Lording over the Dirty South like it was still the Wild West, Brad Jordan, a/k/a Scarface, plays the drums, gets numb, rocks Carolina-blue sweatsuits, and makes you look. Geto Boy, Def Jam South CEO, and crypt keeper for countless souls snuffed out or living by the sword, he pens songs that inhabit a world of piss-stained mattresses, sun-baked sidewalks, decaying cars, and fragile families. And in the square blocks of the south side of Houston he finds as much mythology, poetry, and pain as Cormac McCarthy finds on an open plain.
As a member of landmark trio the Geto Boys and the Rap-A-Lot Records family, ‘Face spoke on inner-city crime life with a Lone Star drawl, and laid the foundation for the independent rap scene of the South that would explode in the mid ’90s. Due to the chemicals he rapped about and the probable chemical imbalance in his head, Scarface has been walking the flatline for much of his career. Focusing on the anxiety and neuroses that come as baggage in a world where lives end over dice games and dead faces haunt your sleep, tracks like “Hand of a Dead Body,” “Minute to Pray,” and “I Seen a Man Die” are all included on his recently released Greatest Hits, which compiles the best of his post-Geto Boys work. About as uplifting as a Walker Evans photograph, he has been overshadowed by the showier antics of those who owe their entire careers to him (M.O.P. and Beanie Siegel have said as much), sticking to his smoked-out, syruped-up, lazy late-’70s funk and bump, and plainspoken naturalism. Where most MCs who draw inspiration from trife life feel the need to punctuate their tales with sci-fi extremism (see Cash Money) or Desert Eagle-wielding invincibility (see the Lox), Scarface is as aware of the consequences of his actions as he is the spoils, and focuses as much on his insecurities as his conquests. And where dancing with Mr. D. is requisite for repping the streets, where ride or die isn’t just a chorus, but a way of life, Scarface is sitting at a higher vantage point. Too old to do that step, he’s like William Holden in The Wild Bunch: Time’s ticking, world’s passing him by, but there’s nothing heroic in meeting your end over nothing.
This out-of-place, out-of-time feeling guides last year’s Def Jam-funded full length, The Fix. Bookended by two funeral dirges by way of Donny Hathaway, and peppered with equal amounts declarations of street-life acumen and remorse, prayers and confessions, The Fix feels like a record from the past—with its tightly wound sequence, its coherence of sound, all narcotic funk—from an artist of a different time. Where Jay-Z has to make 27-song CDs to please every micro-demographic of his multi-million-strong fan base, Scarface is making music for himself and the guys in M.O.P. Love it or leave it alone.
As one of the founding fathers of Bill O’Reilly’s favorite genre, “gangsta rap,” Face seems to have moved on into another realm. Call it Outlaw Music. With the plucked acoustic guitars of “Keep Me Down,” picked off a Tom Rush record, Scarface checks the blueprint for his checkered youth: “All Uncles and no brother/My mother’s at work/My Grandfather was my dad/And when he died it hurt.” The guitar tries to put the pieces together, but it’s too late. Every cliché, every time he veers toward platitudes about blood-in-blood-out loyalty, or dead friends looking down from heaven, and every time the screen gets diffuse, he racks focus with some detail, some vocal inflection. File it next to Peckinpah, Scorsese, James Ellroy—Scarface is plumbing the heart of darkness for more than just thrills.
Which isn’t to say that the whole record is a eulogy or a mea culpa. The first words you hear are “I got the new Face tape I’m about to pop in the deck . . . turn up your radios,” which might as well be “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away,” because it sends the same shot up your back. “Guess Who’s Back” is the perfect compromise between sticking to your own and bringing in a ringer. Roc-a-Fella’s front line seems just as honored to be on a Scarface record as they would to be on a Memphis Bleek single, with Jay-Z and Beanie sharing a mic with one of their heroes. Kanye West’s strings and keys soar with Jay’s flow, as he cracks, “Face it y’all/I got niggas playing basketball/I’m on the block like I’m eight feet tall.” Scarface sounds right at home: “Motels star-studded, rock stars and goons/Plainclothes wanna run in my room/Woo!” The mixture of his drawl and Beanie’s bulldog cadences and Jay’s filed-down bars over West’s sound-of-today-from-yesterday production fit perfectly. “We make a great combination don’t we?”
If “Guess Who’s Back” brings Scarface up to speed, “On My Block” winds back the clock. Resting his voice in between the black and white keys of “Be Real Black for Me,” Face colors in his past with recollections, fitting his lines in between the monotone mantra “on my block,” “My nickname was Creepy,” and “Fuck a hot rod/We race Impalas,” and “Keep the Swishers Sweet down until my mama goes back inside/then we can fire pass it around a few times to get high.” Face hides under the piano line like a blanket, wishing for a simpler time. But the answer isn’t a ticket for an airplane or a fast train. “I wouldn’t trade it for the world, cause I love these ghetto boys and girls.”