Album: Smoke and Mirrors
Label: Hiero Imperium
It’s been 11 years since O.C. burst onto the scene with one of the best hip-hop songs ever made: “Time’s Up, ” off his 1994 debut, the indie/underground classic, Word Life. I have yet to read a review of any of his albums, or an article written about him, without mention of that song. It serves as such a reference point that one might think it could label O.C. a one-hit wonder, or stunt his future development as an emcee. But it hasn’t. O.C. has quietly stacked up a solid hip-hop portfolio, and his new album, Smoke & Mirrors, has verified that his art has moved from man-child prodigy to mature, introspective artist.
Evident of the maturity and intellectualism O.C. brings to this album is his repeated acknowledgment of his own contradictions and hypocrisies, both part of being human. O.C. asks us to accept him for the human he is, warts and all. All good artists aren’t afraid to share their humanity; their flaws are often what make listeners identify with them, and grow with them. TSo consider this grown-up music: O.C. doesn’t need to appeal to the youth anymore; he did that, when he was a youth. While this album could appeal to any hip-hop head, it almost seems tailor-designed to those who’ve never given up on O.C., who’ve been following him since “Time’s Up, ” who’ve grown with him.
The introduction to the album, and “You Made Me, ” the first song, are akin on this musical journey to O.C. opening up the door, as O.C. sets up several of the major themes of the album: “I’d like to say I’m a walking contradiction, ” he tells us; “I’m human, so I’m a sinner; we all sinners. ” As the beat picks up, he tells us that much of this album is going to be him looking at himself, examining his personal contradictions and the battles. “You Made Me, ” challenges listeners who doubt his relevance in the current state of hip-hop, presumably those who embraced his anti-poser message in the mid-90’s and now relegate him to an old fogey. As the chorus asks “Does he fit into this time frame? ” The lyrics in between make you know the answer is an obvious yes, that he has much to offer from his personal and professional experience. We made him, now listen up.
Once in the door, O.C. starts letting the lessons drop on “Martyr ” and “My Way, ” and his rhymes start exploding as well. On “Martyr, ” O.C. rhymes “this is heavy metal head-banger / AC/DC / gangsta rock on PCP. ” While showing how much he can indeed rock it without selling out to bubblegum rap standards, he also refuses to beg for attention: “Believe or don’t / you can front if you want / won’t make em understand a frivolous point / in any case, race, color, creed / whoever’s not pleased with O.C.’s decrees eject my CDs. ” He’s only doing this for those who are willing to take this ride with him. To the rest, to those not willing to listen, just stop.
The first several songs, major chords and all, showcase the enormous talent that made O.C. a star as a young man. But then, having graced us with a show of his talent and the wisdom he has to offer, O.C. lets us in, to his doubts, to his struggles with himself, and to how he’s grown as a man. Already, toward the end of “My Way, ” he tells us “I’m like the art of noise logo / one face smiles / the other face show a frown. ” The other side, the side that frowns, takes over in the next song, “Emotions. ” This is a sad, sad song, as the narrator describes his inability to adequately address his bouts of depression. This is rare. O.C. – or the narrator of the album, indistinguishable here – talks about, among other subjects, his fear of dying early, his fear of AIDS, the cigarettes and alcohol that are killing him, how he’s a “lukewarm celebrity, ” wanting the good, easy life but not knowing whether he deserves it, and problems with his temper: “When emotions run wild / I just wanna escape the madness / and reverse the bad things I’m going through. ” Word. One of the more depressing parts of the song describes how the narrator didn’t physically abuse the love of his life, but knows he hurt her just the same, and regrets that even the mention of his name makes her sick to her stomach now. He talks about his alcohol abuse, and about driving drunk and being lucky that he didn’t drive off the road and die. The narrator here is a sad one, honest in relating his humanity, and hardly optimistic.
Despite the lack of hope the “Emotions ” inspires, it ends with the rather intriguing line “I can’t imagine what the kick feels like from a magnum. ” The end might inspire the listener to ponder if he means that he wants to end his life but feels cowardly because he can’t imagine such a fate, or whether he’s affirming his life by denying an easy, cowardly escape route. That question seems to be addressed immediately: in the next song, “Distortion, ” O.C. tells us that he’s probably bipolar, that everyone makes mistakes, and that part of being a growing into adulthood is taking responsibility and not giving up. As the chorus repeats, “God’s Kingdom O’s not ready to visit / that Kingdom I’m not ready to see. ”
“Going Nowhere ” continues the theme of self-affirmation, as O.C. again exalts his own, independent-minded approach to hip-hop, and rips those he feels are betraying his art by not working hard enough at it, not attempting to enlighten their audience, and compromising their credibility to gain popularity or cash. He doesn’t want to listen to bubblegum, silicon-implanted music. He wants to be treated like a man, and implores others to want the same. He’s been around too long to be fooled by fakers.
