I don't know what years currently comprise the mythical “Golden Age” of hip hop, and I'm sure perception will change as years pass, 1990-1995 distinctly seem like plateau years, and 1994 could make a case as the greatest.* Illmatic and Ready to Die were cultural touchstones. DJ Premier did some of his best work on Hard to Earn and The Sun Rises in the East. Southernplayalisticadillacmusik and Stress: The Extinction Agenda were products of great groups taking off and hitting their stride. Amidst these standouts and many others, O.C.'s Word...Life came in under the radar. Just another New York boom-bap album in an era full of them, right?
Here’s some credentials: born Omar Credle in Brooklyn, O.C. was (and still is) a member of the hyper-talented Digging in the Crates crew. Most of the album's production was handled by D.I.T.C. producer Buckwild. Organized Konfusion, Ogee, and Lord Finesse produced the rest of the tracks, and the production is excellent, hard-hitting at times, with jazz influences throughout. At the least, this sounds like the instrumentals would be enjoyable.
Lyrically, though, the aim is a little higher–think Nas on Illmatic. Most of "Word...Life" maintains that quality. In fact, many comparisons between the rappers can be made. Nas and O.C. were born a year apart, and both made fire-breathing cameos in 1991.** On their respective debut albums, both rappers almost completely eschewed guests and rapped so urgently that they suggested throwing the mic to someone famous on a bunch of songs didn't signify that you'd made it big–it meant you couldn't handle the weight of an album on your own.*** Said urgency meant no time to waste–no tracks for the ladies or the club can be found on Illmatic or Word...Life. As O.C. stated, “Get your ears ready for creative control/’cause no one’s gonna tell me how to sell out my soul.” Both project the authority of conviction in vivid, you-are-there accounts of life in the boroughs that often morphed into story time or visits into their head space. But, while Nas often assumed a dispassionate reporter's voice when describing events, O.C. reacted with how they made him feel.
On “Born 2 Live,” a nostalgia for a childhood filled with neighborhood friends, sports, and cartoons comes through in the warmth of Buckwild's subtle piano and tambourine beat and O.C.'s lyrics. Death "didn't seem important or serious/it just seemed curious" until a friend is killed by a car:
“He just received an award for Little League baseball like an hour before/Plus he
didn't even get to see the summer set in/Dying all young at the age of seven/It
opened up my eyes small that the flesh was weak/As a kid, thinking shit like that
was mad deep”
In the last verse, O.C. gives a sobering eulogy to the friend he lost to the streets, admitting that his man knew the consequences for his actions while pondering that “life's so damn short and I wonder why.”
“Constables” is a more visceral emotional response, with a lot of anger directed at the NYPD for racial profiling. Organized Konfusion's low-end piano and kicking drums set an ominous tone as O.C. spits, “I make wax/I pay tax/I don't show cracks" but is nevertheless harassed. At first, he laughs it off, knowing just by being young and black that he's a target. Later, though, he panics and runs, yelling, “You won't in asphyxiate me in a chokehold/death mockin’ me.” He ends by castigating corrupt cops of all races and tells the department to clean house, while admitting that not all cops are racist. It's the shades of gray and subtlety, even amidst justified anger, that lend O.C. strength as a talented everyman who just happens to rap, and “everyman” is not condescension–he simply eschews an outsized persona and fosters relatability.
“Let it Slide” deals with maturity borne out of necessity. After a physical confrontation, O.C. is glad that he used his fists instead of a gun. Then, he realizes, "in a conflict I flip/turn into an unstable human being." Getting rid of the gun wasn't the root of the problem–using violence to solve disputes was. From then on, O.C. uses a glare or ignores aggressors in order to keep situations from escalating.
Word...Life has its share of battle rhymes as well, with “O-Zone,” “Point o Viewz,” and the title track showing off O.C.’s cipher chops. But the album is (rightfully) known for “Time’s Up,” on my short list for best rap song ever. It is both a singular indictment of posturing, money-hungry rappers and a manifesto for rapping for rap’s sake.
The beat is a hard, spare canvas spattered with a thousand shades of gray and black. Buckwild pulls a massive mixture of bass, cymbals, drums, and guitar tweaks together to form a rumbling track that stutters as if steeling itself before O.C. begins. The beat has to give in to keep up, because O.C. blasts out a massive exhalation and adds color to the proceedings:
You lack the minerals and vitamins, irons and the niacin
Fuck who that I offend, rappers sit back I'm bout to begin
’Bout foul talk you squawk, never even walked the walk
More or less destined to get tested, never been arrested
My album will manifest many things that I saw, did, or heard about
Or told first hand, never word of mouth
And it goes on from there. O.C. begins the second verse with another barrage criticizing those who write about “stuff they fantasized” as truth. The defiant, pride-filled “Of course we gotta pay rent, so money connects/but I'd rather be broke and have a whole lot of respect” puts the means before the end, which is all too rare; he continues:“It’s the principle of it/I get a rush when I bust some dope lines oral/that maybe somebody’ll quote.” There's no third verse because, well, what more is there to say?
Word...Life is a quintessentially slept-on album, and yet the risks taken and “creative control” exhibited by O.C. should ensure it a spot in the canon.
*Yes, I know--excluding Tical, there were no Wu-Tang Clan, De La Soul, or A Tribe Called Quest releases. And they owned the early 1990s. But still.
**Nas' was at age 17 on classic head-nodder “Live at the Barbeque.” O.C’s was on Organized Konfusion’s hilarious, rollicking “Fudge Pudge.”
***Things have changed.
Born 2 Live:
[audio:http://www.fifthelementonline.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/04-Born-2-Live.mp3|titles=04 Born 2 Live]
Written By Evan Hawkins