Steve Harvey and Cedric The Entertainer
390649 13: Cedric The Entertainer (left) and Steve Harvey during the First Annual BET Awards June 19, 2001 in Las Vegas, NV.
Frederick M. Brown

How The WB Became A Hub For Black Entertainment In The '90s

In celebration of The WB's 25th anniversary, VIBE looks back at network's classic shows and its impact on black television.

Seeing a television show with a predominantly black cast may not cause much of an uproar in 2020, but 30 years ago, any advancement in our representation on-screen was cause for celebration. Sure, the previous two decades had given us a handful of classic sitcoms - The Jeffersons, Good Times, Sanford & Son, 227, The Cosby Show, and A Different World among them - geared toward a black audience, but 1990 marked the beginning of a period during which Tinseltown would open the flood-gates. Television behemoths like ABC (Family Matters, Hangin' with Mr. Cooper) and NBC (The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) continued to tap into the urban market, which, by then, had become a jackpot for ratings, prompting other networks to follow suit by shifting their own programming. FOX, in particular, had turned itself into a serious competitor in short order. Launched in 1986, the network quickly emerged as a favorite among the 18 to 40 demographic, with groundbreaking programs like In Living Color, Martin, Living Single, New York Undercover, Roc, and The Sinbad Show all making their debut during the early '90s.

This renaissance reached a fever pitch when The WB, which would become a central hub for black entertainment on the small screen, was launched on January 11, 1995. A joint venture between Warner Bros. Entertainment and Tribune Broadcasting, the formation of The WB Television Network was first announced in 1993, amid deregulation of media ownership rules. Taking a page out of FOX's book, The WB braintrust included a number of the network's former executives, most noticeably FOX's original President Jamie Kellner, and Programming Chief Garth Ancier, both of whom served at the helm during the networks launch. While the major networks often presented sterile images of black households and characters that were meant to be relatable to mainstream audiences, only FOX had tapped into the energy and aesthetic surrounding hip-hop, which had become a driving force in pop culture at that point. The WB would help fill that void in a big way with programming that not only reflected the vibe of the streets, but embraced the art of the music and the artists that made it.

This was evident from the network's launch, with the debut episode of The Wayans Bros. immediately setting the tone for what was to come. The first program to ever air on The WB, The Wayans Bros. starred brothers Shawn and Marlon Wayans, the younger siblings of actors/comedians Keenan Ivory Wayans and Damon Wayans. Following stints on the final seasons of In Living Color, as well as roles in various films and television shows, respectively, Shawn and Marlon were tapped by The WB  to create and star in their own sitcom, giving the duo creative license to bring their vision to life. Set in Harlem, New York, The Wayans Bros. centered around the lives of Shawn and Marlon Williams, two brothers striving to realize their dreams while toiling away at their respective jobs. Boasting a cast that included John Witherspoon (John "Pops" Williams), Anna Maria Horsford (Deirdre "Dee" Baxter), Lela Rochon (Lisa Saunders), Paula Jai Parker (Monique), Jill Tasker (Lou Malino) and other recurring characters, The Wayans Bros. gave The WB a credible sitcom to build its legs on, with Shawn and Marlon's cache among young black viewers drawing eyes to the network.

Avid fans of rap music and products of hip-hop culture, the Wayans' made sure to make their affinity for the five elements known from the jump, with their decision to use the instrumental from A Tribe Called Quest's 1993 single "Electric Relaxation" as the opening theme song and the graffiti-inspired logo for the show serving as two blatant indicators of this love affair. Sporting the trendiest brands of the time and infusing popular street slang into their dialogue, Shawn and Marlon presented an authentic, albeit humorous, glimpse of young black men that wore baggy jeans instead of slacks and were from the hood, but came from a two-parent home and were far from criminal-minded. Airing 13 episodes during its debut season, the breakout success of The Wayans Bros. resulted in the show being renewed for a second season, helping solidify the duo as viable comedic talents while establishing The WB as a force to be reckoned with.

On January 18, 1995, the week following the debut of The Wayans Bros. The WB aired the first episode of The Parent 'Hood, a family-friendly sitcom in the mold of The Cosby Show. Created by and starring actor/director/comedian/writer Robert Townsend, The Parent 'Hood centered around the growing pains of an upwardly mobile black family based in Harlem, New York. Townsend plays a college professor (Robert Peterson), a hands-on dad and strict disciplinarian, opposite Suzzanne Douglas (Geraldine "Jerri" Peterson), the family matriarch pursuing a law degree. Other cast members included Reagan Gomez-Preston (Zaria Peterson), Kenny Blank (Michael Peterson), Faizon Love (Wendell Wilcox), Curtis Williams (Nicholas Peterson), and Ashli Amari Adams (Cecilia "CeCe" Peterson). In addition to traditional sitcom tropes about family values and morals, The Parent 'Hood also tackled serious issues like domestic abuse, peer pressure, teenage pregnancy, and gang violence, giving the show additional depth and garnering rave reviews from critics.

The Wayans Bros., The Parent 'Hood, and Unhappily Ever After - another sitcom that debuted on The WB as part of its initial roll-out - all saw immediate success and were green-lit for second seasons. But Muscle, a short-lived parody sitcom that was also a part of The WB's original Wednesday night lineup, was cancelled due to low ratings. Looking to fill the time slot, The WB picked up Sister, Sister, a fictional sitcom about reunited twin sisters who were separated at birth, that was cancelled by ABC the previous year. Starring Tia (Tia Andrea Landry) and Tamera (Tamera Ann Campbell) Mowry, with a supporting cast comprised of Jackée Harry (Lisa Landry Sims), Tim Reid (Raymond Earl "Ray" Campbell), and Marques Houston (Roger Evans), the show aired on The WB for its final four seasons, becoming one of the most popular shows on the network and catapulting the Mowry family to stardom. Around this time, The WB unveiled the First Time Out, the network's answer to FOX's Living Single and infiltration of the Latino market, which had a brief shelf life before being cancelled mid-season, but remains noteworthy within the Latin community.

