The Return of the MCby Claire McTaggart
Just when it seemed that hip hop’s up-and-coming class of rappers was one gimmick short of a grand marketing scheme, an unlikely candidate has stepped up to reclaim the title of the emcee. At first it’s hard to imagine where Joell Ortiz, an overweight, un-jeweled, unpolished, Puerto Rican from Greenpoint might
fit into the line-up of hard-bodied rappers. But, while those dominating the SoundScans have been preoccupied with rims and chains and beef DVDs, Ortiz emerged one day and did something completely out of the ordinary: He made a solid hip-hop album.
The Brick (Bodega Chronicles)—his first studio project to materialize out of a series of mixtapes and battles—has no likable hooks, no banging beats, not even any tricky wordplay, but it just may be the album New York hip-hop-heads have been waiting for. In an era where the only visible signs of a movement to resurrect that Big Apple swagger are the “comeback” albums from vets such as Ghostface, Jigga, and Nas, Ortiz wants to prove to anyone who will listen that he is worthy of picking up the torch.
His first single, “Hip-Hop,” stumbles upon those of us caught red-handed doing the motorcycle dance, and reminds us that rap music has a deep history and still plays a powerful role in our urban communities. As if we had forgotten how, “Hip Hop” may start making people feel good about music again. With no flashy 808s or sped-up samples, Ortiz spends a moment on some real-talk, asking his listeners,
Yo do me a favor? Accidentally step on your white sunglasses. We don’t wear those over here—this is hip-hop. This is Carhart jackets, Timberland boots unlaced. This is Champion hoodies, chicken wings, and French fries, R.I.P. pieces on the handball court. This is us still fighting police brutality. This is hip-hop!
Sound vaguely familiar? When it seemed nineties rap music had become a mirage of shiny suits and special effects, it took gangsta rap to snap back to the reality of what was going on in the streets. It took KRS-One, Tupac, Nas, and every other street reporter to return hip-hop to its roots. In this sense, Ortiz stands apart from his peers as a student of history, unafraid to call someone’s bluff, but more likely to lead by example. Songs like “Brooklyn,” “Caught Up,” and “Modern Day Slavery,” which feature cameos ranging from the legendary Big Daddy Kane to political underground star Immortal Technique, returned the traps of hustling and growing up in the projects.
While writing rhymes about the ghetto is nothing novel, Ortiz offers a modern commentary that is more complex and realistic than any of the made-for-radio drug anthems glorifying the lifestyle. In “Brooklyn” Ortiz remembers,
Stash getting low, bills never over, your ass getting low, you can’t chill in the Copa. Drink after drink, and you still feel sober, the grind on your mind, you can’t think straight, but they can’t know, so you front like everything’s great.
While the lackluster wordplay may underwhelm some critics, the honesty and raw emotions that characterize Ortiz’s stories—the paranoia, the self-doubt, the hypocrisies—give him a vulnerable authenticity that is reminiscent of the late B.I.G.
The moral complexities Ortiz battles with throughout The Brick unfold like a private journal, entirely avoiding the overused formula of the “ashy-to-classy” street-hustler tributes. This is primarily because the Joell Ortiz you meet in the first song is the same character that signs out in his last bars. He never plays the victim or the pimp, the drug lord or the thug, but instead goes for exactly what he is: a Latino MC struggling to tell his side of the story for the sake of good hip-hop.
And he stays true to his all-too-human style of rhyming. Some of Ortiz’s most self-conscious, unabashed confessions about his flaws and regrets come in “125 (Finale),” the last song on the album and the fourth part in the “125 Grams” series that serves as the foundation of The Brick. In the same straightforward flow that Ortiz rhymes with throughout the album, he admits,
I’m really losing my drive to do this music. If it don’t happen after this I’m through with it. Twenty-five, still live in my mom’s crib. Two kids, ever heard the saying “so smart that you’re stupid”? That’s me, 14 and change on my SATs, and I chose the projects over college—what a fuck-up!
