In the mid-'90s, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony raged something fierce. With a number of innovations - the rapid-fire rapping, the sing-songy style and the mash-up of gentle R&B grooves with hard-core gangster lyrics - they truly pushed hip-hop in a new direction.
My, how times have changed: Thug Stories is a hardly recognizable collection of 12 basically standard rap tracks. It's the group's first release in four years, but for some reason there's another one coming out next month (called Strength and Loyalty, possibly a double album, with a lot more star power).
The record is probably intended as some kind of stopgap, or a purging of decent material that didn't make Strength, and in that light it's kind of fun. There's a bit of variety with no guests and no skits, and the vocals flow effortlessly. But it can't measure up to the permanent Bone Thugs quality yardstick, E. 1999 Eternal.
"Intro" sounds pretty fearsome for three thirty-year-olds who haven't run the streets in more than a decade, with some G-funk synthesizer and liberal use of the oh-so-gangsta "N-word." There's a Jamaican vibe to "Stand Not in Our Way," a mindless, light catchiness to "She Got Crazy." And "Still No Surrender" briefly captures the magic that made classic Bone Thugs such a trip, even if the anti-police lyrics are tired and absurd.
"So Sad" is pretty terrible as a song, but at least it follows "1st of tha Month" in addressing ghetto pathologies (in an ambiguous manner - Chris Rock once called "1st" a "welfare carol," and "Sad" doesn't sound genuinely concerned about "slimy, grimy women / Birthing children to make a livin'"). "This Life" is so-so but tells legions of baggy-pants white kids that, hey, "thuggin'" isn't as fun as it sounds. You really "don't want to live this life."
Then there's "Fire," a painfully obvious attempt for club play that could have been recorded by any second-rate MTV rapper from the last 10 years. "Call Me" and "Do it Again" venture lamely into straight-up R&B and soul respectively. And the Kanye West-ripping soul samples of "Don't Stop" pretty much kill any originality it could have had.
In the end Thug Stories is bound for the discount bin. But in that discount bin, one could find far worse buys.
Robert VerBruggen (http://robertsrationale.blogspot.com) is an apprentice editor at The National Interest in Washington, DC and an antiMusic contributor.