As hip-hop’s universe expands and shifts, we’re seeing less and less of “real hip-hop” as a clearly defined idea. The phrase still exists, popping its head up from time to time, usually when a young rapper born in the late ’90s offers a shocking opinion on an artist that they weren’t alive to experience. But the “real hip-hop” archetype has jumped into so much new skin that it’s hard to know what it even means anymore. Once, though, everyone knew. It meant something born of the streets, or something able to build a mythology around the streets and sell it without selling out. It meant The Lox.
Before last week, The Lox had only produced two proper studio albums as a group over a 22-year career. There was a label fight when they jumped off the Bad Boy ship to fold into the Ruff Ryders golden age, then a mostly unspoken hiatus, and that was it. Their 1998 Bad Boy debut, Money, Power & Respect, was a clumsy effort — too flashy, too littered with glossy Bad Boy signifiers, laced with too many slick choruses. They sounded awkward and unsure of themselves then, before finding a comfort zone in Swizz Beatz’s rugged, haunting production for 2000’s We Are the Streets on Ruff Ryders. After that, there were a handful of solo albums from each member of the trio, many of them quality efforts. There were two reunion EPs, in 2013 and 2014, that didn’t make much noise. At the end of last week, The Lox reemerged with an album called Filthy America ... It’s Beautiful, sounding just like the ’90s again. Sounding real, as if they never went silent.
On “What Else You Need to Know,” one of the early tracks on the new album, Sheek Louch raps: “Puff played me ‘The Benjamins,’ I thought it was wack / Wrote a verse next day, I brought New York back.” It’s a tone-setter more than anything, an early opportunity to express the boldness we expect from The Lox. Sheek wants to make sure we know that he, Jadakiss, and Styles P have paid more than enough dues to not give a fuck anymore. For both better and worse, this album picks up where The Lox left off. They come from an era when rappers didn’t have to choose between street adoration and chart success.
But the formula for that thin line has shifted since we last met. So, on its face, putting Fetty Wap on the hook of a Lox song seems like a good idea, or having DJ Khaled yelling on a track with Gucci Mane might appear to be logical for 2016. But both tracks, “The Agreement” and “Secure the Bag,” come off as forced, peppered with the same discomfort as some of The Lox’s early Bad Boy tracks. One has to wonder whether these moments echo back to Sheek’s revelation about “Benjamins” — if there will always be a part of the group that goes against their beliefs about what is and isn’t wack in search of something grander, be it a hit or a chance to step into the ring with newer, younger artists.
On this album, like always, The Lox are at their best when it’s just them, over heavy, haunting production. The opening track, “Omen,” is a dark trip, with backward chanting played over a sparse beat while Jadakiss calmly drops “Insane mind / Set the Bible and the flag on fire at the same time.” There’s a vintage DJ Premier appearance on “Move Forward,” replete with signature scratches and piano keys. It’s a welcome moment directly in the middle of the album, a brief time machine.
I’ve got no problem with looking backward, particularly now, when longing for a time that we imagine as better gets more appealing by the day. It’s hard to do well, though, when you’re a musical group of any genre pushing up against 20 years and rapidly shifting times. The Lox have chosen to be predictable in an unpredictable era, both musically and politically, and I applaud that, even in the few spots on the album where the songs don’t shake out the way I’d like them to. I respect The Lox refusing to bow to the times, because these times aren’t worthy of being bowed to. The title track, “Filthy America,” could have been pouring out of a car’s cracked-open windows in 1999, complete with in-track dialogue, an entire narrative beyond the raps. The song “Hard Life” boasts a Mobb Deep feature that feels less like nostalgia and more like the execution of a serious mission, less like dabbling in the past and more like dragging a new template over the present.
The Lox are still as aggressive on production as they are thoughtful, which is what separated them from the majority of both their Bad Boy and Ruff Ryders peers 15 years ago. Their roles within the group are still as defined as they always were: Sheek, the enforcer; Styles, the thoughtful street preacher; Jadakiss, the confident lyricist with the unmistakable delivery. They all provide what they can and don’t bring much else to the table. That might sound like a slight, but I think it’s how great rap groups survive: by working within their roles instead of working on top of each other.
The Lox were always the acceptable listen, even for people in the Midwest who soaked themselves in the shiny-suit era of rap and lied about what they were listening to when talking with their friends at school. They were, decidedly, real hip-hop. More than anything, they reported on the streets in a way that felt touchable and accessible, even if their streets were not your streets, even if you’d never been to New York but dared to imagine it. Even in the moments when this new album feels like it’s pandering a bit to a newer audience, it’s relentless in returning to the same flag that each of the MCs has planted for the entirety of their careers. On “Don’t You Cry,” Sheek opens with a boast: “I don’t care what your new shit did, I’m a god.” More than anything, this album feels real, like there isn’t a need for the members of The Lox, or their audience, to be anything other than what they have been.
Not enough veterans are comfortable letting their bodies of work speak for them, and I imagine that it’s difficult to navigate a musical world that’s bending toward youth even as you are bending more and more toward middle age. I am sympathetic to that, particularly as I think of my next decade and the one that will follow that. The triumph of Filthy America is a group with respect and a reputation standing on what they’ve built and doing it comfortably. I would be surprised if this album goes platinum, or even gold. I don’t think it will have the chart success that The Lox’s first two had, when rap albums doused in sharp street narratives were flying off the shelves nearly every week. But after 16 years, sometimes it’s nice to run into an old friend, in hazy times, and see that not too much has changed.