The H-Town Countdown, No. 3: Scarface's The Diary
Roughly 84,000 rap albums that have been released in Houston since 1989. We're counting down the 25 best of all time every Thursday. Got a problem with the list? Shove it. Just kidding. Friendship. Email it to email@example.com. Scarface The Diary (Asylum, 1994)
Honesty time: Last week's post, the one with the basketball/rap metaphors, was just a stall. Mind, it was fun to write, and it generated a fair amount of email responses. The best one we received compared Mike Jones's explosion into fame to Vince Carter's now legendary showing at the NBA All-Star Weekend's 2000 Slam Dunk Contest, saying "everything since then has been a disappointment." We spent the next 15 minutes trying to figure out a point in Carter's career that was the counterpoint to Jones getting punched in the face by Trae. There's nothing. Still, a solid comparison nonetheless. We also received an email from a freshman at the University of Wisconsin named Yunus Allen Church, easily the best name we've ever heard. There's no way someone named Yunus Church doesn't do something amazing with his life. Just say it to yourself. It sounds like the name of somebody who hunted werewolves in the 1800s. But back to the point. Last week was a stall tactic because, after a countless amount of time was spent trying to drum him up, word got to us that Scarface was down to talk about his albums that made The Countdown. And when there's a possibility that the greatest rapper Houston has ever seen might soon be dialing your number, you rearrange some shit on your schedule to accommodate the situation. Not to be all blow-jobby or anything, but the man is a legend.
Comparing the front of Face's catalog to the back, a trend emerges: He has managed to grow as an artist without changing as a person, and it's magnified his presence several times over. He was able to successfully switch up his approach without compromising his ideals. He's basically rap's version of Leonardo DiCaprio. Both men's careers opened with fairly inauspicious beginnings: Face actually started out under the laughably phonetic name Akshen; Leo had small roles in stuff like Roseanne and The New Lassie . Both began rounding into shape with some super-strong work shortly thereafter - Face's official debut, Mr. Scarface is Back , Leo with his roles in What's Eating Gilbert Grape , The Basketball Diaries and Titanic . They both had monster peaks: Face with the platinum-selling The Diary ; Leo with The Aviator , Blood Diamond , The Departed and Revolutionary Road . Both have/will eventually settle firmly into spots within the "He's Not The Best That's Ever Done It, But It's Not Completely Unreasonable For You To Have Him On Your List Of People That Are" debates. Cripes, even when they're bad (Face with Last of a Dying Breed , Leo with The Beach ), it's still pretty interesting. But alas, the phone never rang. A total waste of a week is what we got. Nevertheless, The Diary is the single greatest solo rap album to ever come out of Houston. In December, we touched on it briefly by saying, "The underlying premise to Scarface's acclaim is that his success is entirely meritocratic. This album is the finest example of that..."
Here's what that means: Because he didn't emerge from one of the then-hotbeds for rappers, Face initially had to be twice as good as rappers from the East or West Coast to get half as much respect. His debut album, Mr. Scarface is Back , was a proper good album in its own right, and is the second most influential solo LP he's ever made, but it piggybacked its way into the limelight on account of the Geto Boys' We Can't Be Stopped . And his follow-up, The World Is Yours , felt a smidge to repurposed to do much else besides wiggle its way to an uninspiring Gold rating from the RIAA. But The Diary was the first album - and remains to be the only album, for that matter - that entirely harnessed Scarface's brilliance*. He is observant, sly, unabashed and woefully openhearted and aware for the duration of it. Everything he wanted to say about the awfulness of the ghettos, he did. Only he was smart enough to do it a manner that never required him to explicitly say anything to that effect. Even the 0:58 second skit that signals the beginning of the last third of the album, which sounds like audio recorded while someone is sitting on a couch flipping through channels, is daunting. Other than the ones from the TV bits, no words are ever said. It's just a bunch of clips of news reports about murderers and things of the like. There's a scene that ends an episode of The Wire near the end of Season 4 where, after he's arranged to have his little brother's father killed, the camera just pans slowly across Michael's face while he watches TV in the dark. He doesn't smile, he doesn't blink, he doesn't flinch. He doesn't do one damned thing. He just stares, intentionally blank and withdrawn. No words are said there either, but it's one of the most powerful moments of the show. That's the same thing 'Face captured with this bit, and he did it without you having to see anything. It's ingenious. And it's not even the best part of the album. ("I Seen A Man Die" and "Hand of the Dead Body" finish 1. and 1a.) *The Fix was pretty damn close.
His three most important and well made albums ( Mr. Scarface... , The Diary and The Fix ) were all, to a certain extent, expository albums, essentially addressing the same general themes, but The Diary did so with brute force and unwavering intent. There might be another solo rap album from Houston that is as well thought-out and executed as this one. And there might even be one that somehow reestablishes Houston's credibility as a market capable of producing a platinum-selling album of importance**. But there will never be one that does both. And they're might not ever be one that does one. **With regards to earning a spot on The Countdown, this was the one piece lacking from The Fix . Sonically, it is the most expansive thing 'Face's ever done, and he's expressed his admiration for it in previous interviews by stating that he enjoyed the creative freedom Def Jam gave him to make it. And it's easily one of the best rap albums of its decade. But The Fix mostly served to help strengthen 'Face's fan base along the East Coast and crystallize the fact that he is indeed one of the greatest rappers of all time. Of course, if you were able to glean from that last paragraph that another part of the reason The Fix didn't make it on The Countdown was because there would have been too many albums from him on here, you wouldn't be entirely incorrect. Christ, man, we can't give every Scarface album a slot. But just to be clear, in a vacuum The Fix is better than all but about four Houston rap albums, and hat-tips to it are still popping up in today's music. There's a line Jay-Z's "Run This Town" from The Blueprint 3 where Kanye, very clearly paying homage to Face, flips the "The fuck you think I slang fo', to go against the grain? No" line from The Fix 's "Guess Who's Back" into "What you think I rap for, to push a fuckin' Rav 4?"
References 4. UGK, Too Hard to Swallow 5. Lil' Keke, Don't Mess Wit Texas 6. Scarface, Mr. Scarface Is Back 7. Fat Pat, Ghetto Dreams 8. Devin the Dude, Just Tryin' Ta Live 9. E.S.G., Ocean of Funk 10: OG Style, We Know How To Play 'Em 11. Z-Ro, Let The Truth Be Told 12. Street Military, Don't Give a Damn 13. DJ Screw, 3 N' Tha Mornin' Pt. 2 (Blue) 14. Trae, Restless 15: Chamillionaire, Mixtape Messiah 16: Bushwick Bill, Little Big Man 17: SPM, Never Change 18: Swishahouse, The Day Hell Broke Loose 19: Chamillionaire and Paul Wall, Get Ya Mind Correct 20: Z-Ro, The Life of Joseph W. McVey 21: Ganksta NIP, South Park Psycho 22: Big Hawk, H.A.W.K. 23: K-Rino, Time Traveler 24: Pimp C, Pimpalation 25: Big Moe, City of Syrup Read the rules of The Countdown here.
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