This is part of Complex's The 1996 Project: Looking Back at the Year Hip-Hop Embraced Success.
Twenty years of retrospect is a pretty good place from which to assess art. Sometimes, buildings that looked bananas when they were built have a way of settling into their surrounding neighborhoods in a very complimentary way. Other times, buildings that look super-cool and bold and modern wind up looking like a wack cartoon of futurism, sticking out like a silly sore thumb amongst their surroundings. Books, movies, TV shows, you name it: 20 years in the rear-view lets us balance our memories of that first ephemeral impression, that thrill or dismay of jolting novelty, against what we can better see from a wider, zoomed-out macro-scope: the affect of contemporary stylistic trends, staying power, shelf-life, etc., a work of art’s place in history.
In that light, with 20 years having passed since Houston rap trio the Geto Boys released their fifth album, 1996’s The Resurrection, I would like to propose an argument that I’ve been stewing with for a while now: that The Resurrection is the Houston group’s greatest achievement, that it is the greatest achievement of group-leader Scarface’s near-30-year musical career, that it is the most underrated album in rap music history. It’s a Rushmore-status type album for me, perhaps the rap album that I’ve listened to more than any other (Strictly Business? The Low End Theory? The Chronic? The Infamous? Cuban Linx…? Aquemeni?), and it epitomizes the power and meaning and ugly/beautiful emotion there is to find in the (fairly dominant) subgenre know as “gangsta rap.”
The Resurrection is the Houston group’s greatest achievement.
For some reason, probably having to do with the aforementioned matter of perspective, it was hard to reckon the greatness of The Resurrection when it came out. Nationally, rap music was still very much in its post-Chronic moment, with Death Row running the show, and music full of G-funk production hallmarks—live instrumentation; slinky, sinister worm synths; big, round, rubber-band bass lines; drum patterns that conjured a slow roll down the strip in a convertible rather than a ride uptown in a cramped, claustrophobic subway car—had been coming out of cities all over the country, cities never before known for rap. Atlanta, New Orleans, Chicago, Detroit. It was six months before Tupac died.
In New York, where I lived, the sound on the street was Wu-Tang, more than anything else. And Biggie, of course, with grumblings about the concessions Puffy was making to get him pop radio play. Frankly, we were a little bitter. It seems clearer in hindsight. We missed our hegemonic claustrophobia.
So maybe this was part of the problem: Musically, The Resurrection sounds enough like a lot of other albums that sound enough like The Chronic for it to be prematurely, and mistakenly, dismissed as run-of-the-mill, one-of-the-many. Whatever the reason, it didn’t make a major splash, at least not in New York, at least not as major a splash as it should have.
Because it’s better than all the other wanna-be Chronics. (I’ll refrain here from saying that The Resurrection is better than The Chronic itself. Though on the odd day, lost in reverie, listening to the simmering magnificence of “Geto Boys and Girls,” a finer piece of storytelling than anything Dre has ever created, I find myself thinking, “Might it be?”) Why is it better? Well, there’s never a definitive answer to that question is there? Lots of people might just think, “It’s not.” But Scarface was on a particularly potent creative run during the time of its recording: He was coming off a solo album, The Diary, that had expanded the breadth and depth of his writing and solidified his partnership with two producers, N.O. Joe and Mike Dean, who shared his taste in down-and-dirty rock and funk. To my ears, The Resurrection is the album whereupon Dean’s guitar playing, or his usage of it in creating soundscape, fully came into its own. I’ve come to think that it’s that guitar—some of the nastiest, most stinging blues guitar ever put to a rap record—that really makes the album so special. (Dean would go on to more achievements in production, of course. His work over the past 10 years with Kanye West has elevated him to international fame, and anyone who saw the masterpiece theater that was the Yeezus tour knows how central his guitar playing has become to large-scale arena rap’s current sound.)
The album was made primarily under Scarface’s direction. (As he says at the end of “Still,” the first song, “Geto Boys 1996, till the year 2000-and-forever. And the shit don’t stop till I say it’s over with, motherfucker.”) But, importantly, it marked a reunion with Willie D, the Northside Houston rapper who had left the group in 1991, after their biggest hit, “Mind Playing Tricks on Me,” had propelled their third album, We Can’t Be Stopped, to a million in sales. Willie is a trained boxer, a state Golden Gloves champion as a teenager, and you can hear it in the style of his rhymes—bobbing, weaving, patient, but always on the attack. He’s one of the great rap pugilists to ever pick up a mic.
As ’Face put it, discussing the reunion in his book, Diary of a Madman, “The news energized me…. I always liked how Willie and me bounced off each other on record. We really brought two different identities to the studio. We had great chemistry.”
To hear how the interplay brings out the best in them both, check out the transition in the middle of the song “Open Minded.”
“It ain’t no love for my opposition,” ’Face says, getting ready to end his verse with a brutal exclamation point. “Because they’re opposition/I knock their monkey ass up out position!”
The drums snap and slam, synths hum like ghosts, the pounding piano signature fades into an eerie three-second silence, and then Willie:
“He wanted drama so I gave it to him/A blood puddle on his way to the gutter was my rebuttal….”
Together, as a one-two punch, these two voices are simply as hard as rap has ever gotten.
But like much of the best gangsta rap, The Resurrection fleshes out its anger and rage, its revolting preoccupation with violence, with illuminating sociopolitical analysis. The album is anchored by three clips of a recorded phone conversation with Larry Hoover, the leader of Chicago’s notorious Gangster Disciples street gang, who has been incarcerated since 1973. Hoover, who changed the name of his organization to “Growth & Development” in the ’80s, talks about the United States government’s history of oppressing the black community and encourages contemporary “gangsters” to shift direction towards political organization. “I’m telling these young boys to put them guns down and pick up that ballot,” he says. “You know, you can kill as many niggas as you want as long as you don’t go to the polls. But if you go to the polls, they snatch you off the streets….”
That’s the message—that black nihilism is an inevitable result of the American project—that demands to be heard, and the one that ends this terrific album on a desperate, powerful note called “Point of No Return.” Having detailed eyewitness accounts of police brutality and the systemic lure of the drug trade and the corrupting influence of capitalism on the poor, Scarface concludes, “And then you wonder what we’ve learned while we’ve been trapped here?/We figured out how to adapt here….”
In 2016, 151 years after the abolishment of slavery, in a country that remains aboil following the state-sanctioned deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and so many others, this album, which starts with a song called “Still,” sounds stronger, and more trenchant and relevant, than ever. As does its final couplet, which Willie D delivers in his booming baritone. “I’m the type of nigga throw a party when the flag burns,” he says. “I’m at the point of no return…”
Want more from The 1996 Project? Visit the links below.
"The 1996 Project: Looking Back at the Year Hip-Hop Embraced Success"
"Now Watch Mama: Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown, and the Rise of the Female MC"
"The Best Rap Songs of 1996"