Allow Saigon to reintroduce himself as: (a) the rapper you need to hear (of course); (b) the rapper taking the proverbial “it” back; and (c) the hardest rapper in the game. These talking points are familiar to the point of cliche, so even a freshman celebrity shouldn’t have trouble covering them. However, Saigon is also the emcee with one of the worst debut experiences ever circulated on the Internet. He opened with a bang in the mid-’00s by receiving a co-sign from producer Just Blaze and appearing as a not-so-far-from-reality up-and-coming rapper on HBO’s Entourage. Then much of his highlights reel became marred by beef, fights and a years-long record label spat that led to a memorable digi-public outburst. After working on a stalled debut album for several years, a more popular rapper released an album with a similar (but hardly more creative) name. In 2010 things began to turn Saigon’s way as he was released from his Atlantic Records contract and retained ownership of his album’s masters. He also spent much of the year controversy-free. Still in 2011 he faces a difficult road ahead, in spite of the softball pitches he needs to feed his audience.
So don’t consider Saigon’s The Greatest Story Never Told his debut, but his farewell. It is a goodbye to the discarded first chapter of his career. The half-decade-in-the-making effort needed to be released in order for the rapper to move on. At one point, the album would have served as “The Yardfather”‘s stump speech. Now, it is mostly an artifact from a dark part of Saigon’s recent past.
The majority of the album centers on the collaboration between Just Blaze and Saigon. Considering how few contemporary hip-hop albums are based on a partnership between one rapper and one producer, The Greatest Story Never Told almost gets an automatic leg-up in terms of consistency. Just Blaze works to Saigon’s sensibilities and preferences — classic sample-based boom bap — while exercising the full sonic range of thug rap (how many people can sound hard over auto-tuned choruses?). The spark from this producer-rapper relationship is undoubtedly the album’s strongest point. “Come On Baby,” which premiered in mid-2007, was the early salvo. Its shreddy J. Geils Band riff, carnivorous drums and a surprisingly appropriate appearance by Swizz Beatz on the chorus understandably fed the hype beast. Thankfully the song survived the long journey and appears here — albeit in remixed form with Jay-Z’s guest verse and, more important, no longer carrying Sai-diddy’s “more than a mic” line [EDIT: the line is on the final CD version]. Just and Sai don’t surpass the volume of “Come On Baby,” but stick to their bread-and-butter combination of crushing drums and mic bombast.
Album lead-off “The Invitation” nearly swallows the nasal rasp of guest rapper Q-Tip, but Saigon steps up comfortably and rhymes breathlessly. The farthest deviation the two take is undoubtedly the synth-heavy, auto-tune feature “Believe It,” another prior release. Most of their tracks together actually push Saigon to the foreground, like on the relaxed title track where Just Blaze feeds his mentee familiar bass kicks and soul hooks. The standout is “Clap,” which feels like Saigon’s mission statement as he challenges, “Do away with the clubs and the drug spots / Do away with the judge and the mugshots.” The production is big and triumphant and Faith Evans’ damaged ad-libs on the closing bridge mirror the optimism and weariness of Saigon’s travels.
The album is rounded out by the contributions of a handful of other producers and guests, most of whom turn in less than memorable work. “It’s Alright” is a vintage Kanye West production complete with a sped-up sample (of a cover of the Carpenters’ “Superstar,” no less) and blues-based components. However, the mix gets messy at times as Marsha Ambrosius’ chorus occasionally competes with the sample and the arrangement. Devin the Dude is relegated to chorus duty on “What the Lovers Do,” so his contribution is negligible. Bun B does a good Bun B (“And the Winner Is…”) and Black Thought plays wingman on an unfortunate modern rock beat (“Too Long”), but both are relegated to the nosebleeds at the end of the album, diminishing their input. Newcomers Lamar “Mars” Edwards and DJ Corbett produce the interlude “War” and “Bring Me Down,” respectively. However, their contributions seem to only encourage the worst in keyboard histrionics and crunchy guitars. Just Blaze reportedly remixed “Bring Me Down” (hence, “Part 2” is included on the album), but the song still sounds cut from the unfortunate cloth of B.o.B’s “Airplanes” and Eminem’s “Won’t Back Down,” which not only feels disingenuous, but also late.
Given the travails of our hero, the album’s weaker points feel less like disappointments than they do points of departure. Sure, Saigon occasionally treats his hardships with the time-tested Tupac-isms of meagainsttheworld (“Bring Me Down”) and keepyourheadup/ilovesinglemoms (“It’s Alright”). And he sounds best when paired strictly with Just Blaze. However, Saigon is clearly ready to move forward and meet the world. Which raises the question: what kind of a story will he need for a follow-up?