There's never a good time to go to jail, but for Philadelphia's Cassidy, legal jeopardy — murder, attempted murder and weapons charges — arrived at the worst possible point for his career: just before the release of his sophomore album, I'm a Hustla, which came out Tuesday.
Cass' title track — a song originally meant for mixtapes that became so huge on the streets it was issued to radio — has been one of the biggest records in rap this year. More importantly, it proved to his doubters that he was not going soft. Think of a slightly more refined "Grindin' " when you think of "I'm a Hustla." The drums are so rigid it sounds like the record's producer, Swizz Beatz, had a whole African tribe in the studio pounding away all night. And the lyrics are so unapologetically immersed in the ghetto's sludge that the record's ability to compete with the soft radio fluff that's been so omnipresent is testament to Cass' appeal. It also proves he doesn't need R. Kelly singing on the hook to give him his biggest hit record.
Let's not forget that despite getting heavy spins, Cassidy is by no means a commercial MC. His roots are in battle rapping, and on I'm a Hustla, he comes out swinging, almost like a pugilist who has a reputation for knocking heads off but barely won his last fight, getting the duke by a split decision.
Cassidy has heard all the criticism about how his debut, Split Personality, despite going gold, was a disappointment to his core fans because he had too many songs for the ladies, or how his newly gained fans found the album's theme of different personas making up one individual nonsensical.
So after listening to the criticism, Cass and Swizz Beatz took it all the way back to the basics. Cassidy unleashes his trouncing lyrical tyranny on the mic, and Swizz makes sure the beats stay jagged (Swizz produced about half the album, calling on a bunch of bright new producers like Neo the Matrix, Needlz and Drop for the rest).
I'm a Hustla starts with Cass snubbing his competition and actually setting up a battle with himself. It's a main event not even Vince McMahon in all his genius could set up: Cassidy the Problem (his original nickname) versus Cassidy the Hustla (his new persona).
No holds are barred as both the Problem and the Hustla try to lyrically strangle each other. Think "Superman III," when old blue tights and Clark Kent went at it.
"I'm the man, you's a bitch in a man's body," the Hustla taunts. "You's disgrace, who wrote your sh--, Mase?/ You album wasn't nothing like that sh-- on the mixtape/ Then you went commercial for a couple of sales/ That's what you got, a couple of sales/ And you probably wouldn't have never sold those if it wasn't for Kells."
"Where's your strip at?/ You ain't hustling, n---a," the Problem retorts. "That track would have been wack if it wasn't for Jigga/ I went gold, but get money on the road."
"A.M. to the P.M." and "Get 'Em" are another two records that have Cassidy attacking the microphone like a pit bull gnawing on the neck of its lifeless opponent at the end of a cockfight. "My sh-- is truth, I step in the booth, start spitting like I'm missing a tooth," he raps on the latter.
The lady listeners who were willing to take Cass up on his offer of using one of his hotel-room keys last year still get their sexy records, like "Kick It Wit You" with Mario and "So Long" featuring Mashonda and Wu-Tang's Raekwon the Chef. But Cassidy's best collaborations have him in three-man tag teams: "Can't Fade Me," with Nas and Virginian MC Quan, and "6 Minutes," with Lil' Wayne and Fabolous. The MCs rhyme with so much fury, there is no room for a hook.
I'm a Hustla's most surprising record (and, in the wake of recent events, its most ironic) is "The Message," which features Dr. Benjamin Chavis Muhammad, president and CEO of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network. It finds the 23-year-old Cassidy calling for black people to unite, suggesting that their unity can be so strong and powerful, it can lead to some changes in the Constitution.
"It's a real bad time for black celebrities, they locking everybody up," a voice says right before the music starts. Cassidy comes in with his own thoughts about his peers. "My profession is going through oppression/ That's why I'm so stressed and I'm gonna fight for y'all .../ I ain't Farrakhan, but I got knowledge and I'm sharing mine."
Like his fellow Philadelphian lyricist, Beanie Sigel, Cassidy found himself incarcerated on the day of his album's release. Unlike Sigel, Cassidy doesn't know if he'll ever see the outside world again (see "Cassidy Denied Bail, Booked Into Medium-Security Prison"). If I'm a Hustla isn't Cassidy's last stand, he's proven that he is more than capable of being one of hip-hop's future greats.