Ol’ Dirty Bastard - N***a Please
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.
Some incredibly suspect albums have been the beneficiary of On Second Thought's critical amnesty, but if you take the title of this series literally, Ol' Dirty Bastard might be its most unlikely inclusion to date. Don't get me wrong: when it comes to being overanalytical, Wu-Tang fans are second to none, and there are probably dozens of readers who could fill volumes detailing how U-God's side project with the Hillside Scramblers is an unheralded work of pure genius. But one would surmise that the entire point of ODB was that you didn't have to think about him, let alone twice.
This often goes into the evaluation of his records in light of his fellow swordsmen, despite the fact that in some corners, he's so essential to the Wu that they can't possibly make a great record ever again without him. When talking about their unimpeachable solo run of the mid-90's, you'll often hear Liquid Swords, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, Ironman, and Tical rattled off, but rarely Return to the 36 Chambers, despite the fact that it's deserving; it might run a little long, but it's surprisingly cohesive in sound and littered with tracks that are indispensable in both the Wu-Tang and pop canons.
And likewise, N***a Please isn't judged within the context of the late-90's drought, but for a more concrete reason: in between Enter the 36 Chambers and Iron Flag, there was no solo album that was less Wu than this one. Just about the only thing that ties it to its predecessor is its color scheme, and the RZA's sole production is the title track, a brassy fraction of a tune that recalls Return's bugged, slapdash funk almost out of desperation.
But Ol' Dirty never left the funk behind; he just found it in a new, surprising source: Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo. At the time, one could argue that they were best known as guys who had incredible chemistry with Noreaga, but their large role in N***a Please was among the reasons it stands out as a complete anomaly amongst Wu solo works: the superstar album. In his review of More Fish, Mallory O'Donnell wondered whether Ghostface had taken up the mantle of gregarious madcap since ODB died, singing off-key and indulging in brass ring collaborations. While N***a Please is nowhere near as strong as any of Tony Starks' solo albums, it manages to accomplish just about everything Ghost and, really, just about everyone else tried to do in their ventures outside of the 36 Chambers. The first was the true crossover club track, in this case the immortal "Got Your Money," which was buoyed one of the greatest punchlines in rap history (you know what it is). Consider it up against "Tush," "Never Be the Same Again," "Back Like That," you get the idea.
Another one of N***a Please's anomalous strengths was its ability to maintain an outsider-heavy record without catering, something even the Clan as a whole couldn’t pull off on The W. Even in 1999, the guest list was impressive, but think of what a money pit it would be eight years later; a handful of Neptunes tracks, Kelis, Chris Rock (his rap on "Recognize" has not aged well at all and it was pretty embarrassing to begin with), Irv Gotti (though no one believes for a minute he actually produced the gonzo bounce of "I Can't Wait"), RZA, not to mention a good deal of royalties to Rick James. Then again, considering that this had some of the most infamous recording sessions since There's a Riot Goin' On, I bet a lot of these guys would've worked for union scale. We're supposedly able to hear the sound of a groupie beating on a bass drum while she gets fucked in the ass, but I can't tell you where that pops up.
Of course, all of the above was as true in 1999 as it is in 2007. But the strange thing about N***a Please is how it's one of the very few near-death records that hasn't gotten some sort of postmortem markup. This stems from a nagging problem that surrounded it upon its release: the fact that it was one of the few records that can legitimately be called a "guilty pleasure." N***a Please was met with rave reviews upon its release, and what was implied then has become clear now: it really wasn't about the music. Even though N***a Please is a rather trim record for its time, it leaks sloppy filler like an overheated burrito. And that's a generous way of putting it. It's not just "Dirty going off on a crazed tangent" filler that we occasionally heard on Return to the 36 Chambers; it's one-note jokes like "I Want Pussy" and "Gettin' High" which doesn't even feature ODB on it all. Instead we're treated to the only Wu-Tang affiliates to rap on the record, JV'ers such as La The Darkman and eternal punch line Shorty Shit Stain. Then there are the covers; while "Cold Blooded" works musically and theoretically as a nod to a obvious touchstone, "Good Morning Heartache," a duet with the long-forgotten Lil' Mo, is just grating.
This is where N***a Please would want you to shut off your brain and not think about it. But really, I can't help but believe that just about every four-star review that met the thing eight years ago was more or less a tacit thumbs up to the lifestyle that would eventually kill Russell Jones. Combine that with its titillating title and at their worst, some critics were giggling with the sort of glee that's familiar to anyone who witnesses somebody hearing Wesley Willis for the first time. Saying it has car crash appeal is a metaphor too far; a lot of times, it was people using someone's psychosis as a gag reel.
I wonder if ODB realized the vice grip he had on the minds of critics and other well-wishers who covertly rooted for him to never get his life in order. Look, I'm not doubting whether or not ODB was completely batshit. But sometimes, listening to the record, I feel like he's in on the joke. When he starts shouting out Eskimos and submarines in the outro to "I Can't Wait," it's utterly hilarious, but it can seem like crazy for crazy's sake. What about his scathing screed about white influence in hip-hop on "Rollin' Wit' You" followed up by claims that he's "a Dalmatian…black and white" on the uplift mofo party plan "All in Together"? Belching in the middle of "You Don't Wanna Fuck With Me"?
It's possible that there's a little of both ODB having his mania laid to tape and knowingly manipulating it. Aside from a couple of phenomenal tracks, debating that balance is more rewarding than the record itself. In the end, N***a Please's reputation has plateaued because it's clear that if ODB had managed to pump out more studio albums, he likely would've ended up as a tragically laughed-at (as opposed to laughed-with) court jester. He deserved better, but unfortunately, death might have been the only way out.