As The WB continued to expand for the 1996-1997 television season, the network introduced additional programming with the debuts of The Steve Harvey Show and The Jamie Foxx Show. Created by Winifred Hervey and directed by Stan Lathan, The Steve Harvey Show cast comedian Steve Harvey in a starring role as Steve Hightower, a former music legend-turned-music teacher who plays an active part in his students’ lives while balancing his own love life. Playing alongside Cedric the Entertainer (Cedric Jackie Robinson), Wendy Raquel Robinson (Principal Regina Grier-Maddox), Terri J. Vaughn (Lovita Alizé Jenkins-Robinson), the late Merlin Santana (Romeo Santana), William Lee Scott (Stanley "Bullethead" Kuznocki) and others, Steve Harvey's performance helped turn him into a household name on the national stage and remains one of the definitive roles of his career. Standout showings during his time as a cast member on In Living Color and in recurring appearances on the FOX sitcom Roc aside, Jamie Foxx was still building his reputation as a comedic actor when the first episode of The Jamie Foxx Show premiered on The WB on August 28, 1996. Starring as Jamie King, an aspiring musician from Texas who works in his aunt and uncle's hotel, The Kings Tower, while pursuing his career, Foxx's star rose rapidly during the show's five-season run, as did that of castmates Garcelle Beauvais (Francesca "Fancy" Monroe), Christopher B. Duncan (Braxton P. Hartnabrig), Ellia English (Aunt Helen King), and Garrett Morris (Uncle Junior King), all of whom scored various roles in television and film in the subsequent years.

In addition to sitcoms, The WB also introduced animated content for children via the Kids' WB program block, which was introduced in September 1995. While largely comprised of popular Warner Bros. cartoons, Kids' WB also featured original series like Freakazoid!, Earthworm Jim, and Waynehead, the latter of which would prove to be highly influential. Created by comedian Damon Wayans, Waynehead, which is based on Wayans' own childhood, centers around Damien "Damey" Wayne, an inner-city kid with a club foot and a gang of friends. Featuring a voice cast including Orlando Brown (Damey Wayne), Tico Wells (Marvin), Jamil Walker Smith (Mo' Money), T'Keyah Crystal Keymáh (Roz), Shawn Wayans (Toof), and Marlon Wayans (Blue), Waynehead would only run for 13 episodes prior to being cancelled, but is remembered for its plot and giving kids from the projects and inner-city characters and scenarios that reflected their reality and has become a cult classic with the passage of time.

As the latter half of the '90s progressed, The WB became entrenched as one of the go-to hubs for black entertainment, with its slate of shows moving the needle and presenting viewers with stories and environments familiar to their own. Soon, after the initial run of shows, The WB would add additional shows with black leads to round out its programming block, picking up the NBC sitcom For Your Love, starring Holly Robinson Peete and James Lesure. However, when the network’s expansion into the teen market yielded huge returns in terms of ratings, hit shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dawson's Creek, Charmed, 7th Heaven, and Roswell began to become the priority. This change, along with competing networks like UPN doubling down on The WB's formula and cornering the urban market, would help result in the eventual demise of The WB's flagship shows. The first show to bite the dust would be The Wayans Bros., which aired its final episode on May 20, 1999, after a five-season run. Just days later, on May 23, 1999, Sister, Sister would follow suit after four seasons on the network, with The Parent 'Hood being the next to go just months later. The Jamie Foxx Show would last five seasons before bowing out at the top of 2001, while The Steve Harvey Show held on the longest, surviving until the following year after six seasons, making it the longest running show with a black lead in the network's history.

Aside from the animated series Static Shock and the short-lived, Anthony Anderson-helmed sitcom All About the Andersons, The WB placed its focus squarely on teen dramas and sitcoms with Caucasian leads, with shows like Everwood, Felicity, One Tree Hill, Smallville, and Gilmore Girls all gaining traction. However, after the teen-boom of the late '90s and early aughts faded out, ratings for The WB declined, prompting CBS Corporation and Warner Bros. Entertainment to shut down the network in 2006 and jointly launch The CW later that same year. Officially shutting down on September 17, 2006, The WB's most popular programs would be moved to The CW the next day, marking the end of an era. Outlasting fierce competitor UPN, which shut down two days prior and would also have select programs moved to The CW upon its launch, The WB remains near and dear to the hearts of multiple generations of black television viewers and produced some of the most beloved sitcoms of its time. As shows like The Wayans Bros., The Jamie Foxx Show, and The Steve Harvey Show continue to live on via syndication, DVD, streaming services and YouTube clips a quarter century later, The WB's legacy as a major conduit in helping bring black entertainment to the forefront is iron-clad.

