Review Summary: Bow Down is an inspired attack on the politics of the music industry, and some petty beefs too. An airtight 10 song tracklist and excellent performances by the 3 rappers and producers make this a damn near perfect album.
Ice Cube, along with protégé Mack 10 and South Central underground hero WC, formed the Westside Connection in about 1995, (“Westside Slaughterhouse” on Mack 10’s self titled debut and “West Up!” from WC’s Curb Servin’), as sort of a strength in numbers response to a couple of factors. The first being the suspected East coast media monopoly of the rap game, and many derogatory comments made towards West coast rappers by certain rappers and publications during the 90’s. The second being a display of unification not just among West coast rappers, but within rival gangs, with Mack and DubC representing traditionally opposing sides of the flag. Third, well maybe Cube might have wanted some respected street dudes by his side due to some of the potentially dangerous beefs he was getting himself into.
We start with an epic styled intro speaking of the incredible power and future dominance of the Westside Connection. It’s arrogant and written like some corny B-movie, and that arrogance is a distracting aspect of Cube’s performance on this record. He’s not bad by any means, as his voice still remains one of music’s most powerful , but his wordplay has begun to fall off. It could also be that the subject matter of this record is more personal than his more socially focused solo records. But either way, he’s the “Big Fish in a small pond” now. And everyone else are the “Guppies”. WC was an underrated veteran lyricist from South Central, part of groups Low Profile and the Maad Circle, who had first collaborated with Ice Cube on his 1991 album Death Certificate’s “Color Blind”. Dub has the most versatile flow out of the 3, he’s agile and his rhyming style is similar to the “C-Walk” dance that he popularized in the mainstream. His verses are always at the very least, solid, he’s basically the anchor on here. Mack 10 was an upcoming star at that point with an underwhelming debut that had a few hits on it. He really cuts loose on Bow Down, with his boulder crushing flow being the perfect fit for the album’s aggressive nature. Mack Dime never sounded this inspired or energetic on an album ever again, and I think he’s the MVP of this record.
The title track sets the aggressive, confrontational tone for the record, and they win because it’s impossible not to bang your head to Bud’da’s thumping southern-flavored production, but it’s still a salute to the West. The mystic, laid back (still bumpin’ hard) “Gangstas Make the World Go Round” was recorded in South Africa with the help of world music legend Cedric Samson. Mack absolutely destroys this track; “Like a snitch, life’s a bitch, a world full of drama/drug paraphernalia being found by my momma/drama brings/the sad song YOUR mama sings/just served yo’ ass/you on your way to Killa King” (hospital in LA). He’s got the most natural relaxed flow of the group and it’s the best verse of his career. “All the Critics in NY” is the first rant against the NY hip hop monopoly where Mack states “the only way to beat us is to cheat us”, and Dub correctly predicts “I bet after this I get a ‘hiphop classic’”. It sucks that a lot of Cali rappers would up kissing that East coast ass in the years to come. Old pal K-Dee taunts them even further with creative appropriation of NY rap quotes on his “Do You Like Criminals?” guest verse.
“Cross ‘em Out & Put a K” is even more aggressive, another excellent, frenetic Bud’da beat where Mack spits “Goddam n!99@/this *** makes me sick/all these west coast cowards riding New York’s dick/bustas get sprayed wearing high top fades/and Kangols backwards with dark ass shades”, and WC also sodomizes Q-Tip on it. Dub actually doesn’t get involved in the Cypress Hill diss “King of the Hill”. Cypress accused Cube of stealing a hook (Cube’s “Friday” from Cypress “Throw your Sets in the Air”), but he counters with: “You say that I took your hook?/It must be the white boy (DJ Muggs) thinkin’ all blacks are crooks”. Cube raises his voice to make fun of B-Real’s “baby nuts” nasaly vocal tone and it’s pretty ***ing funny, despite this entire beef being dumb as hell. The way they write off Sean Dog as a non-factor is hilarious too.
There isn’t a dull moment on Bow Down, and yes, the timing of this release was pretty bad, coming out a few months after 2Pac’s passing. I can’t really think of another Cali record that went hard against the New York media like this ever again, despite the bias increasing even further after Biggie died. For the sheer weight of balls displayed on the album, it’s worth a listen, and the music behind is just as strong, probably more complex than the lyrics. Cube hopes that “blood doesn’t have to spill” on “Cross ‘em Out…”, but unfortunately it did, and this situation was at least partially responsible for deflating hip hops soul, and sent the West into a commercial tailspin.