Happy 20th Anniversary to Slick Rick’s fourth studio album The Art of Storytelling, originally released May 25, 1999.
Slick Rick has one of the best comeback stories in hip-hop. After recording one of the genre’s most memorable singles (“Children’s Story”) during its golden period, he then came out with one of the greatest hip-hop albums ever made (1988’s The Great Adventures of Slick Rick). Then, after a lengthy incarceration smack-dab in the prime of his career, he managed to bounce back and drop an album that sounded like he hadn’t missed a step. The Art of Storytelling, Rick’s fourth release, hit shelves 20 years ago and cemented his greatness even further.
“Slick” Rick Walters, a British national who moved to the Bronx at an early age, first burst on the scene as a rhyme partner of Doug E. Fresh. The duo released the double-sided dynamo of a single with “The Show” and “La-Di-Da-Di” back in 1986, which became two of the most beloved tracks of any era. He then signed with Def Jam Records and eventually released his universally praised debut album The Great Adventures of Slick Rick.
Things started to go awry not too long afterwards. Rick was arrested for attempted murder in 1990, after firing shots at a former bodyguard that he maintains had threatened him and his mother. He was convicted of two counts of attempted murder, as well as assault and other weapons charges, and sentenced to three to ten years in prison.
In the midst of this legal process, Rick recorded two more albums for Def Jam, which they released during his time in prison: I Shouldn’t Have Done It (1991) and Behind Bars (1994). While the former is a solid, albeit rushed effort, the latter is closer to a glorified EP, stretched well beyond its natural length. So when Rick completed his sentence and began recording another album for Def Jam, it wasn’t clear what he was going to have to offer.
Fortunately, any worrying was for naught, as The Art of Storytelling is the exceptional follow-up that Great Adventures always deserved.
The Art of Storytelling takes its title from the two-part OutKast song of the same name, which appeared on their Aquemini (1998) album. Slick Rick graced the remix for Pt. 1 in one his first post-incarceration appearances on record. He contributed the final verse for the song, which was the album’s third single.
But, of course, the album’s title has a not so subtle other connotation. Slick Rick has mastered his storytelling ability since the beginning of his career. This talent, combined with his unmistakable panache and charm, has influenced many other emcees. So it should come as no surprise that large chunks of the album’s real estate is dedicated to Slick Rick flexing his narrative muscles.
The album starts off strong with “Kill N****z,” where Rick spins a yarn about feeding an insatiable blood lust. No sooner than he’s released from prison, he goes on a murderous spree, killing indiscriminately for no other reason than being in a “motherfucking rage.” It’s quite possible that the song is Rick’s attempt to skewer hyper-violent gangsta rap, as he spends the hook singing modified lyrics from Luther Vandross’ “Never Too Much,” melodically crooning about “thug fantasies.”
“Who Rotten ’Em” is the type of story rap that Rick recorded for I Shouldn’t Have Done It. He kicks a vaguely Biblical story in the vein of the story of Joseph and the coat of many colors, with Rick playing the role of an ancient Egyptian Pharaoh’s personal rapper. The beat, produced by Boot Camp Clik affiliate Nod, is understated yet complex, filled with guitars, strings, and keyboards.
Rick also includes a pair of tales about dalliances with infidelity: “2 Way Street” and “Why, Why, Why.” The latter is the stronger of the two, as Rick conveys the frustration and resignation in trying to make a doomed relationship work, even when he is not fully committed to remaining faithful. The beat, produced by Clark Kent, is a throwback to the late ’80s era, with Rick rapping over the guitar from James Brown’s “Funky President.”
“Adults Only” is a story I wish Rick had left in his notebook. Rick is certainly no stranger to raunchiness, but at least “Indian Girl (Adult Story)” from Great Adventures was funny. With no humor and awareness, Rick extols the virtues of barely consensual anal sex on “Adults Only.” The song is actually worse than it sounds, as a four-and-a-half minute dedication to borderline sexual assault is a really uncomfortable listen. It’s the worst song that Rick has ever released.
Fortunately the album bounces back almost immediately with the Clark Kent-produced “Memories.” The song features Rick’s light-hearted reminiscences of life as a ’70s baby, as he lists the many questionable fashion choices of the era, as well as the thrill of seeing Shaft in the theater, Bruce Lee rocking a “banana suit” in Game of Death, or Huggy Bear on TV. Rick is probably the first and only rapper to name-drop the Lucy Afarensis fossil in a song.
