Happy 25th Anniversary to Scarface’s debut album Mr. Scarface is Back, originally released October 1, 1991.
Generally speaking, gangsta rap isn’t really into consequences. For the most part, the “gangsta” rapper spends an album musing upon drug dealing, stealing, fucking, and often killing with impunity. He (or sometimes she) muscles out the competition, vanquishes their enemies, evades the police, and, if he (or she) is lucky, enjoys a little extracurricular companionship. The invincibility can be part of the appeal. In many cases the gangsta rapper or group has grown up in extreme poverty, so spinning tales of living like an invulnerable superhero and getting away with committing all type of dirt is a release of sorts.
Occasionally, a rapper tries to balance the good with the bad. Ice-T was good at creating songs like this throughout his career. Underpinning many of his songs was the notion of inevitable comeuppance. You may make a fortune dealing drugs, but the cops will catch up with you eventually. You may take pleasure in murdering your enemies, but you can easily catch a bullet and end up just as dead.
Even less common is finding music that examines the psychological effects of being a gangster. Many of those same emcees that rap about drug dealing, stealing, fucking, and killing do so with a stoic nonchalance. Most of the time, the dirty deeds are framed as something done for both business and pleasure. The rapper does his or her dirt, and keeps on moving, unfazed by it all.
The Geto Boys were presumably the first gangsta rap group to wade into the uncharted waters of exploring the mental cost of the gangster lifestyle. The Houston-based group had many line-ups, but is best known for its configuration made up of Willie D, Bushwick Bill, DJ Akshen a.k.a. Scarface, and DJ Ready Red. They also became well-known for making music that gravitated towards the extreme.
The group first established a name for themselves beyond their native Houston with Grip It! On That Other Level, their sophomore album—and first with Scarface—released by Rap-A-Lot Records in 1989. They were then snatched up by Rick Rubin for Def American Records. The group then reconfigured much of the Grip It! album, added a few new songs, and re-released Grip It! as the self-titled The Geto Boys album in 1990. It was a damn good album, but it was also, well, extreme. The opening track “Fuck ’Em” probably set the landspeed record for the most references to the word “fuck” on a hip-hop track. Meanwhile, “Mind of a Lunatic” depicted wanton murder and necrophilia. The content was so over-the-top that Def American was forced to put a disclaimer label on the album noting that Warner Bros., the distributor and manufacturer of the album, found the content “violent, sexist, racist, and indecent.”
However, even with their propensity for depicting extreme levels of violence bordering on the cartoonish, the three emcees also expressed moments of clarity and self-examination on record, particularly Brad “Scarface” Jordan, the youngest member of the group and the most skilled story-teller. Grip It! and Geto Boys feature two solo cuts by ’Face. The most notable is simply called “Scarface” and it reflects his and the group’s obsession with the 1983 film of the same name. The track featured ‘Face assuming the role of the notorious drug kingpin, dispensing violence in order to dominate his territory, before his enemies converge on his home, kill his girl, and attempt to kill him. Unlike Al Pacino’s Tony Montana in the film, ’Face ends up killing all of his enemies and getting away clean.
After the Def American Records fiasco, the Geto Boys then essentially invented the art of the introspective gangsta rap song during the summer of 1991 with “Mind Playing Tricks On Me.” The song is mostly remembered for Bushwick Bill’s harrowing tales of violent, hallucinatory experiences on a Halloween night, but Scarface’s pair of verses hold the track together. The South Park native articulated the physical and mental toil that living through illegal means has taken on his body and mind, perfectly conveying the extreme paranoia and even suicidal thoughts he experiences on a daily basis.
Scarface took these two verses on “Mind Playing Tricks On Me” and built upon them to create his first solo album, Mr. Scarface is Back. Released in October 1991, it also showcases the good and the bad of the gangster mentality. The subject matter vacillates from tales of invincibility and domination to feverish stories of his own psyche tearing itself apart to somber tales of loss and regret.
Mr. Scarface is Back begins with invincibility, as the title track serves as a sequel/remake of “Scarface.” The song starts off following the story of the original track shot for shot, but ends, perhaps surprisingly, on what might be considered a “female empowerment” note. As rivals invade ’Face’s home, his female companion does not end up a hapless victim, but rather joins him in killing his adversaries and helping him escape into the night.