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Jay Electronica backstage at Brooklyn Bowl on May 31, 2018 in New York City.
Johnny Nunez

The Curious Case Of Jay Electronica

A year before Jay Electronica’s momentous 2010 Roc Nation signing, the hoopla surrounding his mystique was nearly deafening, but online music junkies, tastemakers and refined rap connoisseurs had already been intrigued by his persona and music for some time. His grand introduction came by way of Act 1: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge), a 2007 Myspace release spanning 15 minutes over the course of one track. As if the novelty of rapping over drum free selections from Jon Brion’s film score of the same title wasn’t startling enough, listeners found heavy cosigns from Erykah Badu and Just Blaze that stressed this arrival as that of a pivotal juggernaut.

The greatest press release a mildly buzzing rapper could ask for at the time, voicemails from Roc-A-Fella’s production mastermind and Jay Electronica’s one-time romantic interest made him seem larger than life, with a mind greater than anything we had previously been exposed to. Contextualizing him as a pure-hearted artist capable of becoming a savior figure, it felt like we were being introduced to an extraterrestrial superhuman from Marvel’s cinematic universe. Left with the impression that we were lucky to even know about him via their reflections, this rollout was an organic dash of marketing genius that set the upstart’s career in motion before Twitter and other technological resources advanced hip-hop careers.

Though Jay Electronica went over a decade without releasing a full-length body of work until his recent formal debut A Written Testimony, invested fans were fortunate enough to discover older material through unofficial compilations found on blogs and file-sharing services. Many of his earliest musical visions were demo quality recordings that appeared to be unfinished though sporadically impressive, considering his performances were accentuated by production from Detroit guru Denaun Porter on top of hand-chosen recognizable beats from the late J. Dilla. Paying clear homage to the likes of Jay Z, Notorious B.I.G. and Nas, Jay Elec’s command of the microphone was enough for many to believe that his novelty would manifest into something special once he settled into a groove.

With the help of his well-established benefactor Just Blaze, the two years following Act 1: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge)  made Jay Electronica one of the more widely touted and anticipated emcees since Canibus a decade prior. A deep dive into his earliest music uncovers a bit of untapped potential, but much of the work was haphazard and conceptually aimless until the earth-shattering “Exhibit A.” Initially released in conjunction with Guitar Center, the song felt like an apocalyptic harbinger that validated the praise that had been heaped upon the newcomer.

Dark and futuristic in nature, familiar followers were elated as this was a fully-realized production with improved audio quality. The song’s remix featured a latter-day Mos Def who was still sharp as ever, this collaboration bringing Jay even closer to acceptance and a place at the table with rap’s elite Jedi fold.

October 27, 2009, started the fateful chain of events that elevated Jay Electronica’s myth beyond reasonable expectations. Just Blaze premiered “Exhibit C” on Shade 45 and while it wasn’t a far stretch from the producer’s trademark sound (a classic soul loop accompanied by hyperactive drum patterns i.e. Jay-Z’s “Hovi Baby” and “Show Me What You Got”), it caught instant wildfire. Released as social media was beginning to sprout wings, the song became a moment forever etched in hip-hop’s ethos, setting a new standard and perhaps unfairly redefining how he’s been received since. Looking back, this was a perfect storm moment where preparation met opportunity, as the hook free barrage of upper echelon quasi-autobiographical rhymes (complete with mentions of encouragement from Nas and Diddy) sparked a frenzy in traditionalists already aggravated by autotune and Drake’s fusing the genre with R&B.

At a moment when the fervor surrounding him being spiked and hit a feverish peak, Jay Electronica’s next steps (or lack thereof) would throw his audience for a confounding loop while holding them entranced in the palm of his hand. Accustomed to a business model where record labels rush to capitalize on hot names and mold new stars out of clay, it became evident this was a one of a kind nomadic enigma who moved at his own pace. Unlike storied names such as Kid Hood, whose untimely passing came after impressing the world on A Tribe Called Quest’s “Scenario” remix, Jay Elec engaged the world in a tug of war between frustration and excitement making brief cameo appearances on songs or dropping a song intermittently before disappearing again. The past decade also found him in a short-lived love affair with an heiress to the UK’s upper-class Rothschild family, only adding to the culture’s confusion surrounding his mystique and every move.

Album done .

— J A Y E L E C T R O N I C A (@JayElectronica) February 7, 2020

“...my debut album featuring Hov man this is highway robbery”

— J A Y E L E C T R O N I C A (@JayElectronica) February 7, 2020

Recorded over 40 days and 40 nights, starting from Dec 26

— J A Y E L E C T R O N I C A (@JayElectronica) February 7, 2020

Releasing in 40 days

— J A Y E L E C T R O N I C A (@JayElectronica) February 7, 2020

Salivation and hunger for a full-length Jay Electronica project would spawn eventual restlessness and doubt, with his backstory remaining largely untold short of going down intricate internet rabbit holes and taking context clues from his music. Attention to detail uncovers his roots in New Orleans, residencies including Detroit, Philadelphia, New York and his steadfast devotion as a practicing follower under Louis Farrakhan’s Nation Of Islam, but the question remained: Would we ever be introduced to his fully fleshed-out visions, grounding philosophies and principles the way legends like Nas and Jay Z so expertly did with Illmatic and Reasonable Doubt? To everyone’s surprise, last month Jay Electronica exited seclusion to inform Twitter that an album had in fact been completed, this revelation even met with a bit of well-deserved skepticism.

In the short time since A Written Testimony world premiered on Instagram and Youtube via a studio session and its subsequent release to digital streaming platforms, the long-awaited release has already been met with passionate debate akin to “Ether” vs. “The Takeover” or any other topic rap passionates devote energy to. Stylistically a bridge between the influences of Five Percenter legends such as Rakim and New Orleans hometown heroes not limited to Soulja Slim, it would serve well to remember that Jay Electronica has rendered himself a magician, as his initial 2007 greetings displayed a fascination with the film The Prestige. By this logic, one could assume he initially set out to be an idea, a concept or a spectacle designed to inspire and exist outside of the conventional confines of the music industry.