Because he’s The Ruler, Rick is careful to include a few different tracks about the tremendous amounts of swag that he possesses, long before “swag” became a thing. And nowhere is that more apparent than on the album’s first single and one of its best songs, “I Own America.” A spiritual sequel to songs like “Lick the Balls” and “Teacher, Teacher” from Great Adventures, Rick is back in the mode of dissing all those crumbs out there beneath his contempt. He verbally struts through the track, rapping, “The Black Clark Gable leave you numb / Every single one fronting on your label is a bum.”
He also executes more exercises in understated minimalism, such as “Trapped In Me,” an organ-heavy entry produced by Rashad Smith, and “Impress the Kid,” a funereal dirge produced by mixtape mainstay DJ S&S. On other songs, like “I Run This,” Rick cuts loose a bit. He turns up his contempt levels as he raps, “Boy, don’t make me put my grown man shoe in you / And I'm sorry father, for any wrong-doing doing you / ’Cause dogs barking and the girl sigh / Here to present myself as the sparkle of the world’s eye.”
Another theme that runs through the entirety of the album is how Rick inspired a generation of emcees. There are skits throughout the album with rappers like Redman, Q-Tip, Peter Gunz, and Reverend Run reciting pieces of his lyrics from Great Adventures. And there are close to half a dozen songs where he collaborates with his notable disciples.
Slick Rick enrolls some of the most skilled emcees of the time to share songs with him. He brings in OutKast’s Big Boi to return the favor for the aforementioned “Art of Storytelling Pt. 1,” (“Street Talkin’”) and then Nas to groove over some superior Trackmasterz-produced soul (“Me & Nas Bring It To Your Hardest”). Canibus appears on the hook of “King Piece in the Chess Game,” a swift battle-oriented track where Rick proclaims, “You’re all garbage; that type of talk I’m on / Dumb one becoming glad the great one walks among / Whispering, couple I scuffle / You little fleabag n***s don't want any trouble.”
The strongest of all of these pairings is “Frozen,” where Rick enlists Raekwon of Wu-Tang Clan. You really get the sense that the two luminaries really worked to build something collaborative, rather than Raekwon recording his verse while Rick wasn’t even in the studio. Instead, the two trade four-bar verses throughout the song, with Rick maintaining his suave persona and the Wu-Tang’s Chef kicking his patented fly, luxurious, and abstract slanguage. The beat, crafted by Swedish producer Thomas Ruslak, combines elements of Portishead’s “Seven Months” with a sped-up loop of Rage’s “Make It Last All Night” from the For Your Eyes Only soundtrack.
Less strong are tracks like “Unify” and “We Turn It On.” “Unify” was originally recorded for and appeared on Kid Capri’s Soundtrack to the Streets (1998). It features Rick teaming up with Snoop Doggy Dogg, he of the “Lodi Dodi” cover on Doggystyle (1993). It’s easy to forget that in ’98/’99, hip-hop wasn’t that far removed from the largely ridiculous and mostly manufactured East Coast vs. West Coast “beef.” Once put into the context of the time, Rick and Snoop coming together to rhyme over a bouncy loop of Bob James’ “One Mint Julep” seemed like a step in the right direction.
Meanwhile, “We Turn It On” is Rick’s first proper collaboration with Doug E. Fresh in over a decade (counting “Sittin’ In the Car” from Behind Bars seems questionable). You can hear what the two were going for, as they attempt to deliver an updated version of “The Show,” rhyming over pulsing keyboards with some genuine exuberance. But the song still feels strained at times, and just misses its mark.
At the time of The Art of Storytelling’s release, a full comeback seemed like it was in the cards. The album was a critical success, and was certified Gold, which is very much a triumph considering that Slick Rick had been off the scene for so long by then. However, Rick has yet to release another full-length.
Probably much of the reason had to do with Rick’s subsequent legal issues that soon arose. He was arrested after he re-entered the country after performing on a Caribbean cruise, as he was still technically a foreign national who had committed a felony in the United States. The INS and the Department of Homeland Security spent the better part of the next seven years trying to deport him back to the UK, and he spent 17 months in prison during all of the legal wrangling. The case banged around the Appellate Court system, before he was granted a full pardon by the then Governor of New York. He became a United States citizen in 2016.
It’s a shame that Slick Rick has never been able to really resurrect a proper recording career. Nevertheless, he is rightly regarded as an elder statesman and hip-hop royalty. He constantly tours and performs, and even records verses for other rappers’ records. However, the man should have had the opportunity to record more than two amazing solo albums.
As it stands, Slick Rick has cemented his legacy as one of the all-time greats. He hasn’t let his incarceration issues define his life and career. His ability to step back into the realm of hip-hop after a nearly decade-long absence, as if he never left, is an impressive feat. Add to the fact that he did it without breaking a sweat, and it’s a pretty monumental accomplishment by one of the best to ever grip a microphone.