You won’t see Ortiz brag about drug money or get-rich schemes. Instead, he breaks down how a smart and athletic kid can end up losing control. How the son of a junkie can end up dealing the same drugs his mother was hooked on. Ortiz’s self-proclaimed “just a fan with a deal” approach to rhyming makes The Brick a refreshing return to what has been missing in hip-hop lately: accessibility. When most rappers are “making it rain” in the strip club, or “throwin’ Ds” on their Cadillacs, it’s good to know there is still room for an MC to speak directly to his community about real issues that concern it.
Lucky for Ortiz, he had a demo fall into the hands of legendary rapper/producer/label-owner Dr. Dre, who immediately signed him to Aftermath Records, which, for an underground rapper like Ortiz, just may be the hip-hop equivalent of winning the lottery. Even more surprising is that Dre liked Ortiz’s album enough to let him release it with a distribution deal from Koch records.
Part of the enchantment of The Brick that has won it both street and commercial buzz in such a short time is the unique guest list. Ortiz features tracks with an assortment of lyrically respected rappers ranging from Styles P and Ras Kass to Maino, Big Noyd, and La Bruja. The hand-selected collabos work for the most part, largely because the bulk of them, like Ortiz, are New York MCs who have made a name through the mixtape and battle circuit.
Ironically, the biggest disappointment of the album is the collaboration with Grammy-winner and pop R&B star Akon. While Ortiz and Akon both have strong ties to the hustler-turned-entrepreneur crew Block Royal, “Keep on Callin’” falls victim to the catchy–sing-song-–hook syndrome characteristic of the crossover hits and club-bangers Ortiz criticizes in the first place.
The Brick (Bodega Chronicles) is packed full of Brooklyn borough pride, neighborhood shout-outs, and references to Manhattan clubs and Block Royal members, but Ortiz pays the greatest homage to his fellow Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and Hispanics in the anthem “Latino.” The song, interspersed with Spanish slang, is an ode to all Latino culture, but more specifically his New York Puerto Rican upbringing:
The dope they sold by the Bodega, where y’all call it dope we call it the “Manteca.” We don’t look for Lotto numbers in the newspaper, we play it right over the counter by the Now-n-Laters. Sit down on milk crates and play dominoes, Capicu! Slam ’em down and tell ’em adios.
With lines like those, Ortiz embraces all aspects of his culture (delicious food, gorgeous women, guns, welfare, pregnancy, etc.) and acknowledges that while they are not all positive, there is a pride that goes along with being Latino that others should take the time to acknowledge.
While “Latino,” like “Brooklyn,” “Night in my P’s,” and “BQE,” tells the up-and-down story of growing up in a poor black and Hispanic neighborhood in project housing, it serves a deeper role by shedding light on the often-overlooked fact that Puerto Ricans and Latinos have been a vital part of hip-hop since its birth in the late seventies. It wasn’t until Big Pun took over the airwaves that proper respect was finally given to Puerto Ricans in hip-hop, but since his death there has been a void when it comes to Latinos getting airplay and major record deals.
It seems appropriate now that, as a classic Brooklyn MC and the favorite to bring back that missing New York flavor to hip-hop, Ortiz represents for both blacks and Latinos. After all, lest we forget, hip-hop started out as the voice of urban culture, of the minorities standing up to be heard, of the underdogs.
Joell Ortiz is not the world’s best or wittiest lyricist, and he does not have much in the name of witty wordplay. His flow can be repetitive, and there are
no jaw-dropping rhymes potent enough to need rewinding. He is not a young Rakim, Big L, or even Big Pun. But what he does have that trumps all else is a knowledge of where hip-hop came from and where it needs to go. He is solid and has all the fundamentals, and most importantly, the heart and soul of an MC.
There is no question that Papoose can write a witty line, that Jae Hood can rip a freestyle, or that Mims can make anything sound catchy, but when it comes down to passion and raw skills, none of them rhyme like they truly care about the integrity of hip-hop music. That alone may prove Joell Ortiz to be the most important emcee to emerge from the ’07 class, and at least the hungriest.
The Brick (Bodega Chronicles) is not an instant classic, but it’s a turn in the right direction. It’s a chance to bring hip-hop back home.
CLAIRE MCTAGGART is a writer based in Crown Heights.