With mixed reviews of his debut in mind, we’re left with new questions to consider: Did the initial hype and excitement amount to smoke and mirrors? With him still having Just Blaze’s public support, why is the album mostly made up of underdeveloped self-produced beats? Is Jay Electronica a hot business commodity and an investment for Roc Nation or is there an actual kinship with Jay-Z who guest stars throughout the effort?

Without question, Jay Electronica is one of the more complex personas we’ve come across in ages. There’s a noteworthy delivery and a sharp knack for writing in his newest verses, but the extended hesitation to develop into a polished act and deliver output suggests he may have never wanted this level of attention, to begin with. Though he remains shrouded in mystery, it’s a pretty safe bet that we’ll be watching his next act – that is, if he ever chooses to resurface in the public eye.

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Tremaine Edwards / @kardiakfilms

The Allegory Of Ryan Montgomery

The hook to Royce da 5’9”’s “Hard,” from his 2016 album Layers, has to be talked about. It’s almost like a Rosetta Stone into the current thought process that undergirds his current output. But, before that’s done, the song itself has to be taken into context. It’s pure superhero music—triumphant horn blasts and defiant autobiographical rhyme bursts with a quasi spoken-word opening verse. It’s a stylistic extension of what he had been doing for years—breaking rap bars into uneven run-on pieces with entangled and elongated metaphors and complicated punchlines that are impossible to get on the first (or fourth) listen. In the beginning, he’s back in grade school, speaking to a teacher in what’s probably a monologue courtesy of l’esprit de l’escalier. “Look around you: Do I look like anything like the rest of your class?” he asks. “Can’t you see that I’m special? I don’t act like these f***in’ crumbsnatchers. I don’t even breathe like ‘em’. I was born with my lungs collapsin’.”

It’s not pure braggadocio—on Trust The Shooter, the mixtape he released before Layers, he shared that he was born at “four-pound, dark purple, couldn’t even breathe on my own/ Shakin’ baby in the incubator, breathing machine for my lung.” He then obliquely spoke on dysfunctional families, drug addiction, a broken medical insurance system, major label disasters, the prison industrial complex, idol worship, and ADHD treatment—all within the first minute of the first song. “I learned everything I need to know at day one in the hospital.”

It was the introduction to an artistic explosion and growth spurt that may be unprecedented in the annals of hip-hop. Sure, there’s maybe another artist who has evolved in the ways that Royce has over the past half-decade—going from rapping about rapping to rapping about the ills of the world and exposing the raw nerves of his life—but it’s hard to think of one. And it’s hard to think of anyone who has the poetical focus of a member of a group as rhyme-driven as Slaughterhouse, who literally and lyrically hangs with Eminem, who doesn’t care about marketplace success so much that he constantly talks about his commercial achievements and shortcomings at almost every turn.

He begins the second verse of "Hard" bombastically: "My finest hour is here/This what I see in my prayers/ This is me, though I'm facin' all of my fears/ Making all my enemies look in the mirror/ And see the face to the Jordan meme of the Jordan face with all of the tears…" and he goes on, dropping intertwined bars about his skillset, a brush with divorce, what may or may not be physical or sexual assault on "your whore," and how the song was inspired by watching Hamilton on Broadway (a slight flex in of itself). So it almost makes sense when he breaks out into a Lin-Manuel Miranda-esque semi-song:

I said f***in’ the baddest bi**hes around wasn’t hard as I thought/ Man, what the f**k was I thinkin’? (get money)/Jewelry and cars/ Achievin’ the highest level of success ain’t as hard as I thought (top of the world)/ What the f**k was I thinkin’?/ I was drunk or I was lost/ My people said it would be hard/ My teacher said it would be hard/ What the f**k was she thinking’?/ Why did I listen to y’all?

***

The obligatory Infinity Saga analogy says that Royce is Thanos between movies; the one who acquired all the Stones—wealth (he brags about designer jeans and driving an Aston Martin), marketplace recognition (his Bad Meets Evil project with Eminem went gold and debuted a number one on the Billboard 200 a decade ago), peer respect (he's quickly replacing Black Thought as the "most underrated" rapper in spaces where those discussions take place), and whatever the other three Stones would be in this analogy. But somewhere offscreen, he realized that such things only served as temptation and he destroyed them. It's a neat analogy, but not perfect. We don’t know if Royce ever achieved what he wanted—he equates himself with Leonardo DiCaprio ("all they have on me is the awards") in a way that suggests he wouldn't mind winning a Grammy. What we know is he came close enough to those things to not want them. And, even though he compares himself to the Mad Titan on "Upside Down" from his latest album, The Allegory ("to the genre, I'm Thanos"), he’s actually Vision.

Despite his claims, Royce isn't the one who has the conviction to destroy half the universe; he's the one who used the Mind Stone properly, in ways that Marshall Ultron never imagined; the one who surpassed Dr. Dre Stark and Paul Banner’s expectations. His last two studio albums—2018's Book of Ryan and the recently released The Allegory–are all about building connections and showcasing emotional vulnerability in a way that someone as stoic as Thanos only revealed when alone with his daughter.

