Formed in 1990, Black Sheep comprised of MC 'Dres' (Andre Titus) and DJ (and sometimes MC) 'Mista Lawnge' (William McLean). Members of the Native Tongue family along with such alternative rap crews as A Tribe Called Quest, Jungle Brothers and De La Soul amongst others, they releasd their debut album 'A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing' (AWISC) in 1991. Although it sold almost a million copies, the failure of their second album 'Non-Fiction' in 1994 resulted in them dropping into relative obscurity. As a result, this classic album from the heyday of alternative rap is now relatively unknown.
From the beginning AWISC lets you know that it is not to be taken completely seriously, a running theme throughout the album as many tracks are laced with irony and satire that can only be appreciated with repeated listening. The most immediate example of this is the first track after the intro. 'You Mean I'm Not' is an absolutely hysterical Gangsta Rap parody that really has to be heard to be believed. (contains explicit lyrics)
Following on from this however, The Sheep switch to alternative rap for the remainder of the album, using laid-back jazzy and funky samples. 'Butt in the Meantime' is the first alternative track. It's very laid-back and a good track (although arguably one of the worst on the record) however that is a testament to the high quality maintained throughout. Furthermore, following the gangsta rap parody, it seems to give off the message; 'ok, that is what you do, this is what we do.' This is backed-up with 'The Choice is yours' - "You can get with this (alternative rap), or you can get with that (Gangsta rap)" - It's just a shame that most people chose to get with 'that'.
Have 'U.N.E Pull' and 'Strobelight Honey' are both top-quality tracks, the latter concerning how deceptive women's appearances can be at clubs. These then lead into a string of top-draw tunes with standouts being 'Try Counting Sheep' and 'Flavor of the Month', although really excluding any track would be an injustice. Track 12 'La Menage' features the compulsory sex-rap, on which Q-Tip makes a guest appearence (keeping his streak of seemingly appearing on every alternative rap album from 1989-1995 alive). However true to the spirit of the Sheep, 'La Menage' is also very tongue-in-cheek;
"Let me tell you all about the grand-slamming. Why you smiling?"
And with Q-Tip shouting out "I've got the anal sun-gods, I've got the anal sun-gods" throughout the outro it is clear on listening that again this is a parody. This is important to note as the humour in the album ranges from satirical, to playfully arrogant, to self-deprecating to lowbrow (although this is often much of the satire).
Track 14, 'Gimme the Finga' is a fantastic track discussing people's attitudes towards celebrities. Dres spends the first 2 verses rapping about how great his life is (again this is satirical as it's designed to show what people might expect of him, rather than how he actually lives) before switching to a more serious tone in the final verse encouraging people to work hard to achieve their dreams.
And then there's track 17, 'Black With N.V. (No Vision)' - My favourite rap track of all time, it's a superb, serious message track built around a ridiculously catch looped bassline that fully displays Dres's mesmerizing flow and clever lyrics
"Interview and application lead me on into frustration and duration of my time is spent in lack of occupation, time to go for what I know. I know not of a wish, but of soap and a towel and some water and a dish"
'Pass the 40' is the weakest track on the album, mainly because the sheep don't do all the rapping, although Dres's excellent finale does a lot to save the track. 'Blunted 40' and 'For Doz that Slept' are two weird pieces that add variety to the album. The former is Dres rapping backed to a series of Uh and Oh's that can't really be described in text. The latter is a production piece building a series of sung 'f*ck you's' on top of each other. Silly? Yes. Funny? Yes? And it sounds really good.
'The Choice is Yours (Revisited)' Is a club remix of the excellent 'The Choice is Yours' with different production and final verse. It is also utterly fantastic, my second-favourite rap song of all-time. Infectious, energetic, it simply makes you want to dance. A massive club hit in its day, apparently when played in clubs nowdays, people in the know are always ridiculously excited as soon as the 'Engine Engine Number 9' intro kicks in.
The Album closes with 'Yes' a good track, although not an out-and-out classic but is again nicely produced and with great rapping.
So what makes this album so great? The rapping for starters. Dres's rapping doesn't switch from style to style like, say Gift of Gab from Blackalicious and he doesn't have the quick-fire delivery of Rakim. However his flow is ridiculously natural, smooth and musical. The phrasing and inflections are superb, constantly changing the length and rhythms of lines and never struggling to keep in time. To my mind he is the epitome of jazz rap. Originally from New York he grew up in North Carolina and as a result has a kind of southern drawl, a little like Snoop Dogg, except more energetic and without the sneering.
The production is also uniformly excellent. Lots of the music is based around stringed basslines and drums with maybe a sample or two thrown on top. They don't need to create huge collages of sound because the rapping is so excellent that it instantly holds your attention. Lots of the samples are taken from old fusion and psychedelia like Jefferson Airplane. As a result you won't hear all the old James Brown samples (as mentioned in the album).
The skits are well done and make points. 'Are You Mad?' pokes fun of blacks obsessed with relocation to Africa. 'LASM' is their humorous (and self-deprecating) answer to angry feminists. 'Go to Hail', the confrontation with a cab driver, can be a little confusing at first, but there's a line in the next track 'Black with N.V.' that clears it up.
And that is what truly makes this album great. It makes you work for the information. Lots of the humour and messages are not immediately apparent. Mr. Lawnge's obsession with being "9.5" seems immature and childish, yet in the middle of his bragging in 'Yes' he suddenly drops in:
"I'm the Sugar Dic, the Sugar Dic Daddie[sic], Mr Lawnge of the Black Sheep here to point out what's wrong, with MCs, like these, poppin' at bullsh*t, please."
Yep it's more satire and takes repeated listening to spot everything. This is true of the album as a whole. Every track seems to have some link to another track on it. A repeated line, repeated or subtely different sample, the answering of a question (eg. "Baa baa black sheep Have U.N.E. pull?" is answered tracks later) and see if you can spot the line in 'La Menage' that rhymes with the line in 'Hoes we knows'. This just serves to give the whole album a natural flow. There isn't generally too much variation on pace or style, but there doesn't need to be because it all just fits together so well.
Rating 5/5 - If you like hip-hop, you should own this album. If you have an interest in hip-hop, you should own this album. If you're trying to get into hip-hop, you should own this album. When I first bought this album I was struggling to really get into rap. I liked the more jazzy, laid-back stuff but had yet to find an album to really grip me and make me think, 'yes, rap is good!' Dres's rapping is so easy to listen to that it held my attention more than any MC I've ever heard. Even though I was trying to read up on music on the internet I just kept finding myself sitting back and listening to the lyrics all the way through, something which not many rap records acheive. It really helped me learn to appreciate hip-hop. To quote [url]www.allmusic.com[/url] "Black Sheep hit a height with their debut that few hip-hop acts would ever reach." Highly