Rappers love saying the name of the place where they are from. Back in the nineties, at the height of the media contrived American East coast / West coast supposed mass rap feud, the place where a rapper came from probably seemed more important than it does today. Bone-Thugs-N-Harmony laid claim to no coasts that weren’t the banks of Lake Erie rendering them generally irrelevant at the time, yet at height of the summer in 1995 they released an album all about their life in the desolate wastelands of the American Midwest and even went so far as to include the name of what is presumably their favourite street in their home town of Cleveland in the release E. 1999 Eternal
. Flippantly taking flavours of the East coast, West coast, and Southern rap scenes, these druggish thugstas concocted a smoothly sinister slice of soulful, melodically inclined rap that at the time ultimately failed to garner the attention it potentially deserved.
To the uninformed, the name Bone Thugs-N-Harmony can be somewhat confounding (most importantly, the “N” actually stands for “in”, not “and” or “nigga”), while it is obvious that the Bone part signifies their penchant for gruesome, morbid imagery and refers too to the rappers various bone themed stage names, the harmony part is a surprisingly genuine and integral ingredient to their overall sound. The group slickly arrange melodic vocal harmonies and lightning quick lyrical exchanges in sharp yet smooth triplet-time verses, all layered on top of pensively malevolent G-funk grooves.
From first impressions it might seem fair to argue that other than Wish Bone, who is set apart by simple virtue of having a deeper voice than his Bone colleagues, the rappers comprising the Thugs-N-Harmony have relatively homogeneous styles. For one thing this isn’t necessarily a negative quality, as there are no overwhelming personalities in the collective diverting the spotlight from their strongest element: harmonious group storytelling. Moreover, the fact is that the relative anonymity afforded by this trees-for-the-forest approach grants a certain freedom in their rhymes and encapsulates a philosophy intrinsic to their rapping that they refer to repeatedly throughout the album: “For the love of money // fuck the fame”.
That cynical self awareness comes across again and again but perhaps most acutely in “1st of Tha Month”, a sincere and honest spiritual celebration of the wholesome experience that is getting fuck
ed up with your homies on the day when your government handout money gets cashed. Typically for Bone Thugs, despite the crass irreverence to be found in the song’s subject matter, it’s difficult not to feel the same sentimental bliss offered in the expertly harmonised chorus that re-purposes lyrics from Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing”, and the sumptuously euphoric and exquisitely lackadaisical supporting beat. Similarly, “Crossroads”, rightfully the group’s most famous track, is a sombre, heartfelt tribute to recent AIDS martyr and discoverer/ friend of the band Eazy-E wherein the Bone Thugs poetically ponder existential questions over grim instrumentation, again demonstrating incredibly effective harmonisation and tight tongue twisting rhymes.
Elsewhere, the superb if somehow familiar "Down ’71 (The Getaway)" is a high octane romp through energetic storytelling that really highlights the Bone Thugs’ skill at weaving together frantic, congested verses together with dulcet finesse. Some of the most compelling beat craftsmanship appears on “Crept and We Came”, where an infectious bass grows into macabre strings that are woven together by a typically skillful harmonic chorus. Emphasising Bone Thugs’ disinterest in contriving individual personality in favour of developing their overall group sound, there are no skits to be found on E. 1999 Eternal, but there are two A Capella interludes found in “Me Killa” and “Mr. Ouija 2” which, as well as serving as preludes to the tracks that follow, add some necessary diversity to the album while fitting in to the overall tone.
So was it their arbitrary geographical location that held Bone-Thugs-N-Harmony back from really immortalising themselves upon the infinitely tear drop tattooed face of the rap scene with E. 1999 Eternal
? No, ultimately it can be put down to Bone Thugs’ indifference to really carving out a tangible personality for each of their members, something that the likes of the Wu-Tang Clan and N.W.A. really fixated on to their ultimate critical and commercial benefit. Lyrical themes like smoking drugs, selling drugs, and shooting people who try to steal their drugs appear and reappear, at times inspired but other times feeling like going through the motions. To the same end, while Cleveland is a repeated subject for Bone Thugs to hone in on, their insistence on utilising ultra fast rapping as well as significant amounts of slang, all certainly being impressively arranged not to mention incredibly catchy, denies the audience large quantities of context which means that a more profound message to be found on the album is likely to be lost on the casual listener. The consistency of the album largely atones to these minor flaws and there are truly few rap groups who can arrange melodies like Bone-Thugs-N-Harmony.