***

All "they" got on Royce is the awards, but if there were blind justice in this world, he would have been nominated for one for Book of Ryan. It's an album that spiritually began on a song that isn't on the album. "Tabernacle," the first song on Layers and nestled in the middle of Trust The Shooter, is the song. It's the one you play for people who don't get Royce, the one you play for people who don't listen to hip-hop because they think rap doesn't have depth, the one you listen to when you need to be inspired by the meaning of the chaos of your own life story. There's really no way to encapsulate the song without listening to it.

"Tabernacle" is the Sankofa song; the one where Royce looks back to move forward. And Book of Ryan is an astounding album-length look back at Ryan Montgomery and the Montgomery family. Full of domestic violence, humor, drugs, love, and dark and light moments in equal measure, it's a black Black comedy that is a coming to terms story masquerading as a coming of age tale. It's as if Lemonade, 4:44, and EVERYTHING IS LOVE were put into the blender of one mind and shredded by rap skills and spoken narrative. And, for good measure, there are a few songs that are about nothing but rhyming. One of them features Pusha T, Jadakiss, and Fabolous and feels like something that was erroneously leftover from a DJ's compilation; the other, "Caterpillar," featuring Eminem, could be construed as a callout against Kendrick Lamar ("remember when you praisin' the butterfly, don't you ever disrespect the f**kin' caterpillar"). "Caterpillar" isn't a dis—Royce too regularly praises Kendrick for such a thing to be taken seriously. He's also too direct in his conflict (he goes straight at Yealowolf's neck for a not fully-disclosed reason). But he's also so cut-throat that reading lines like,"Guess what I'ma never do?/ Show so much respect to you/ That I feel like we friends so now we no longer competitors/ That could be the death of you" is the kind of camaraderie as bloodsport the game needs. (But don't think too much about it. Royce's following lines—"Never let someone who's not as smart as you gas you up and tell you something that you never knew/Always stay professional"—feels like a preemptive subconscious strike against people who read too much in between the lines of rap lines.)

For the most part, Royce uses Book of Ryan to eschew well-worn rap roads and travels to the past to talk about his dad's addiction, his brother's incarceration, family outings, and his eccentric elders. The album also goes inward to talk about depression, alcoholism, and recovery. And Royce goes back to his old neighborhood to talk about his love affair with a lucky basketball signed by Isiah Thomas and buying snacks at a local store. He also talks to his son about his fears—the greatest being his shortcomings as a father and passing on his alcoholic tendencies: "You in a gene pool with a lot of sick fish/ And I’m the sickest of them all." It's hard to quantify things like "heart," and talking about them in regards to music is so subjective. But Book of Ryan is full of heart. There's really no better way to say it.

***

Royce wore a rhinestone du-rag so you don't have to. He tells you to Google it, as he does a few things on The Allegory. He's not willing to break down things for the listener all the time, but he presents the donning of the headpiece as a symbol of the sacrifices he made following commercial success early on in his career. And it makes sense. The first time I heard of Royce was while working in the Source offices from Riggs Morales, who was one of Eminem's first industry advocates (and would go on work at Paul Rosenberg's Goliath Artists amongst other industry positions). At the time, Source co-founder Jonathan Shecter was no longer with the magazine, but was running a small label called Game Recordings that released vinyl records with sexy girls on the cover. It was a bit ahead of the curve—since then, selling things hamburgers and beers via women in bikinis has become mainstream, but back then Riggs had a 12" of Bad Meets Evil that he was exceptionally fond of. Riggs had good taste in music and assured that the two emcees were amongst the best he'd ever heard. I never listened to it, but I kept it in mind.

At the time Royce released his debut, Rock City in 2002, I remembered that this was the kid Riggs was championing and listened. I was unimpressed. The lyrics were good, but the music and message felt too indistinct and trendy. And dude was running around with a rhinestone du-rag. This is why, now on "Upside Down," Royce announces: "Whoever think I'm here to make some corny-ass radio Viacom jingle got my whole diatribe tangled."

He's no longer making music for mass consumption. He's no longer after those stones.

***

A few things have to be said about The Allegory. Firstly—and this can't be understated—it's entirely produced by Royce, who wasn't making beats two years ago when he made Book of Ryan. It's important because while these aren't "superproducer"-level tracks, they're incredibly accomplished album cuts. The sounds aren't one-note, the arrangements aren't regular, and he often makes space for singers to come in on hooks and mini-verses. Moreover, it doesn't come off as an insular, navel-gazing vanity project. It's an album that stands on its own as a collection of music, stripping funk, warning basslines, sprinkling keys, and interpolating Dana Dane with a reserve that surpasses his position as a novitiate.

The rhymes are often amazing and every guest appearance by a rapper is spectacular. Griselda's Benny the Butcher, Conway, and Westside Gunn show up individually, as does fellow Slaughterhouse alum, KXNG Crooked. T.I and Cyhi da Prince gang up on "Black Savages." His brother and longtime collaborator Kid Vishis shows up, as does Grafh. Oddly enough, Eminem shows up on an interlude to make the most cohesive observation of race on the album, which is both confusing and not.

It's not confusing, because—through beefs and dis records and death and reconciliation—Eminem and Royce have emerged as an amazing mixed-race bromance. And, with his past few records, Royce's transparency about his upcoming explains his bond with Em in ways that are pretty opaque until now. They're not just rappers who came up together, they're products of tumultuous families, addicts who have leaned on one another, men who found sobriety, artists who genuinely use the recording booth as therapeutic havens. In the past, Royce spoke and rapped drunkenly on record; now he's making hour-long meditations on society and has motivational hustler Derrick Grace running through flash quizzes with Grace's daughter in between songs—distinguishing bullet calibers and reciting Black empowerment lessons.

