Scarface: Former Geto Boy Keeps Gangsta Rap Alive

June 11 [12:00 EDT] -- The grim images in "Smile," the first single off Scarface's fourth LP The Untouchable, are straight out of the gangsta rap handbook. Scarface hosts a macabre meditation on drugs, violence and death with MCs Tupac Shakur/Makaveli (recorded before his murder, let's make that clear) and Johnny P. as guests. The track consists of the modified G-funk typical for non-L.A. gangsta rappers, and Scarface, as Houston's finest, works it like an old pro.

Scarface made his debut in the late 80s as a member of the Geto Boys, a trio out of Houston's crime-addled Fifth Ward. The group benefited from controversy that attended their distributor's bout with censorship fever. When Geffen Records balked at releasing the Geto Boys' eponymous major label debut, the group asserted their right to release nihilistic tales, pointing out Geffen's stash of non-PC acts, which then included Andrew "Dice" Clay and Guns 'n Roses. The Geto Boys won.

They returned to their indie imprint

Rap-A-Lot, and were rewarded by the huge success of "Mind's Playin' Tricks on Me," a deceptively catchy chronicle of a junkie's descent into paranoid insanity. Geto Boys became toasts of hip-hop, celebrated for bucking the system and reveling in a madcap style.

Scarface soon embarked on a solo career, which peaked in 1994 when he released The Diary. The solemn single "Never Seen a Man Cry" was Scarface's first pop hit. The Diary's conceit was the idea that the lyrics mirrored the actual journal of crime boss turned lunatic turned bluesman. The story reportedly reflected Scarface's (nee Brad Jordan) bio. As a teenager, Jordan is said to have done some small-time drug dealing, and to have spent two years in a mental ward.

As happens whenever an artist successfully trades on biographical angst, backlash ensued. Critics say Scarface's The Untouchable lacks punch. Dr. Dre's contribution of a by-the-numbers cut, "Game Over," underlines Scarface's weaknesses, they say. The song

fails to fly despite appearances by original gangstas Ice Cube and Too Short. Too glossy. Too pop.

Scarface failed to recontextualize his image -- and music-- after Tupac and Biggie Smalls' death, so he, like other gangsta rappers, faces the prospect of cliche status. However, admirers say his grave baritone is a potent vehicle for his dark ruminations throughout The Untouchable.