Shyne: Life And Def

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Shyne: Life And Def

During a candid phone call, Shyne explained his new sound and why Jamal Barrow had to die. He's made peace with the decision, and tells why we should too.

The views and opinions expressed in the following feature editorial are those expressly of the writer of this piece and do not necessarily reflect those of HipHopDX.

A few days ago, I was asked if I was interested in having a phone conversation with Shyne. I immediately agreed. I had never been a huge fan of the man’s music. That “diddly-whoa” song with Barrington Levy was cool, but overall dude just wasn’t my cup of tea. However, this is a business. And whether I personally liked Shyne or not, one thing remains true no matter which Web site or blog you frequent. Every time you click your mouse to play one of his tracks, read the latest news on him or give your opinion via comment, your interest helps generate revenue. Hate it or love it, this is the current state of our culture. I know that as I write this, some of you will assume Def Jam lined our pockets with a little cash to speak glowingly of their artist. If I candidly told you the reasons why that were untrue here, I would likely find myself among the unemployed tomorrow.

This is the byproduct of having a 15-minute conversation with Shyne. It’s hardly enough time to get to know someone, but more than enough time to gauge how he’s feeling about the response to the handful of songs he’s recently released. When used correctly, one of the great things about the Internet is its anonymity. Someone like “CRILLZZZZZ” can listen to “There Will Be Blood,” then hit the Comments section and say, “This shit is ass, this nigga fell the fuck off, he definitely not smarter than a 5th grader, fuckin’ trash right here.” In a format such as the Internet, you can offer your opinion up DJ Vlad style without having to suffer from the subsequent beatdown that would occur if you allegedly spoke those words to said rapper’s face.  

But let’s not dance around the issue on everyone’s mind either. Shyne, Moses Michael Leviy, Po—whatever you want to call him—sounds a hell of a lot different than he did before going to prison. And for many of us, this return was the Hip Hop equivalent of Allen Iverson in a Grizzlies jersey missing a wide-open layup on a breakaway. I’ll admit it, when a rapper is past his prime, I prefer to remember the good times, and occasionally see them carted out for the latest VH-1 “Hip Hop Honors.” That’s about it.

So let’s just get that out of the way, first. As you may have already read via Nahright, and will likely soon also hear from Miss Info, Shyne purposely made himself sound different. He doesn’t want to sound like the Jamal Barrow you heard on “Bad Boyz.”  Why?

“I hate that motherfucker,” Shyne said. “That dude almost gave my moms a heart attack.”

Which leads to the next logical question, “Is this is a calculated move to sound bad?”

No. To hear Po tell it, it’s growth. Growth is awkward. It can be particularly awkward when you get older. Imagine the embarrassment of adolescence or your toddler years magnified by the fact that everyone knows you’re a grown ass man. The byproduct of that growth may be a beautiful thing, but the process itself is another story. You want “Bonnie and Clyde,” and Shyne wants to evolve.

“I’m trying to strike the balance,” Shyne added, in reference to his new delivery. During our phone call, it was rather obvious the fire was still there. When he spoke of the people and circumstances that led to his incarceration, it was clear he could tap into the old Jamal if he wanted to. He says there were times when he thought it was necessary to do so in prison, until some older inmates taught him otherwise. Honestly, I personally think that side crept out during our conversation, but that’s not a side he wants to publicly benefit from anymore. And so we get the laid-back delivery you currently hear.

“[People] should be happy that I changed…I was monotonous and angry,” he explained. “I can’t give them that old shit. That anger you heard in the booth was really me. It was like listening to someone with Post Traumatic Stress [Disorder].”

During one of the more intense parts of the conversation, I asked Shyne why didn’t he want to keep this new version behind closed doors until he fully figured it out. I didn’t mean any disrespect, and he didn’t sound as if I had angered him. But it was mutually understood he wanted to make his point crystal clear.

I’m comfortable with mine,” he said. “I figured it out, but I’m not a communist. People want that shit, but I can’t give it to them in the old way.” So while he didn’t say it verbatim, if you know the way capitalism works, you know that he’s trapped in a sense.

He didn’t ask for his bosses, bosses boss to fly down to Belize for a dog-and-pony show and re-sign him to a deal that many of us think he was already contractually obligated to anyway. But, it happened. As for the appearances in the orphanages and juvenile centers?

“I was there for the babies man,” he said. “If I can stop another motherfucker from doing [what I did], I will.”

The current, WWE vibe of the grey area occupied by rappers whose off the mic acts are more entertaining than their on the mic rhymes has made us all skeptical to some degree. That’s what happens when seeing a rapper take another rapper’s baby mother on a shopping spree is more entertaining than the album the shopping spree is intended to promote. We have a right to be skeptical, because a lot of us have never seen Hip Hop provide a real conversion narrative yet. If you’re religious, you have St. Paul or Malcolm X. Aside from KRS-One and a few others, who does Hip Hop have, Mase? Please, miss me with that bullshit. DMX? He’s trying, and until he quits trying, I’ll give him all due credit for that. Biggie and ‘Pac made similar claims, but unfortunately, we never got to see them fully realized while they were alive.

Shyne says he can be that person, even if it’s at the risk of losing fans and record sales. It’s a crazy ambition. It’s conflicted—as evidenced by us hearing Frank White quotes from King of New York on the same song as Malcolm X’s infamous “Ballot or the Bullet” speech. The difference between a gangster and a revolutionary can often vary depending on who’s writing the biography. Shyne is comfortable as a man, but purposely forcing himself into uncomfortable territory as an emcee. And somewhere in a Manhattan office building, there’s a group of people with pie charts and spreadsheets who are scared as shit that this plan won’t work.

Hearing Po’s story reminds me of some of my own previously incarcerated relatives. You hear the grandiose ambitions via letters and phone calls from upstate, and—sometimes, if for no other reason than to justify that commissary money you sent—you hope they can be achieved. Shit, sometimes “hope” can take you a long way. Ask the man who resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. None of us know how this story is going to end. But Shyne has a few things working in his favor.

“I love making music,” Shyne explained. While that may be true, so do the garbage rappers who keep leaving links to their ReverbNation pages in DX’s Comments section. But Po has been a successful rapper before, and it’s not as if he’s forgotten how to put a 16 together. Odds are, that the man we hear now will not be the same man we hear six months or even six weeks from now. So what will the finished product sound like?

“I’m not no fucking magician,” he quipped. Musically, he knows “You gotta make that shit.” He’s got the budget, and the belief that he still has the ability to do it. He just refuses to do it the way we’re all accustomed to. He speaks of his desire to speak to G’s and create a legacy like that of Geronimo Pratt. “It’s about having character and integrity. I don’t care if I only sell one album.”

Nevermind, believing Shyne—why should you even give three minutes of your time to hear why he’s doing what he’s doing? I can’t answer that, but I will speak for myself. I’ve been immersed in this culture for 20 years, and I’ve been getting paid to document it for a nice portion of that time. There is a seemingly endless list of rappers who command more respect in front of a microphone than they ever will outside of a booth as human beings. Occasionally, you’ll find some who you can say the opposite about. If Shyne’s rationale does that for you, then you have your answer.

The views and opinions expressed in the following feature editorial are those expressly of the writer of this piece and do not necessarily reflect those of HipHopDX.

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