It's confusing because The Allegory presents itself as Royce's "woke" project. In the beginning, he compares it to Homer's Illiad and Plato's Allegory of the Cave—two references that guarantee that this is not a project that will make itself known plainly or with ease. It's part To Pimp A Butterfly and part DAMN. And, like those projects, as much as it seeks to be progressive in terms of race, it remains shockingly regressive on sexual politics. On the opening of “Upside Down,” Royce begins: “Why the gay ni**as tryna f**k the straight ni**as that's tryna f**k the gay bi**hes that look just like the straight ni**as?/ Why the straight ni**as that the gay bi**hes tryna look just like the gay ni**as?” It’s a confusing bit of nothing—something that Royce routinely does with such verve that how it sounds trumps what it means. But, it’s troubling and manages to wave away the realities of multiple gender identities unnecessarily. Though it marries to the title of the song, it’s divorced from the rest of his verse and there’s no exploration of what he means beyond thought-twisting. While The Allegory is great on many levels, it's definitely misogynistic and often transphobic and homophobic on others. Royce still seems to be cheating on his wife and saying so publicly—or at least willing to allude to infidelity for a punchline. He's still under the spells of capitalism and bars violence. He outs himself as an anti-vaxxer. In short, it's a mess.

It's a mess, but it's a beautiful one because it's honest. "Pendulum" alone is disturbing in its dismissal of women. Royce confesses that he's "too narcissistic to be lickin' carpet, too artistic to nut/ This a catharsis" before going on to add that "my side chick is still burnin', now my dick is scorchin'/ Talkin' bout 'I think I'm pregnant; I'm not with abortion'/ Any child that slides out you is an instant orphan." The song's hook doesn't add any clarity: "We gon' rob the rich and leave them with the f**kin' bill." It's a thinking person's album that becomes uncomfortable if you think about it too intensely. And that’s a shame.

But The Allegory is also an album that speaks on growing old in rap, living and dying in Black America, the importance of owning your masters as a recording artists, and contains an apology to Royce's father for bringing up his dad's past without talking to him about it first. Yet, what the "allegory" is isn't quite clear. And it may be too meta and too lazy to say that that's the point. What's clear is that Ryan Montgomery, after 20 years as a professional rapper, is making the best music of his career and expanding his arsenal in profound ways. And that's going to have to be enough. He's learned that f**king the baddest bi**hes around and achieving the highest levels of success aren't as hard as he thought. He's still learning. If he continues to release music—or follow on his plans to "screenwriter a movie or write a play"—the caterpillar may do things with the Mind Stone that Thanos never imagined.

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Rocafella

How Beanie Sigel's 'The Truth' Album Led The Charge For Philly Street Rap

When listing the most pivotal and popular artists in the history of gangsta rap, many of the names mentioned will have ties to New York or California: N.W.A., The Notorious B.I.G., 2Pac, Kool G Rap, Ice-T, and others. Artists from Philadelphia - the home of rap legend Schoolly D, who many credit with helping pioneer and popularize the sub-genre - were often an afterthought in these conversations, particularly during the '90s, when the city's dearth of rap talent on the national stage paled in comparison to that of other major markets across the country. Following the success of the hit singles "P.S.K." and "Gucci Time," Schoolly D's style would shift towards sociopolitical rap during the late '80s and by the turn of the decade, was considered past his prime. Cool C and Steady B had a hot streak during the '80s, but faded into obscurity shortly before being convicted for their roles in the murder of a Philadelphia Police officer during a botched bank robbery. And for all of their commercial success and groundbreaking accomplishments, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince were often maligned for their lack of street cred, both on wax and off, and released their last album as a unit in 1993. Sure, The Roots, Jamal, Bahamadia and others made noise during the mid '90s, but lacked the mainstream appeal or staying power to truly put the city on their back, leaving the City of Brotherly Love without a rap artist with the lyrical chops, credibility and platform to possibly be mentioned alongside those aforementioned names for the better part of the '90s.

This would change during the late '90s when a crop of new talent emerged out of Philadelphia, the most touted prospect being Beanie Sigel, an artist who embodied the gritty aesthetic and culture of the city, all the while possessing skills comparable to the most lauded wordsmiths of all-time. Born and raised in Philly, Sigel, the product of a broken home, took to the streets at an early age, dropping out of school and quickly building a reputation as a brute hustler and stick-up kid. Charged with aggravated assault as early as age 13, Sigel had numerous run-ins with the law, most notably in 1994, when he, along with a neighbor, were accused of shooting an off-duty police officer during a physical altercation. However, those charges were ultimately dropped, leaving Sigel a free man and adding to his legend in his South Philly stomping grounds. That close call did little to deter Sigel from continuing his criminal lifestyle, as he became even more entrenched in the streets in the subsequent years. But in 1998, Sigel – a longtime fan of acts like EPMD, Kool G Rap and Big Daddy Kane who had developed a gift for rhyming himself – stumbled upon the opportunity of a lifetime after linking with a local Philly rapper named Murder Mil, who inspired him to take his craft a bit more seriously. "It was just something I knew how to do," Sigel recalls. "I met a cat named Murder Mil and he actually made me want to start writing, we actually battled and I felt, at that time, that he had got over on me. He won that battle and I ain't like that."

