Crown Royal (Arista)
King of Rock: Respect, Responsibility and My Life With Run-DMC (with Bruce Haring, St. Martin’s Press)
Even music fans with little awareness of or interest in rap know about Run-DMC. Rappers Joseph “Run” Simmons and Darryl “DMC” McDaniels, along with turntable partner “Jam Master” Jay, helped make rap a mass phenomenon with their inspired blend of wily rhymes and snappy samples. Along with Public Enemy and N.W.A., Run-DMC dominated the ‘80s, but the trio soared past their rivals when it came to crossover success. Whether it was the emphatic, cutting language of “It’s Like That,” “It’s Tricky,” and “Rock Box,” or the chart-climbing impact of “Walk This Way,” and “You Be Illin’,” the trio’s best material had pop production savvy and appeal, yet didn’t lack edge or narrative zest.
But Run-DMC haven’t been influential since the late ‘80s, and their last release, Down With the King in 1993, was only salvaged by the ferocity of the title cut and some capable assistance from the likes of Q-Tip, Pete Rock, and Naughty By Nature, among other guests. These days, Run-DMC’s content seems woefully out of place in an era dominated by tales about pimping, gun battles, and outlaws. Simmons and McDaniels’ boasting, taunting exchanges have never been as obscenity-laden as the rhymes of a Jay-Z or a DMX, and their cadence and flow are much slower and less hard-edged. Though never as G-rated as Will Smith or Dana Dane, Run-DMC’s appeal undeniably lies in their non-threatening image: They might have helped usher in such fads as baggy pants and unfastened sneakers, but they’ve never scared parents and moral guardians the way today’s hip-hop crew has. Still, Run-DMC have always maintained a distinctive identity.
That’s what makes Crown Royal, their newest outing, such a disappointment. The unit’s first new release in nearly eight years now also looks like it will be the final Run-DMC album. McDaniels is only on four songs, and he can barely be heard on those. Lengthy stories in publications such as USA Today and Entertainment Weekly allege that McDaniels has lost his voice and his interest in hip-hopsomething reflected in the pages of his newly released autobiography, King of Rock: Respect, Responsibility, and My Life With Run-DMC. McDaniels doesn’t discuss his vocal problems, but he does admit that he’s fed up with rap’s embrace of the “gangsta” ethos, and he cites such rock icons as Bob Dylan, The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones as his heroes. He also questions the praise and devotion given Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls, laying the blame for both men’s demise on their willingness to market themselves as gangsters. McDaniels emerges in these pages sounding almost like a conservative Republican, though he also admits to behavioral excesses, in particular drug and alcohol abuse. It is crystal clear that he has turned his back on contemporary rap, despite agreeing to tour with Simmons and company in support of Crown Royal.
McDaniels’ disenchantment notwithstanding, Crown Royal has serious conceptual problems. Former Arista head honcho Clive Davis originally envisioned the disc as the same type of restorative project that revived Carlos Santana’s career. He wanted the group to partner with various flavors of the month, hoping they could once again ignite a commercial fire. But instead, he plunged them into a host of record-label squabbles over clearances and appearance rights. Then, after 25 years, Davis and Arista parted ways, and the arrival of new label head Antonio Reidwho has been less than enthusiastic in his public responses about Crown Royalput production even further behind. The album’s release was delayed multiple times, before finally making it into stores on April 3.
The disc has a patchwork quality. There are only 12 songs, and the session clocks in at 45 minutestypical album length in the vinyl age, but relatively short for a current rap CD. The list of guest contributors includes Jermaine Dupri, Nas, Prodigy of Mobb Deep, Fred Durst, Kid Rock, Everlast, Stephan Jenkins, Sugar Ray, Chris Davis, Method Man, Fat Joe, and Jagged Edge, but this all-star overflow does little more than clutter the proceedings.
The songs are mostly forgettable and the performances even more disappointing. Simmons has to carry the load and frequently tries to bluster and holler his way through lightweight material. “It’s Over” features Dupri paying homage to Run-DMC’s history while vainly suggesting that his own feeble rap skills belong in the same category. “Queens Day” and “Simmons Incorporated” are the only cuts that remotely compare to the group’s best numbers, and that’s because Nas, Prodigy, and Method Man are first-rate performers: Method Man’s crisp, defiant style prods Simmons into his flashiest, hardest rhymes on “Simmons Incorporated,” while Nas’ slashing language jump-starts “Queens Day,” with Prodigy providing the finishing touches.
“Take the Money and Run” has a surly contribution from Everlast, plus a nice sample of the Steve Miller Band hit from the ‘70sone of the few times Miller has granted permission for rappers to use his material. The title track is the only number that recalls early Run-DMC hits. The lyrics are silly, the beat forgettable, but Simmons and McDaniel here sound as if they enjoy their interaction, while Jam Master Jay finally provides some slicing backgrounds and support. The collaborations with Kid Rock on “The School of Old,” Durst on “Them Girls,” and Jenkins on “Rock Show” are painful. Jenkins even joined the trio on a David Letterman guest appearance, lurching around and looking as out of place as a cricket player at a baseball game.
Run-DMC made such great music in the early and mid-’80s that their legacy won’t be tarnished by the rubbish on Crown Royal. It’s hardly the best way to close out their career, but it may suggest that Run-DMC have picked the right time to call it quits. Rap has become so mainstream that anyone and anything will sell, regardless of content or quality. Crown Royal represents what happens when formula triumphs over artistry, and when record company moguls rather than performers determine the musical agenda.
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