What landed Jamal Barrow in jail could easily have been another ‘when keeping if real goes wrong’ sketch on the Chappelle’s Show. Everybody knows the backstory. No need to dwell on it too much: young kid gets thrust into the limelight and has to run with the ball after the untimely passing of the late great Christopher Wallace. He’s the biggest star on arguably the biggest hip-hop label at the time, Bad Boy Records, with the best in-house production team in the industry. How could this possibly go wrong? One nightclub shooting later, the next big thing ends up doing a ten year bid. Take that, take that.
It seemed that his legacy would be confined to two solid and highly underrated albums, his self-titled debut and ‘Godfather buried alive’. And his life could be summed up with a Bill Duke line from Menace II Society: “you know you done fucked up, right?”
Against all odds, all the drama ends up seeming as a mere prelude to Shyne’s actual recording career. After the jail time, converting to Judaism while incarcerated and getting deported to Belize upon release, Shyne aka Moses Levi releases the Gangland mixtape. Truth be told my expectations weren’t high for this one since he’d been deprived of The Hitmen’s production genius and at first glance didn’t sound like the nimble 21 year old rapper that exploded on the scene more than a decade ago. Gangland is a monster of a record through, to the point you actually feel like you’re doing it a disservice calling it a mere mixtape. Shyne comes across as the last real rapper alive of the course of the album’s 18 tracks and as a refreshing alternative to rap’s current batch of manufactured drug Kingpins, personified by the omnipresent Rick Ross.
Shyne’s fluidity on the mic has been replaced by a slower, hoarse flow and he’s trying to come to terms with the fact that he’s lost nearly ten years of his life. As such Gangland might not be a demonstration of skill, dude’s lost a step over the course of the last decade from a mere technical standpoint, but it does make for an utterly compelling record as a more contemplative Shyne emerged after all the trials and tribulations. At times he sounds bitter, other moments remorseful but always brutally honest. There’s no glorification of crime or his past actions. There are no excuses being made, shit happens. Gangland is a headphone masterpiece, one of those instances where a rapper’s words carry so much weight that they transcend nearly all of his limitations as an artist. Don’t get it twisted, Shyne is still a gifted rapper and gets to ride some gritty and bleak soundscapes as he takes you with him through his personal purgatory. There’s none of the gloss of his debut album and only a few nods to current trends, with some Lex Luger style drum programming and synths thrown in the mix. For the most part it’s that vintage boom-bap, Nuevo York aesthetic that’ll keep your head bopping throughout.
He’ll probably never be a household name again but if this tape is any indication he’s going to end up being one of rap’s brightest stars, on his own terms. The King of New York is back.
Recommended: You’re welcome, Meyer Lansky, King Judah, King David