#96: O.C., Jewelz (1997)
Three cheers for Buckwild! As I’ve previously indicated, this whole 100 reviews project is in part a little self-assigned survey course in hip-hop history, and just like any other history, hip-hop is full of entertaining characters who seem to keep popping up every once in a while. So whereas American history has figures like Eugene V. Debs and Clarence Darrow as its charming role players, Buckwild--previously featured on Heltah Skeltah’s Nocturnal
(1996)--has once again won me over, this time working with Brooklyn rapper O.C.
My prior exposition to the producer came from his work on Street Smartz’s excellent “Don’t Trust Anyone,” (1997) and he brings the same subtle melodic intensity to this album as he did that single. “The Chosen One” is dark and smooth, lending O.C.’s normally undistinguished voice a certain power (“Echoes in the halls, yes / when I arrive on the set”). “Far From Yours” is straight-up gorgeous, made even moreso by a tastefully placed chorus courtesy of Yvette Michele. The guy just knows how to produce, chaining his sensibilities directly to those of the rappers with whom he works.
All that said, Jewelz
is, somewhat disappointingly, not just a Buckwild production showcase. It is the second album by a guy named O.C., whose debut, Word...Life
(1994), remains one critical leap away from classic status. It’s easy to see why: O.C. is a rather pedestrian rapper, a critique I’ve already levied against the members of Heltah Skeltah, although O.C. lacks even the booming confidence of someone like Rock. His entire being seems to converge upon his being a New York Rapper, full stop, which is a predictably uninteresting approach to artistic identity--nebulous attacks on fake MCs and self-aggrandizing abound, along with a bunch of cool-guy mimetic gestures he just sort of throws around. I appreciate a song like “Stronjay,” both for its focus on small details and for being one of the few genuinely romantic rap songs I’ve heard, but O.C. otherwise spends much of his time on this album as a merely good rapper pretending to be a great one.
What saves this album from mediocrity, then, is the production. Such an assessment may seem like an uneasy shuffling of priorities: how can a rap album be anything but mediocre with such a derivative rapper at the helm? Part of this is my firm belief in the transformative power of good production, but the impressively cohesive vibe cobbled together by O.C.’s various producers seems irrefutable, linked as it is to the very DNA of the album. Buckwild, as previously mentioned, serves up two masterworks, but perhaps even more impressive are the contributions by the unfortunately obscure DJ Ogee. “Can’t Go Wrong” betters DJ Premier’s “Unbelievable” (1994) by entwining an ominous keyboard line with an upbeat pop hook (“You got me hypnotized, mesmerized”). “You and Yours” is deeply evocative and creepy, its instrumental track dipping in and out of key without much regard for O.C.’s blithe shout-outs.
In a way, that’s how the whole album works: at its best, it displays a good rapper made better by a great production team. At its worst, well, O.C.’s still good, only he seems to be contending with his forward-thinking (and still great) production team. Unlike, say, Blowout Comb
(1994), this is an album that doesn’t strain for heights it sometimes seems unable to reach. O.C. raps solidly for an hour, gets outshined by both Organized Konfusion and Big L, and some really great beats are made. That’s the simple narrative arc in which this quaint sophomore album exists, and it is satisfying in its own shallow way--even if Buckwild is the one who ends up stealing the show.