#94: Kool G Rap & DJ Polo, Wanted: Dead or Alive (1990)
Now we’re cookin’. Wanted: Dead or Alive
is one of the very best “Golden Age” hip-hop albums, a vivid prophecy of just about everything the genre could represent. This seems to me indicative of a shift in rappers’s creative faculties around the early ‘90s, wherein a sort of division of labor gave rise to a newly specialized rap. Kool G Rap exists as the converse to such a process: he's an “everything” rapper, a lyrical kaleidoscope of influences and desires, of both sermonizing (“Streets of New York”) and seduction (“Talk Like Sex”). This places Wanted
in stark contrast to later classics like Illmatic
(1994) and Reasonable Doubt
(1996), both fantastic but siphoning their prestige from a sensibility that moves in only one direction.
Kool G Rap, meanwhile, is interested in the flux state of the gangster life, or perhaps all of life itself. Listen to the album’s opening one-two punch of “Streets of New York” and “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” in which he bemoans the crime-ridden state of his beloved city and then seems to implicate himself as the cause. That a gangster can be both the facilitator of and in thrall to his own constant moral transgressions may seem by now a cliche--cf. Biggie’s “Suicidal Thoughts” and its legion of copycats--but here it is shaped into something big and important-seeming. This is first and foremost because Kool G Rap is one of the greatest rappers of all time, lyrically precise, vicious, and dramatic (“Blood stains all on my Ballys / A sucker got rowdy, so I shot him in the alley”). And then suddenly, on “Talk Like Sex,” he’s the funniest rapper alive (“You ain’t ready for the bed / You still got a pussy like Isaac Hayes’s head”). The guy could probably rap over some kids banging on trash cans and it would still be engaging.
He doesn’t, though, which just edges the album ever closer to masterpiece status. The beats here often sound dated but satisfyingly so, well-fit to the album’s texture as a gem of the early ‘90s (check out the awesome DJ Polo showcase “The Polo Club”). Some of them even seem a little timeless, like Large Professor’s fantastic “Money in the Bank” production, the hook of which could probably bring down any club worth its salt. Mostly the beats here are sharp and driving, matched perfectly to their rapper. That’s what makes Wanted: Dead or Alive
stand out among its peers: it seems effortlessly tossed off, but upon further listens reveals itself to be as painstakingly considered and sequenced as something like The Wall
(1979). Unlike that album, it doesn’t have a coherent storyline to bring you from a definitive Point A to its corresponding Point B. But like all the best stories, you’ll want to hear it again as soon as it’s done.