded him of the crack game. Though it’s a facile comparison, there’s no question that many hip-hop fans, plagued by redundant subject matter and recycled phrases, are fiending for substance like Robert Downey Jr. in a locked hotel room. It’s only appropriate, then, that Scarface, the original street pharmacist, step up with The Fix, his best album in almost a decade. Though his 15-year career has been solid, with classics like the Geto Boys’ We Can’t Be Stopped and his solo confession, The Diary, Scarface saw his sales plateau early—even as rap’s market share grew. As the saying goes, If you’re not moving forward, then you’re falling back. The OG sought to remedy the situation in 2000 with Last of a Dying Breed, a diverse effort that abandoned ’Face’s signature Houston G-Funk for a more universal sound, featuring MCs from outside the Fifth Ward like Redman and Jay-Z. Despite good intentions, the LP’s underwhelming production and lack of standout cuts kept ’Face from catapulting into the mainstream.
Now he’s aiming to change all of that. On songs like “Sell Out,” ‘Face proves he can run with today’s best, firing off polysyllabic rhymes with the nonchalance of Jadakiss and the subtle depth of Nas: “I been in fist fights with niggas twice my size / My record stands at 27 and 5 / …Say what you want, I don’t care who’s real / I survived the game of life, nigga / Fuck some skills.” He has finally broken free of his patented pendulum flow, heightening the emphasis on the last words of each line. Thematically, though, ’Face more or less sticks to the script his listeners have come to expect: The streets are cold-hearted and your best friend will stab you in the back over a dime piece, a dime bag, or even just two nickels, so surrender yourself to spirituality and find peace. But like a truly great MC, Scarface finds new ways to address the same old problems; on the Neptunes–produced slow jam “Someday,” for example, he coaches volatile young bucks: “I was touched by the spirit / So I had to write it down so the homies could hear it.”
But rhymes alone do not make an album, and it is Scarface’s superb selection of soulful, bass-heavy beats that propels The Fix along. Chicago native and Blueprint alumnus Kanye West once again proves to be an able vinyl reanimator, offering up sweet organ samples on the Jay-Z and Beanie Sigel collaboration “Guess Who’s Back,” as well as glassy xylophone accents and an abrasive, funky drum break on “In Cold Blood.” And yet, the cement that holds the LP together is not the big-name beatmakers; it’s the markedly improved production of Mike Dean and Scarface himself. Experimenting with creative arrangements on songs like the intense Nas collaboration “In Between Us,” the two deftly defy the current formula for 16-bar verses and 8-bar choruses.
As a genre, gangsta rap has had an incredibly hard time growing up; most of its artists run out of new things to say shortly after the release of their first album. But with The Fix, Scarface makes a compelling argument that gangstas can, in fact, mature. More importantly, they can use that hard-won wisdom and experience to create some of the best music of their lives.