From there, Sigel and Murda Mil sparked a partnership, taking on various rappers on the local battle circuit, most notably Philly's Most Wanted, one of the hottest duos in the city who were on the cusp of signing a major label record deal at the time. Trading off bars over Destiny Child's "No, No No (Remix)" instrumental, Murda Mil and Sigel fared favorably against their counterparts, with Sigel stealing the show with an onslaught of couplets. The performance caught Philly's Most Wanted member Boo-Bonic's attention, who convinced his management team to allow Sigel to accompany Philly's Most Wanted to a meeting with Roc-A-Fella Records in New York City. Sigel, still skeptical of taking a full dive into the music world, was initially reluctant to take the trip, even considering attending an illegal dogfight instead. "I had a few rhymes that I had 'cause where I was from, what we was doing, that rap thing was out the window," he explains. "That was something I had to do on my own time. We was doing what we was doing so it wasn't cool to be a rapper. We was clowning people who was trying to rap at that time, we was getting money. We was dressing like rappers and we had things that the rappers had." However, he ultimately decided to take Boo-Bonic and his manager, Sadiq, up on their offer, making the trek up I-95 to Manhattan for a night that would forever change the trajectory of his life.

By 1998, Jay-Z, Damon Dash and Kareem "Biggs" Burke had taken Roc-A-Fella Records from an independent label into a potential industry powerhouse, with a distribution deal with Def Jam, along with Jay-Z's platinum-certified sophomore album, In My Lifetime, Vol. 1, positioning the Roc as the next seismic movement on the east coast. While commercially successful, In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 received mixed reviews for its glossy production and contrived radio-friendly singles, leaving many pondering whether Jay-Z had let the Cristal and Moet go to his head, to the point he'd lost touch with his roots as a battle-tested lyrical wizard. In spite of housing Hov's protege, Memphis Bleek, and R&B acts Rell and Christión, Roc-A-Fella had yet to become the army it is now known as, with the label's brain trust still in search of a prize prospect to add to the roster. Keying in on Philadelphia as a breeding ground to poach new talent from, the Roc heavily considered Philly's Most Wanted as the free-agent acquisitions that would help take the label over the top. But, as fate would have it, their interest would shift towards a relative unknown named Beanie Sigel, who remembers his first encounter with Roc-A-Fella fondly. "Jay was actually working on, I believe, the Hard Knock Life [album]," Beans shares. "'Cause he was doing a song with Too Short, ‘It Was All Good Just A Week Ago.’ I remember Too Short being in the studio with Jay. So we in the lobby of the studio and Dame Dash was out there talking, he had Philly's Most Wanted with some other cats that was in there that was rapping. And Dame sparked up a little confrontation about Philly rappers and New York rappers and, 'I hope they this, that and the third.'"

Dash's thinly-veiled slights and jabs at the away team resulted in an impromptu cipher, with Philly's Most Wanted and other Roc-A-Fella hopefuls going toe-to-toe with one another while Beans played the back. However, when one rapper began to get a bit too animated for Sigel's liking, he inserted himself into the fray, putting forth a showing that left the indefatigable Dash at a rare loss for words. "He was getting too aggressive so I started rapping," Beans says of his decision to step up to the plate. "So when I started rapping, Dame was like, 'See, I told you.' He thought I was from New York, and I had to correct him. ‘Man, I'm from Philly.' So he was like, 'Yo, you from Philly?' So he went and got "Biggs," Kareem [Burke], he brought him out like, 'Yo, you gotta hear this kid.' He was like, 'Yo, spit that rap,' and I wouldn't rap no more. I'm like, 'Nah, I ain't here for that.' I wound up rapping for him, they start flipping out. They went in the joint and pulled Jay out the booth like, 'No, you gotta come out now.'" Slaughtering the "A Week Ago" instrumental for nearly 20 minutes, Sigel's extended rhyme spill was so impressive that Jay-Z, Dash and Burke quickly brokered a record deal with The Broad Street Bully in the subsequent weeks, making him the first bonafide rap free agent to be inducted as a member of the Roc-A-Fella family.

From there, it didn't take long for Sigel to make an impression on the rap world, making his debut on Philly rap band The Roots' 1998 single "Adrenaline," which saw the neophyte anchoring the track with an epic stanza to close the proceedings. Next on the docket was a string of buzzworthy showings to close out the year, including appearances on "Reservoir Dogs," a stacked posse cut from Jay-Zs Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life album featuring The LOX and Sauce Money, and "Crew Love," a cut from the Belly soundtrack featuring Jay-Z and Memphis Bleek. However, 1999 would see Sigel truly put his name in contention for rap's Rookie of the Year, earning over a dozen credits alongside the likes of Foxy Brown ("4-5-6"), Blackstreet ("I Got What You On"), Puff Daddy ("Journey Through the Life"), Eve ("Philly Philly"), Sisqó ("Unleash the Dragon"), and The Notorious B.I.G., Black Rob, Ice Cube ("If I Should Die Before I Wake"). He also provided reinforcement alongside his Roc-A-Fella labelmates, joining Jay-Z and Memphis Bleek on "More Money, More Cash, More Hoes (Remix)," Jay-Z, Memphis Bleek and Amil on "For My Thugs," as well as a pair of appearances on Vol. 3.... Life & Times of S. Carter, the most prominent being "Do It Again (Put Ya Hands Up)." Released as the lead single, the Rockwilder produced cut peaked at No. 9 on the Hot Rap Singles chart and thrust Sigel into the spotlight, with many fans clamoring for the firebrand's debut solo studio album.

