Hip-hop ushered in the post-Trump-election era with A Tribe Called Quest’s We Got It From Here…Thank U 4 Your Service on the Friday following Election Day, followed by their performance on SNL the next night. How much of Tribe’s content was based on the events of earlier that week is anyone’s guess. The context still couldn’t help but color the listening experience. If Tribe was the opening salvo by a veteran New York rap group in an age of the Trump Tower as the new White House, the arrival of Filthy America…It’s Beautiful does so even more overtly, just off its title alone.
It’s been twenty years since a Yonkers-bred trio of ferocious emcees called The Lox (formerly The Warlocks) had the streets feeling their heat with “Well Well Well” on DJ Clue’s Show Me The Money mixtape. Yet December 16th, 2016 marks the release of only their third official album as a unit, their first in nearly seventeen years. It’s not that Jadakiss, Styles or Sheek have been gone from the scene for any extended period of time since. Nor is it a matter of the trio working at D’Angelo or Sade levels of recording pace. These are gentlemen who, like Tribe, have known each other since before they could even walk or talk. Though unlike Tribe, they’ve never engaged in a public separation.
These are three gentlemen who see each other regularly, at their studio they built back in the late ‘90s. Still, here we are, finally getting the “follow-up” to 2000’s We Are The Streets this week. There’s a number of contributing factors for this: extensive solo projects, steady tours, countless features, several mixtapes, a pair of recent placeholder EPs, a lot of patience, a sense of timing and of course, Industry Rule #4080: Record Company People Are Shady. Please allow The Lox to re-introduce themselves.
Reacclimating begins right off the rip on “Omen,” with horrorcore-like lyrics that would fit on mid-‘90s NYC street records like Big L or The Gravediggaz’ debuts, except with an obligatory Kill Bill siren, a la Future, slipped in as a contemporary nod. The trio delve deeper into their own history, as performers and people, on the next two cuts, “What Else You Need To Know” and “Family.” Boom-bap purists will be pleased by the appearance of the legendary DJ Premier on “Move Forward” midway thru the proceedings. If this critic was to nitpick, Premo could’ve moved forward here with production in line with 2015’s Prhyme, rather than a relatively cookie-cutter post-2000’s Premier piano loop + multiple-vocal-scratch hook. The song doesn’t quite scale the heights of their initial 2000 collaboration, “Recognize.”
Each member of The Lox does a good job of recognizing their own strengths on Filthy America. Jadakiss still has his classic rasp, plus iconic laugh. He’s still the “sensei of the slick talk” who’s “been a Don, since Benetton.” Styles is still a gangster and a gentleman, who’s got the juice, even if now rather than move coke, he sells juice. And then there’s Sheek Louch. The largest member of The Lox, with the lowest profile, branches out a bit here. Sheek pulls off a surprisingly convincing reggae-toast-style hook on “Don’t You Cry,” while also doing some of the heavy lifting on a couple of hooks and sixteens elsewhere. It’s his commitment that helps keep things afloat during parts of the album where the beats don’t quite match the caliber of the raps.
So how does Filthy America…It’s Beautiful manage to navigate nearly 17 years of build-up? By barely acknowledging their absence at all. At 12 tracks, comprised of two skits and ten songs, this album’s run time is only a minute longer than Nas’ Illmatic. There are a couple “hot” features, like Gucci Mane and Fetty Wop, but it’s not an album that feels beholden to trends. At least not in the way certain Lox members’ solo projects have. *insert Jada cough/laugh here*
The sound of Prodigy and ‘Kiss tag-teaming on a hook saying “life’s difficult, death’s easy”, with each member of The Lox and Mobb Deep going hard over a bubbling Dame Grease beat, should satisfy those with a hunger for veteran NYC grimy rap. The album’s highlight comes in the form of the title track, “Filthy America”, with an evocative Pete Rock soundscape, supporting The Lox’s clever lyrical inversion of the N.W.A court-room-scene from “Fuck the Police.” “Filthy America” feels like the album’s closing statement, making the lead single “Secure the Bag” that follows, feel like a tagged-on bonus cut at the back. The bottom line is it feels good to have The Lox back, even if they never really left. With an album that seems like an appetizer for things to come, here’s hoping the follow-up drops 17 months, rather than 17 years, from now.
Notable Tracks: “Don't You Cry” | “Filthy America” | “Hard Life” | “What Else You Need to Know”