“Gone, ” another introspective track, could easily serve as a coda to the story of the woman he hurt, referred to in “Emotions. ” He was bad to her, she left him, and now he feels like shit. At one point in this song, he even recalls calling his mother, who only makes him feel worse by telling him he should have treated the love of his life better. This is the closest the album comes to a love song, and it’s the blues. Again, O.C. knows his audience – this is grown man’s music, music for people who loved him when he was younger and they were younger, and now have grown up and have grown-up problems. What’s more romantically tragic than a goodbye note stating “I’m glad we didn’t have no kids “? Damn. Sometimes, good blues songs are really, really good.
But after we are let inside O.C.’s doubts and regrets, the album takes a disappointing turn: O.C. seems to just boast for a while. In a way, that’s okay, there’s much O.C. can boast about – his credibility, his rhyme ability, the way he can rip up anyone who crosses him in rhyme and the trio of “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, ” “Guns and Butter, ” and “I’m Da Boss ” are all clever songs, well-produced and well-rhymed. The way the album is constructed and themed, one could just chalk the braggadocio and gangster fantasy more prominently displayed on these three songs to the “manic ” side to O.C.’s manic-depressive nature, but the introspection and self-evaluation so refreshingly displayed on the previous songs seem lacking here, and he’s not teaching lessons on these songs, either. The substance of the lyrics simply doesn’t compare with the rest of the album. That shouldn’t be such a knock: he had set the bar very high.
After the album returns to the themes of the earlier part of the album, it fails to disappoint again. “Challenge Y’All ” offers a rebuke to those who buy into the trappings industry logic, and should be successful as a lead single. O.C. tells us how he avoids the corporate trappings of the hip-hop industry, promising he’ll keep challenging us with his gifts of wit, skill, and wisdom. He argues that those who compromise to gain a foothold in the top-down (or pimp-ho, or master-slave, or master-puppet, all mentioned here) structure of hip-hop’s corporate industry will see their fortunes turn back on them, and that the way to avoid such fates is to obey the hip-hop rule of not selling out. But even that approach has its pitfalls, as beef becomes magnified and some completely observant emcees get killed. (The tragedy of Big L’s death serves as an undercurrent for much of the album.) “My Brother’s Keeper ” is essentially about the importance of keeping close friends. Both these songs offer lessons as to what’s important, and both plead the listener to be confident, but still humble and respectful.
“What I Need ” is basically about me. I’m writing this review, and O.C. doesn’t really need this. He knows this shit is hot. The song is, the intro tells us, “for the naysayers, critics, system-raiders, whatever, your magazine columns, all that other bullshit, trying to break down people’s careers. ” O.C.: in the small small small possibility that you’re reading this, I’m not trying to break your career down. You showed me that there’s a whole lot that you have to offer. Please forgive me for not liking “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, ” “Guns and Butter, ” and “I’m Da Boss ” as much as the rest of your album. If it was up to me, you’d sell platinum. So to all of you reading this – buy the album, and make it sell well.
O.C.’s maturity is also weirdly illustrated on the second-to-last track, “Shorty, ” basically a call not to have sex with underage girls. If this song wasn’t so good and so funny, it might sound out of place on the album. Interestingly, with all the references to high school girls and why you should not fuck them (and why they shouldn’t expect to sleep with him), O.C. declares near the end of the song “anything less than 25 ain’t my equal. ” Twenty-five? O.C. has set a higher standard for himself than just 18; again, he wants maturity.
The last song, “This Is Me, ” concludes the album’s theme of honesty, simply asking the listener to accept O.C. for O.C., no one else. He’s not trying to be anybody else on this offering, and he has utilized the creative control granted to him by his new label, Hiero Imperium, and the eclectic, soulful production of Mike Lowe (who produced the entire album save one track), to make Smoke & Mirrors a deeply personal album – mature, honest, introspective, independent, and banging. O.C., now a veteran, has made an album his audience can identify with, and listen to with pleasure.