Released on February 29, 2000, The Truth was the first Roc-A-Fella release of the new millennium and looked to position Sigel as the next street orator to place his imprint on the rap game. With comparisons to the likes of The Notorious B.I.G. putting even more pressure on Sigel, the first single from The Truth was as much of an opportunity to make a statement to affirm the hype behind his name as it was to gain traction on radio and the Billboard charts, which the album's title track accomplished on both fronts. Produced by Kanye West, who earned his first credit on a Roc-A-Fella project via this record, "The Truth" instantly grabbed listeners' attention upon its release in early 2000, many of whom were captivated by the scorching instrumental, which samples "Chicago" by Graham Nash. But the true crux of the track was Sigel's imposing presence, with the newcomer brazenly warning "I hope you got an extra mic and a fireproof booth/'Cause you know I'm known to melt a wire or two" on the opening bars, making it clear that the lyrical exploits were going to be aplenty. Reaching No. 23 on the Hot Rap Singles chart, "The Truth" presented Sigel as the last of a dying breed, an artist with the street credentials and skills to become the next legendary emcee to emerge out of the east coast.

Setting the tone with that introductory number, the Philly rep teams up with Memphis Bleek on "Who Want What," building on the innate chemistry the pair displayed on previous collaborative efforts like "My Hood to Your Hood," from Bleek's own 1999 solo debut, Coming of Age. According to Just Blaze, who produced the track, the song was his first placement within the Roc-A-Fella camp and was one of the more beloved selections from the album. “I had the beat already done and gave it to Hip Hop (aka Kyambo Joshua), who was the A&R for Rocafella at the time," Blaze remembers. "They heard the record and they just went in, did it, and mixed it. I didn’t know as many people liked that record as they did until I was out one night and I heard it [playing out of] five cars driving past." Volleying four-bar couplets before passing off the mic to one another, Bleek and Beans put forth a war-ready salvo, announcing themselves as the future of the label, with Bleek snarling, "You bout ta witness a dynasty like no other/Who flow like Bleek, think, no other/Who rhyme like Sigel, dog, no other/It's Roc-a-Fella twins desert eagle no other," as Sigel assumes the role of enforcer while assuring Jay-Z that they're more than qualified to carry the torch. Speaking of Sigel's over boss, Hov appears on three songs on The Truth, the first being the Bink!-produced standout "Raw & Uncut," which captures Sigel comparing their synergy to that of Micheal Jordan and Scottie Pippen. "Playa," an uptempo anthem for the clubs, also includes a feature from Jay-Z, who joins former Roc first lady Amil and Sigel as the trio holds court over jittery production by T-Mix.

In addition to contributions from Roc-A-Fella's core nucleus, The Truth also includes a guest spot from fellow Philly native Eve, who tackles the hook on the uplifting, feel-good single "Remember Them Days," but perhaps the most enduring meeting of the minds on the album comes via "Mac And Brad," which pairs the Broad Street Bully with southern rap legend Scarface. Produced by J5, this offering finds the kindred spirits and purveyors of the morbid broadcasting their cruel intentions, sans a hook, planting the seed for future collaborations between Scarface and the Roc, as well as a long-rumored joint-album that failed to materialize. While Sigel's various costars turn in admirable performances, The Truth's most brilliant moments come when its host flies solo, with highlights like the Buckwild-produced "What a Thug About" confirming his ability to thrive on his own strength without the added reinforcements. On "What Your Life Like," Mac paints a visceral picture of life behind the wall that has been hailed as one of the more authentic and jarring descriptions of prison to ever be laid on wax, before voicing his undying allegiance to his most trusted comrades on "Ride 4 My," a Bink!-produced number powered by a sample lifted from the Conan the Barbarian soundtrack. However, the apex of Sigel's mastery behind the mic is displayed on "Die," an intense composition that finds him pondering the various ways he could come face-to-face with his demise. Rhyming "When you live by the sword, you die by the sword/I'll probably die in the vocal booth spittin' out raw/Die on stage, rippin' down tours/Die from AIDS, trickin' out-a-town whores," Sigel puts the trappings of fame with the realities of his checkered past and illicit lifestyle into context, resulting in a sobering tune that finds its author closing the proceedings out on an evocative note.

Debuting at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 with 155,000 copies sold in its first week, The Truth was considered a commercial and critical success, with a number of critics praising Beanie Sigel's performance throughout the album and the realism of his lyrical content. In addition to Sigel's own singles, The Truth was also bolstered by "Anything," a solo selection by Jay-Z tacked on the end of the album. The song, which peaked at No. 9 on the Hot Rap Singles chart, features a sample of Lionel Bart's "I'll Do Anything," was a blatant attempt at recapturing the magic of his breakout 1998 single "Hard Knock Life," which Hov admitted himself in an interview years later. Reaching gold certification, The Truth not only solidified Beanie Sigel as a rising star in rap, but gave Roc-A-Fella as a viable movement with a talented stable beyond its leader that was fully capable of holding down the fort. Later that same year, Sigel was prominently featured on Jay-Z fifth studio album, The Dynasty: Roc La Familia, further entrenching him as one of the premier spitters out of the east coast and the most respected rapper out of the streets of Philly. He would also go on to become the leader and frontman of State Property, a crew of Philadelphia rappers that helped rejuvenate and revive interest in the cities rap scene on a national scale. In a career that includes multiple classic bodies of work, The Truth remains the moment that the rap world got introduced to The Broad Street Bully, whose only intent was to put on for his hometown. "That's just me being able to let my home know that I knew how to rap," he says of his mindstate while recording his debut. "They ain't know who I was 'cause I wasn't out on the scene like that, so when I did The Truth, I always knew how to rap. It was just a collection of little raps I would play with when I was in the mix."

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