The pulsing “Born Killer” initially resembles another perspective of an unstoppable killer, with ‘Face spitting rhymes at 90 mph over a beat propelled by a sample of the Nite-Liters’ “Buck and the Preacher” and The Commodores’ “Assembly Line.” But things veer into even darker terrain by the second verse, as ’Face describes his unravelling mind state, “That’s right, you guessed it / I’m legally insane, marked manic depressive / I’m taking all types of medication / To keep me out the mood of premeditating / Yo, the longer I’m alone, it’s worse / I’m having thoughts of killing me, but I’m killing you first.”
Likely part of the reason Scarface rapped so eloquently about the psychological toll of depression and was able to paint such vivid images of dealing with suicidal thoughts is because it was something he is intimately familiar with. Scarface has openly spoken about his bouts with severe depression, and detailed some of his reportedly multiple suicide attempts in his 2015 autobiography, Diary of a Madman. In the book, he also details a few of his stints in Houston-area mental institutions.
He channels these experiences from his youth into the introspective song “Diary of a Madman,” describing how his deteriorating mental state is ignored by his family, and how his rampant alcohol use masks how deeply he’s unraveling. Meanwhile, he is continually haunted by visions of people that he has killed and the pain he has left in his wake: “Left his family heartbroken / Flashbacks of him laying there bleeding with his eyes open / I can’t put the shit behind me / I'm know I'm here somewhere, but I can’t find me.” He further reiterates the bleakness that his life has become, adding, “The world's looking dark for instance / Maybe cause I'm looking from a distance / But then again I wear a blindfold / Staring at the motherfucking world with my eyes closed / To myself I'm a stranger / Walking in the footsteps of danger.”
As Mr. Scarface is Back continues, it fluctuates between mania and depression. Songs like “Murder By Reason of Insanity,” “Your Ass Got Took,” and “P D Roll ’Em” feel like frenetic episodes. The latter track is one of the album’s best, assisted by a sinister bassline (sampled from Southside Movement’s “I’ve Been Watching You”) and the subtle wail of sirens.
Rap-A-Lot Records was never good at providing detailed production credits during their early days, as the producers for the album are listed en masse instead of by individual song, the producers for the album are listed as Scarface himself, Rap-A-Lot Records owner James Smith (aka Lil’ J), Crazy C. Roland Smith, Jr., and someone named Sam (no last name or alias provided).
As the album winds down, it takes a melancholy note. “Good Girl Gone Bad” is an oddly poignant tale detailing a drug deal gone wrong, ending in bloody revenge, but also with ’Face adopting the son of the man he’s killed. “A Minute To Pray and A Second To Die,” the album’s second single, is a somber story about the cost of getting in over your head in the drug game, but thematically it’s about the cycle of pain and death that too often plagues inner-city neighborhoods. Over a beat that samples Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” ’Face solemnly reflects on the lives of innocents that get destroyed by drugs and street violence.
It’s fitting that Mr. Scarface is Back ends with “I’m Dead.” The subject matter is self-explanatory, as ’Face raps about discovering that he has suffered a violent death without even realizing what’s happened at first. Since he expresses such indifference to the value of his own life across his songs, reacting to his own fatal end with little more than a metaphorical shrug feels very true to the characters that he has created throughout the album.
Mr. Scarface is Back marked the beginning of a very illustrious solo career for Scarface. His run of six solo albums between 1991 and 2002 was remarkable in terms of quality. With these albums, he continued to delve into the depths of his own psyche, even as he toned down the violent rhetoric that was once intrinsic to his music. He occasionally recorded albums as a member of the Geto Boys, though the group’s line-up continued to shift.
In the late ’90s, Russell Simmons recruited him to head Def Jam South, where ‘Face was instrumental in launching the careers of Ludacris and his Disturbing the Peace crew. ’Face became a well-respected elder statesman of the gangsta and Southern rap game. He continued his on again, off again relationship with Rap-A-Lot Records, before finally leaving the label for good around 2009/2010. In 2015, he dropped Deeply Rooted, a comeback album that was among the best released that year and demonstrated that his signature lyrical depth is still fully and thrillingly intact.
Mr. Scarface is Back may be a violent album, but it’s not fueled by violence for its own sake. Instead, the album examines the various repercussions of a life mired in violence. Even if ’Face never gets caught for all of the bad deeds that he commits (and only dies once across the album’s 12 tracks), he effectively portrays a mind completely broken by the evil that surrounds him, much of it of his own creation. And for Scarface, this nearly represents a fate worse than death itself.