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Re-Up Gang - We Got It For Cheap Vol. 3: The Spirit of Competition (We Just Think We Better)

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Artist: Re-Up Gang

Album: We Got It For Cheap Vol. 3: The Spirit of Competition (We Just Think We Better)

Label: Re-Up Gang

Review date: Feb. 11, 2008

So: there’s rapping about coke and there’s coke rap. The crack-to-riches trajectory has been a staple of rap mythology since before Scarface came out, but you wouldn’t file, say, Jay-Z or Snoop Dogg under coke rap, because their devotion to the trade falls short of obsession. To be a coke rapper, the way Young Jeezy and Lil Wayne and T.I. are coke rappers, is to claim cocaine as a livelihood, both literally and rhetorically. The name couldn’t be any less of an epithet: coke rap is about embracing an illegal and immoral lifestyle, flaunting its spoils, and seeing pretty much every other topic of conversation through its lens. Jeezy: “Who gives a fuck about friends? / If you mix the baking soda wit’ it you can get a Benz.” Wayne: “I see she wearing them jeans that show her butt crack / My girls can’t wear that—why? That’s where my stash at.”

To call the Virginia duo Clipse “cocaine rap,” as the New Yorker did last December, is to put a fine point on it, but one worth making. Their long-delayed second album, Hell Hath No Fury, is a harrowing masterpiece about the drug kingpin lifestyle and its accompanying venalities (a certain preference for the finer name-brand items, a certain rigidity in business dealings), but it’s not a masterpiece of coke rap. It’s too weirdly refined, too cosmopolitan, too simultaneously repugnant and magnetic in its charisma; it also sounds somehow too hollow, thanks to the Neptunes’ brilliantly austere production. Coke rap is gleefully reductive and gritty; Hell Hath No Fury is complex, conflicted, queasily elegant. “Cocaine rap” at least sounds fancier.

Here’s why that matters: the mixtape, that crossbreed of promotional tool and internet-era album surrogate, is a hallmark of coke rap. The medium is about quantity and immediacy rather than quality, indulging shitty audio tracking and gratuitous freestyles over misappropriated beats and (especially when DJ Drama is involved) a lot of interstitial shouting. The mixtape is, to put it in the sort of crassly economic terms that make coke rap what it is, product. And it’s because Clipse recently put out an album that made their supremacy so three-dimensional, as rappers and as dealers, that their releasing a mixtape now feels… well, petty.

Not that they’re ill-suited to the exercise: volumes one and two in the We Got It 4 Cheap series, despite middling production values and a couple regrettable passes at timeliness, are ample proof of Clipse’s cleverness, their focus, that sinister edge they’ve been honing since 2002’s Lord Willin’. But if Hell Hath No Fury proved anything, it’s that Pusha T and Malice aren’t about product for its own sake. They don’t excel in excess, the way Lil Wayne does; his genius is off-the-cuff, theirs oyster-to-pearl. They can’t fill airtime like he does, but he’s yet to make an indispensable album. (This is also why the pseudo-beef between them is so enticing: it misses the point, but it should make for some fabulous insults.) The challenge of We Got It For Cheap Vol. 3, then, is half expectation and half format: whether a Clipse mixtape could possibly be as good as a Clipse album, and why they still bother to make one in the first place.

On the first question, it’s tempting to read a disclaimer in the mix’s presentation: unlike the first two, this one is billed as the Re-Up Gang rather than Clipse, though all three feature Philadelphia MCs Ab-Liva and Sandman, who round out the label’s roster also. It’s a classy way to draw a line in the sand, all told, even if the tape’s comically swaggering coke-rap title deflates some of the grace. But then that is good for something too: it frames the project as a matter of spirit, of pride: Clipse aren’t competing with themselves (for which see T.I. vs. T.I.P.), just defending a monopoly. The burden of proof is on you, not the tape – you’re the one fiending.

And if you can manage to think that way the whole time, Volume 3 delivers in spades. Pusha and Malice mine more extended metaphors from the apparently inexhaustible lexicon of drug sales, both obviously (“The wind blow, it come and go / I’m hurricane… listen again, I hurry caine”) and obliquely (“[I] double up on birds like Noah in the flood”); Ab-Liva and Sandman rhyme with less heartless pith but more interesting flows, the former in a sort of high-concept stage whisper and the latter in a controlled falling-down-the-stairs drawl. Excepting a solo each from Sand and Liva, all four MCs trade verses on every track – In variable order, although as usual Malice tends to step up last, most spectacularly on “Cry Now” – and the whole tape has a satisfying equanimity that makes the Clipse/Re-Up Gang distinction seem valid. The songs here sound like raw demos from a proper studio album by a real group, and that’s about the most you can ask of a mixtape.

All the same, it’s not that easy to ignore what’s missing, what could have been if Clipse were trying to best themselves. The tape’s production, or lack thereof, makes it harder: the songs are lyrically whip-smart, and sufficiently dense to reward (require) multiple listens, but they lack that creepy sonic presence that makes the words on Hell Hath No Fury so viscerally believable. By themselves the beats here are always suitable, sometimes great (“Scenario 2008” and “Cry Now,” bitten from Swizz Beats and Obie Trice respectively), but the tape still bows to perfunctory coke-rap clichés much of the time – stutter-step beats, cheesy cymbal crashes – and no rapper in the Re-Up Gang is so exceptional as to transcend them 100 percent of the time. Even the catatonic organ in the Pharrell-produced “Show You How To Hustle” sounds less convincingly macabre than the first two tracks from Hell Hath No Fury. It’s the medium’s fault, the market’s fault, anyone but Clipse’s, but therein lies the cruel truth of supply and demand: it treats cocaine rap just the same as coke rap.

The Gang is pretty clearly aware of the irony – “I’m not a part of your coke-rap genre,” Malice spits, just before a typically imaginative depiction of the cocaine production cycle – but the claim just doesn’t stick when it’s made on a mixtape. Volume 3’s initial free release on the Re-Up Gang website was followed pretty quickly by a second version without DJ Drama’s belligerent hype-man act; there’s some irony in that too, but not the kind Pusha and Malice know how to spin gold from. It would be better for Clipse not bend to grousing fans like that; it would be best for Clipse to be able to both say and mean that the whole mixtape game was beneath them. But the market is a bitch on and off record, and this time only the customers, who get it for free, lose nothing in the deal.

By Daniel Levin Becker

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