With damn near every hip-hop record these days filled with random, often stylistically divergent beats made by whomever the artist (or more likely the label) could get to guest, and everyone looking to grab the hot producers of the moment, the cohesive, uniform, flowing, hip-hop LPs of yore are all but gone. Internally produced acts like Gang Starr keep proving these albums still work (maybe even better than ever), but everyone thinks getting with Scott Storch or Danger Mouse or somebody is the prescription for hotness. Even studio geniuses like the RZA don’t get it, clowning themselves by not realizing that no one wants to hear their mediocre flows over someone else’s lesser beats. Murs got it when he did 3:16 with 9th Wonder, and MF Doom definitely gets it. But unfortunately, few others do.
That said, with none of the delusions of re-emerging into the mainstream that accompanies so many hip-hop comeback albums, Now Rule (that’s New Rochelle for you non tri-state suckers) true-school vets Brand Nubian have kept the production on Fire in the Hole entirely in-house. That’s not to say that it’s all hot — some of these beats are actually wack — but at least it’s uniform.
Lyrically, the Nubians keep it really real. That is to say they’re doing the same thing they’ve always done, which not that many people are still doing. Brand Nubian has always been real thugs (the stories I’ve heard, if repeated here, could get my teeth knocked out); they don’t need to make thugged-up hip-hop to justify themselves. On “Young Son,” in which Grand Puba, Lord Jamar and Sadat X address their young male progeny while facing a prison bid (in real life, only Puba hasn’t been in for an extended stay), Lord Jamar gets it gangsta, telling his boy, “Take this nine milli, son, I hope you can handle it.” Jamar, who I’ve always thought brought the group down (especially on their classic “Punks Jump Up To Get Beat Down” off 1993’s In God We Trust, in which he sounds like a closet case while going off on his dislike for gays), holds it down throughout, coming with some of the best verses.
And everybody who doesn’t think Sadat X is one of the best emcees ever needs to re-acquaint themselves with One For All, the group’s 1990 debut; spin “Punks Jump Up To Get Beat Down” a few times; and pick up his insanely slept-on 1996 solo LP, Wild Cowboys. Nonetheless, his performance here is far from his best work.
Unlike most commercial (and many underground) hip-hop records, which are designed to pump you up and then bring you down with a corny and forced sensitive track that you quickly forget about, Fire in the Hole is relatively sad overall. Many of the greatest hip-hop tracks (“Children’s Story,” anyone?) are based around cautionary tales, and Brand Nubian has caution coming out the ass. Like the lives of the group’s emcees, Brand Nubian’s career is one big cautionary tale, making any release by them suggested listening for any aspiring emcee.