There were innumerable cameos at the Bad Boy Family Reunion Tour, but as is often the case with nostalgia packages, “the inexorable march of time” stole the show. Shyne lip-synced “Bad Boyz” in exile from Belize. Lil’ Kim was as magnetic as ever, but tragically so, going blank during large portions of her past hits. While DMX and Ruff Ryders’ constant shirtlessness and bloody-knuckled Casio beats were a corrective to hip-hop’s sample-happy Shiny Suit era, with enough distance, they could all be lumped together as “late ’90s NYC rap.” And most bizarre of all were the once-estranged Lox screaming “if you glad that L-O-X is Ruff Ryders now!” during “Wild Out,” their first single after a nasty, public and possibly violent extrication from Bad Boy—referred to as “Rape’n U Records” on the subsequent We Are the Streets.
Now signed to Roc Nation, the Lox are once again close to the locus of money, power and respect, affiliated with their third megastar-owned hip-hop conglomerate in as many albums. Their bizarre career is probably their biggest asset at this point and they have a hell of a story to tell. Filthy America…It’s Beautiful has little interest in telling it.
No longer subject to the commercial expectations of their late-90s heyday, they should be able to talk directly to an audience for whom the first Lox album in nearly 17 years is “highly anticipated.” There’s enough time-stamped gossip in “What Else You Need to Know” to reward people who remember the narcissism of small differences fueling the D-Block and State Property beef and, yes, Sheek Louch utters the magic words “bring New York back.” More importantly, the voices and the wordplay of Styles P, Jadakiss, and Sheek have aged not one bit since 2000—no mean feat if you’ve tried to talk yourself into a recent Wu-Tang or DipSet project, or hell, just skip to Prodigy sounding like a wax figure of himself on “Hard Life.”
Even within the narrow narrative structure on “What Else You Need to Know,” the chemistry between the trio is still a marvel. Jadakiss’ rasp remains one of hip-hop’s most indelible vocal instruments, a blank-faced menace even during the vast majority of Filthy America when he isn’t saying much of anything. Styles P’s wearied nihilism has naturally gotten more potent with age and as for Sheek…well, the bullish enthusiasm he shows for even his clumsiest rhymes is actually endearing at this point, providing an emotional immediacy to balance out his more reserved partners. He even knows he’s the third wheel—in fact, that’s exactly what he talks about on “What Else You Need to Know,” admitting he thought the “All About the Benjamins” beat was wack (they never had much of an ear for beats), weathering constructive criticism and chalking up his obvious exclusion from “Jenny from the Block” and “John Blaze” to knowing his role. You’d be hard pressed to find another example of a hardcore rapper taking an L with such dignity.
All of this material would make for a fascinating interview on Hot 97, though it’s preceded by just that, the interminable “Stupid Questions” proving that the Lox are still the most tone deaf skit-makers in rap history. But because it’s a Lox track on a proper studio album, “What Else You Need to Know” is a reminder of the skill set separating great rappers from great songwriters. Like much of Filthy America, it’s saddled with an awkward hook and the kind of stainless steel, geographically non-specific, vaguely “futuristic” synth beats you typically hear from once commercially-viable rappers on the album after they’re no longer privy to A-list producers. Granted, Dame Grease and Pete Rock might be permanent A-listers to some, but their presence is only felt after reading the credits. And then there’s DJ Premier on the ironically titled “Move Forward.” If hearing Styles bitch about “mumbling rappers/DJs with the aux cord” still makes you want to pull irresponsible ATV tricks in celebration, it’ll be a pleasure to hear any Premo beat in 2016 because you know exactly what you’re getting. At the same time, you have to wonder what that’s worth when Premo’s 2016 output has been split between territorial flame-keepers like Royce 5’9 and remixes of Desiigner and Twenty One Pilots.
The Lox are spared similar indignities here—Fetty Wap and Gucci Mane could churn out tracks like “The Agreement” and “Secure the Bag” ten times over in the span of a month and their appearances show the Lox have an interest in contemporary rappers without chasing contemporary trends. But maligned as they were for playing dress-up with both Bad Boy and Ruff Ryders—too grimy for the former, too conventional for the avant-Tunnel Banger phase of the latter—their commercial ambitions were the solution, not the problem. The Lox’s most beloved songs—“Money, Power and Respect,” “Wild Out,” “We Gonna Make It,” “Good Times”— provided state-of-the-art beats, ready-made hooks, and most importantly, direction for a group whose artistic zenith is probably a collection of radio freestyles.
Otherwise, despite no longer being required to stuff a $17.99 compact disc to capacity, the Lox still have a way of making at least half of Filthy America feel like filler. They’re far more interesting characters than they let on: Styles P wrote a novel on his Blackberry and also opened a juice bar with Jadakiss. Surely the ins and outs of franchising would make for more interesting material than the “concept tracks” or production choices here, all of which seem designed to recall 1999 —“Hard Life” is Dame Grease blatantly Xeroxing “It’s Mine”; “Move Forward” is “Recognize Pt. II,” while “The Family,” “The Omen,” and the courtroom procedural “Filthy America” have precedents that can be easily identified by even casual rap consumers from the late ‘90s.
But while both Styles and Jadakiss are capable of coming up with a scene-stealing guest verse or two every year—see: Schoolboy Q’s “Groovy Tony/Eddie Kane,” the “Ooouuu” remix—they know damn well that’s what keeps their career going at this point and they know better than to waste their best material here. The Lox have never lived up to their potential and they certainly aren’t going to start now.