Bone Thugs-N-Harmony - E.1999 Eternal
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
Tha Crossroads” is, of course, a brilliant song. And yes, it encapsulates a lot of what is great about Bone Thugs—the sleek synth melody, the high-speed-yet-harmonic flurry of rapping, the dark morbidity (crossed with a sense of misty-eyed sentimentality). But yet, it doesn’t quite get across how odd the group are/were. A lot of Bone Thugs tracks are one step away from Boys 2 Men, in the same way that the Crossroads is—yet much of that material is (simultaneously) one step away from Satanic ritual soundtracks, hedonistic G-funk and classic rock song writing.
Unlike a lot of great singles, “Tha Crossroads” benefits hugely from being heard in the context of a full-length album. Curiously, it wasn’t actually included on the original release of E.1999 Eternal—it’s a re-tooled version of a track that is on the record (entitled “Crossroad”). Once it became a massive hit, it was immediately added to all subsequently-pressed copies. The tenderness and beauty of the track becomes more interesting when set next to Bone Thugs’ darkest material.
Lyrically speaking, Bone Thugs have much in common with countless mainstream rap acts. The themes running throughout E.1999 Eternal are familiar—drugs, violent crime and death make regular appearances. It’s the manner in which the lyrics are framed and delivered that makes the group such a bizarre proposition. Bone Thugs had a melodic flow—frequently delivered in unison—that bordered on singing. They could rap together at a lightning fast pace, without losing their sweetness.
The album was entirely produced by DJ U-Neek (although he did collaborate on some tracks), endowing cohesiveness to the unique Bone Thugs sound. U-Neek was, like the vocal group members of Bone Thugs, unorthodox in the rap field. It wouldn’t be far off to describe him as a songwriter as well as a producer. He was always keen to flesh out interesting sounds—usually based around rumbling piano chords, mellotron and synthesised strings. Yet, the focus was largely on song craft and melody—the album frequently strays into gloomy territory, but never loses its sense of tunefulness. The beats were not particularly striking—usually low-key and sluggish, but the album’s strengths are not rhythm-related.
In some ways, Bone Thugs appropriation of melodic songwriting qualities is what makes them frightening. This is a group that released a number of platinum-selling records (including this one) and won a Grammy Award. Rap’s massive American popularity undoubtedly frightens many—and the genre has weathered attacks from many notable American right-wingers. Bob Dole, broadcaster Rush Limbaugh and even Mr. Clinton have tried to turn middle America’s fear of hip-hop to their advantage—speaking out against rappers who promote “unsavoury” values (and showing a blatant disregard for the artists’ freedom of speech in the process). The genius of Bone Thugs is not only that they aided hip-hop’s cause by selling a great record to millions of people, but that they did so by subverting musical qualities that have traditionally been the cornerstone of cosy classic rock. The melodies on E.1999 Eternal are so clear that even the most stubborn musical traditionalists will find themselves humming along. Yet, Bone Thugs are still recognisably a gangsta rap act—sweetly crooning their violent threats, while refusing to leave the musical territory of their enemies alone.
“Down ‘71 (The Getaway” has a deep-piano melody, and sounds like a bastardised take on the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter”, incorporating gun-shots and bomb-blasts along the way. “Eternal” has a lullaby-soft mellotron hook, counter-pointed by the violent lyrical theme (“Keepin' em on the run widda me shotgun / I swang wid a clip tight clan“). “Mr. Bill Collector” cheekily re-casts Bone Thugs as authority figures—using death-threats to eke money out of those who owe them. As a track, it seems to sum up the core point of E.1999 Eternal—subverting people’s expectations, re-claiming territory that has previously been denied to them.
There are some devilishly bleak moments of brilliance, too. The two a capella tracks are extraordinary. “Me Killa” is the sound of homelessness, poverty and violence—the group harmonising sweetly (“Gonna get that ass put to rest”) over the sound of a cruel, howling wind. “Mr.Ouija 2” is similarly spell-binding—the desolate windblown sound again, guns cock and load while Bone Thugs beg to know “Will I die of bloody murder?”
Few records capture the heartbreak and misery of life on the street as well as this one. It’s one of those special moments in music where an extraordinary set of vocalists find a musician who can mock and frame their outpourings perfectly. A gloriously twisted oddity, which has never been re-created convincingly.
By: Kilian Murphy
Published on: 2004-07-06