Solo Albums: Mr. Scarface Is Back (1991), The World Is Yours (1993), The Diary (1994)
Group Albums: The Geto Boys (1990), We Can't Be Stopped (1991), Till Death Do Us Part (1993)
Biggest Hits: "Mr. Scarface" (1991), "A Minute to Pray and a Second to Die" (1991), "Let Me Roll" (1993), "Hand of the Dead Body" (1994), "I Seen a Man Die" (1994)
Scarface is easily one of hip-hop's most important and underrated contributors. He's an uncompromising lyricist for whom storytelling, craft, emotion, and passion seem wrapped up in a single, inseparable, and powerful package in every single verse. He's one of the most consistent rappers in history—it's a challenge to find a verse that feels less than fully considered. His rap style is the definition of "timeless." Once he'd perfected that old-before-his-time flow, where each line seemed to rise and fall as naturally as breathing, it was like the invention of the wheel. We haven't replaced it because there still isn't anything that does what it does better.
He may not have had the chart success of some of his creative peers, but his legacy, his lasting influence, will certainly rival any of theirs. Forever. His five year run from 1990-1994 is one of the best in hip-hop history.
He started out a voice of fury and bombast, a percussive delivery in the vein of Ice Cube or Chuck D. For Scarface, political concerns were only a single dimension of a much wider spectrum of questions. His artfulness was tied up in wrestling with very real questions about the human condition, about the nature of truth, death, and the inner workings of the human mind. This last factor was a central concern of much of his music, and also the basis for what remains his most well-known song, the Geto Boys' "Mind Playin Tricks On Me." This track was a perfect midpoint between the cartoonish entertainment and existential drama that made his work schizophrenic in its contradictions.
He explored perception, morality, the contradictions and struggles of poverty, and coping with a life absent easy answers. But this high-minded praise isn't intended to hide the fact that he could be as morbidly entertaining as the best mindless gangster rap. His solo debut kicks off with "Mr. Scarface," and its opening chorus finds the rapper blasting away a fiend who tries to steal his crack rocks...to the tune of "The Itsy Bitsy Spider."
This was pulp fiction of the highest, most grotesque caliber, horror-comedy films set to banging production. It wasn't long before Scarface, as a solo artist, began approaching more serious subjects, his rap style downshifting into a spoken tempo (one hesitates to describe anything so anguished as "easygoing"). The impact could draw tears. "Now I Feel Ya" is a story about coming of age, but its implications are so much bigger than its simple narrative. It uses the biographical to paint a picture that understands nostalgia works best when it's bittersweet.
Throughout the early '90s, though, the razor-sharp edge to his provocations never disappeared, and often ran up against each other. On The Geto Boys' underrated 1993 album Till Death Do Us Part—the bulk of which was produced by frequent collaborator N.O. Joe—one moment was an extended meditation on processing death ("6 Feet Deep") and the next would be morbid humor like a murder story with names of breakfast foods intertwined into the narrative ("Cereal Killer").
By 1994's The Diary—now widely considered one of Scarface's true recording peaks—it was clear he'd fully established himself as one of the genre's most significant voices. The pulpiness of his earlier work had seeped into an unblinking realism. He was at times confrontational (as on the searing "Hand of the Dead Body") and reflective (the powerful meditation on death "Never Seen a Man Cry"). The humor hadn't entirely gone, either; "Goin Down," for example, interpolated German singer Nena's "99 Luftballons" into a sly come-on. — David Drake