Hip-hop makes peculiar bedfellows.
It’s hard to think of a group that falls less squarely in the tradition of carefree gangsta rap than Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, the Cleveland quintet known for its earnest morality plays and brisk cadences—these guys sound for all the world like dancehall toasters. (They'll be at the Cabooze on Friday night.) Layzie Bone is slightly more adenoidal than the rest, Krayzie Bone has slightly more gravitas, but in their stutter-rapping they can be difficult to tell apart and that’s a big part of their appeal.
Turning 24 next week is Bone’s masterpiece of miserablism: E.1999 Eternal. Other than “Tha Crossroads,” an oneiristic memorial of friends departed (including Bone’s unlikely benefactor, Eazy-E), and “1st of tha Month,” a jocular homage to life on the dole, this album is bleaker than the Cavaliers’ short-term prospects.
Stultified by shame, sorrow, and boredom—there’s no glamour in hustling—Bone finds it impossible to wiggle free from the telepathic grip of the streets, where one day bleeds imperceptibly into the next. It sounds sad because it is. And yet E. 1999 Eternal sold like gangbusters in spite of itself.
What makes Eternal so special? Save for a small but rapt contingent of true believers reared in the church, hip-hop was quite agnostic in 1995; exhortations to prayer were uncommon. No rap group had ever thought to communicate the misery of its circumstances through congregational singing. Certainly, no group had ever harmonized in such perfect sync.
Eternal did as much to redeem Eazy-E as it did to elevate Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. Whether or not Eazy committed all of the villainy attributed to him, he was held largely responsible for N.W.A’s shambolic demise (Ice Cube took him to the woodshed on Death Certificate, as did Dr. Dre on The Chronic). Eazy was the temperamental opposite of Bone: a mischievous shit-stirrer with a deliberate rapping style. Yet Bone was Eazy’s parting gift before he succumbed to AIDS at age 30, and his redemption. If anything he was a better label head than he was a rapper.
Bone, like N.W.A., disintegrated much too soon—a consequence of the usual infighting and, in Flesh-n-Bone’s case, legal trouble. The group has tried to rebuild, but recent albums have been hobbled by truancy: E.1999 Eternal was successful because of the charged interplay between four or five dueling MCs, so when only a few members are present, that’s a problem. And where are DJ U-Neek’s sludgy, imposing basslines when you need them? Eternal wouldn’t have been nearly so powerful without U-Neek.
Bone’s largest contribution was the triple-time flow that later generations would so lucratively seize on; for that reason alone, the group deserves better than to be relegated to the ash heap of history. Migos and Creek Boyz, to name just two examples, are not being truthful if they don’t readily acknowledge that Bone taught them everything they know.
Whatever the case, E. 1999 Eternal shouldn’t be missed. It’s not an Eazy listen, but it is one of hip-hop’s deepest felt visions of life in Rust Belt purgatory.
With: Red Poets Society, Shredders
Where: Cabooze Outdoor Plaza
When: 6:30 p.m. Friday, July 19
Tickets: 18+; $30/$35; more info here