Happy 20th Anniversary to Method Man & Redman’s first collaborative album Blackout!, originally released September 28, 1999.
I like a tightly constructed concept album as much as anyone. Story rhymes and politically conscious hip-hop are my bread and butter. But there will always be a place in my heart for verbal slaughter over banging beats. And few albums typify this approach like Clifford “Method Man” Smith and Reggie “Redman” Noble’s Blackout!, released 20 years ago.
Method Man and Redman had shared a bond for years before Blackout! hit the shelves. The pair had been label-mates on Def Jam since the mid-’90s, and each were slated to drop an album in the fall of 1994: Method Man’s debut Tical and Redman’s sophomore effort Dare Iz a Darkside. To create buzz for the projects, the label released the Month of the Man promotional cassette, which featured various tracks from each artist. The pair toured and made appearances together, and eventually began contributing to each other’s albums. Their best-known collaboration was, at the time, “How High,” featured on the soundtrack to the hip-hop documentary The Show (1995).
The relationship between Redman and Method Man grew stronger during Def Jam’s infamous “Hard Knock Life” tour, where the two hit the road with the label’s fellow stars Jay-Z, DMX, and Ja Rule. As shown in the documentary Backstage, the two performed together every night, and were regarded as having one of the best live shows on the tour. Somewhere along the line, they began recording Blackout!
Both Redman and Method Man have historically embraced the grimy aesthetic, and both have distinctive but not dissimilar rhyme styles. In terms of subject matter, both had historically dedicated themselves to lyrical domination and smoking copious amounts of weed. That Blackout! works well isn’t a surprise, but it’s notable that it’s one of the best hip-hop albums of the late ’90s.
The album’s overall strength is its simplicity. During a largely glossy era in hip-hop music, Blackout! was a throwback album that has more in common with Ultramagnetic MCs’ Critical Beatdown (1988) than more polished mainstream albums that ruled the charts, radio waves, and MTV. The majority of the time, Red and Meth just deliver straight lyrics over banging beats. Often the “hooks” are taken from classic hip-hop tracks or old school routines. Sometimes, there’s no hook or chorus to speak of at all. The relentlessly rugged tracks are mostly provided by Erick Sermon, as well as a slew of other Def Squad and Wu-Tang Clan affiliates.
“Da Rockwilder” exemplifies The Funk Doc and The Phenom’s approach to creating songs for Blackout! A two-minute slice of hip-hop perfection, Rockwilder puts together a propulsive, keyboard-driven track, allowing both Meth and Redman to go off with a singular 16-bar verse each.
Each emcee is in top form, going for the throat right off that bat. While Method Man raps that he’s “surfing the avenue, mad at you, where I used to battle crews back when Antoinette had that attitude,” Redman throws in some clever references to the Breakin’ films, rapping, “Don't condone, spend bank loans on homegrown / Suckers break like Turbo and Ozone / When I grab the broom / Moonwalk, platoon hawk my goons bark.”
Redman noted in an interview with HipHopDx.com that originally the two had recorded a couple of verses apiece for the track, but that “it didn’t sound right,” so they removed the extraneous verse. The brevity of “Da Rockwilder” works in its favor, as listeners are left fiending for more.
The album’s other two singles, “Tear It Off” and “Y.O.U.,” also possess the same urgent energy and relentless styling by the duo. The title track charges ahead at reckless pace, super-charged by a steel-drum heavy track by Sermon. “Mi Casa” is one of the album’s clear high points, on the strength of a murderous opening verse by Redman, who raps, “That's why I fold down 4 fingers / Say ‘Fuck the world!’ and jimmy the earth out with coat hangers.”
The RZA-produced “Cereal Killer” is about as close as the pair get to delivering a conceptual song on Blackout!, as they both describe the homicidal thoughts and their unhinged psyches over a soulful loop of George and Gwen McCrae’s “The Rub.” Neither takes the premise particularly seriously, as Redman makes the “cow” noises on the hook; it should be noted that his version of a bovine sounds a lot like a dog. On the mic, Meth is the star on this song, rapping, “Tone def rhyme microphone sex line / Next time don't forget the TEC-9 / Step, Bob Digital. Context is critical / Bomb threat these individuals that's on deck.”
At times, the pair evokes the chemistry of Redman’s mentors and Hit Squad godfathers EPMD. Like the Long Island duo, at times both Red and Meth feed off each other’s energy through passing the mic back and forth. The pair go verse for verse on “1, 2, 1, 2,” each dropping continuous heat on a twangy DJ Scratch-produced track. Over spare guitar notes, Redman raps, “I throw lightning out the arms – Raiden / Your God should pray / Next year I do nothing more than Y2K.” Meanwhile, the pair practically go line for line on a loop of David Matthews’ “Sandworms” on “Maaad Crew,” echoing the lyrical dexterity and presence of Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith.
Some of Blackout!’s strongest songs are the ones that feature guest verses, drawn from Red and Meth’s crew and occasionally the Def Jam family. The duo is joined by LL Cool J and Ja Rule on “4 Seasons,” two of the label’s biggest “pop” stars at the time. LL delivers literally one of the best verses of his career, rapping, “I'm bigger than producers, I figured out you losers / I knew my longevity confuse ya / Big paper game, come on, run into these flames / Recognize the power of the royal King James!” I don’t believe that LL has delivered a better verse since. Meanwhile, Ja Rule, is, well, Ja Rule; I haven’t liked a verse by him since 1995.
At other points, guest appearances from Red and Meth’s respective crews lend the songs their overall vibe. “Dat’s Dat Shit,” featuring a verse from Mally G (a.k.a. Jamal) and hook by Redman’s NJ compatriot Young Zee, sounds a lot like a track that could have fit in on Def Squad’s El Niño (1998). By the same token, the RZA produced “Run 4 Cover” would have very much been at home on any late ’90s Wu-Tang Clan release. Though Meth and Redman shine over the furious guitar loop (taken from Joe Farrel’s “Upon This Rock”), Ghostface Killah delivers an off-kilter, stream of consciousness verse that would become his calling card on his Supreme Clientele (2000) album and throughout the early ’00s.
Blackout! was a clear artistic and commercial success, as the album went platinum. It also laid the groundwork for Redman and Method Man’s continuing partnership inside and outside the record industry. Blackout’s triumph helped lead them to Hollywood and their attempt to conquer both the small and silver screen. But while the often hilarious How High? film (2001) has become a beloved cult hit, their short-lived Method & Red sitcom (2004) is less fondly remembered.
Though Meth and Red would continue to deliver quality product over the two next decades, the fire they possessed on Blackout! was truly special. It was pure unvarnished lyrical and musical aggression, channeled by two great emcees firmly in their prime. It’s this spirit that makes albums like Blackout! timeless.