I have a confession: I'm still a fan of Eminem's songwriting. And it's not because of his lyricism, humor or even subject matter. It's because of how much he's a fan of this art form, which is something not many people give him credit for. For my money, nowhere is this more apparent than 8 Mile, a movie that, despite the mainstream Hollywood hype it received, I'm still a fan of. I say this because, in the battling scenes of a movie about hip hop set in the mid-90s, of all the hip hop instrumentals he could've chosen from that era to personify the vibe he was looking for (aside from his own, of course), he chose two Havoc beats, a Primo beat, a Buckwild beat & most crucial to my post today, an Agallah beat.
I've already stated my nostalgic connection to Eminem's music, back when I had absolutely no clue about any of this hip hop shit, so when I tell you that those five instrumentals from the battling scenes stuck, they STUCK. Which is what caused me to squeal like a witu goyl about four years later when I heard Last Dayz, the lead single from Onyx' sophomore album, All We Got Iz Us, for the first time. At the time, I immediately noticed that this was an Onyx unlike the ones I heard on Throw Ya Gunz & the Shut Em Down remix, as apparently they were hell-bent on convincing other people that their pen game was nice. But, here's a fact, the song that convinced ME to track this album down was Live!!!, which also introduced me to the hip hopumentary, The Show (Clever, right?), for which it was released as a single then added to the album on a Russell Simmons whim. More on its significance to me later.
Onyx did very well for themselves with Bacdafucup. That album and Slam, its second single and their biggest hit without question, BOTH went platinum. Fredro began his career as an actor that very same year, appearing in Forest Whitaker's directorial debut, Strapped. His cousin, Sticky Fingaz, would follow suit in 1995, debuting alongside Fredro in Spike Lee's Clockers, one of Spike Lee's best flicks. Sonsee? Well, he didn't do shit outside of Onyx for a while there, but he seems perfectly fine with that, and so you should be such. In short, life was good to be in Onyx. Yet, along with all that fame and glory, East Coast hip hop was rapidly advancing with critical and commercial hits left and right. Acts like the Wu & Biggie were unleashed on New York and quickly dominated sales, while others like Nas, Mobb Deep & the Boot Camp Clik were raking in the accolades. Oh and let's not forget MOP, who debuted with a style that was steadily gaining ground in the hardcore hip hop market back then. Onyx was quickly being left in the dust, amid claims of inauthenticity, being cartoonishly angry and overall just plain childish. All during which Big DS, one of Onyx' co-founders, severed all ties with the group, while CkySkillz was becoming quite sought after as a beatsmith, thereby no longer available to his affiliates. So, the group's mentor, the late great Jam Master Jay, felt it was time for Onyx to address those issues.
What was the plan? Well, Fredro Starr, whom I've previously stated to be most in sync with JMJ, noticed that a new approach behind the boards was needed to supply a new sound for the group, all the while refocusing with his two baldmates Sonsee and Sticky Fingaz on their pen game. Not long after, he fell upon a grimy young rapper/producer by the name of Angel Aguilar tka 8-Off The Assassin nka Agallah, who used to run with a lot of crews in the 95-00 period & who is the spitting image of my neighbor, a man to whom the concept of rap is completely foreign, let alone hip hop. I even showed said neighbor a picture of Agallah, and even he sees the resemblance. After hearing some of his beats, Fredro, with a little help from Stick, provided him with all the samples they felt suited their new desired direction. The pressure was then on Agallah to deliver on the primetime level. You'll see exactly how he did in the review.
As for our trio, it was a make or break time for them, so of course, you're chomping at the nuts to find out how this album's story ends, right?
1. LIFE OR DEATH (SKIT)
A lot of people seem to like this skit. I'm NOT one of those people. The beat's interesting, though. Just like the first album.
2. LAST DAYZ
It's a damn shame that Agallah's mainstream production career was so short that nobody mentions him among their personal favorite producers. The man fucking BROUGHT IT on the boards. If you thought Shifftee & Judgment Night were dark, they are Disney films compared to what's presented here. That approach inspired Onyx on the mic as each member eviscerates the memory of past work with their verses, especially Fredro since he's the one who came under fire the most. Sticky is his usual awesome self, and Sonsee furthers my claim that he's the most underrated Onyx member. Many people consider this their favorite Onyx song, and I don't blame them.
3. ALL WE GOT IZ US (EVIL STREETZ) (FEATURING PANAMA P.I.)
I loved the video for this song, where Fredro stole the spotlight from his baldmates every time he appeared on-screen. True that Sticky was up to his usual lyrical standards and also had more screen time to flex his acting, but Fredro looked like a possessed vampire. The netherworldly beat was another smash from him, as well. Sonsee? He'll have to make do with delivering the song's best verses. Onyx also switch up the verse order from the usual template seen in the previous song. Panama P.I.'s hook is the icing on the cake. So, yeah, this song's the tits.
4. PURSE SNATCHAZ (FEATURING GREG VALENTINE)
An extremely short skit at the beginning leads us into this monolith of a song. The third Agallah home-run starts with a looming bass that plays in the background when rapper/crooner Greg Valentine from Brooklyn duo All City starts us off with an interpolation of Bill Withers' Ain't No Sunshine as a hook that fits the theme pretty nicely, during which the beautiful strings of Jimmy McGriff's Love Of My Life enter the equation, resulting in a masterful atmospheric instrumental. For their part, Onyx clearly put in the most lyrical effort into this song, and it really shows: Fredro utilizes his verse to tell us how depraved he is by recounting his experiences with a fucking lot of other similarly depraved people, resulting in a lot of imagery, most of which I thought did the subject matter well. Then, we have Sonsee, who continues this dark thesis of the terrible wasteland rappers love to call hood life, by delivering an impressive lyrical analysis from his point of view of a few of American society's various problems which cause depravity such as Fredro's. After which Sticky Fingaz completes the song's concept by delivering, no lie, a verse that should be physically etched in a physical hip hop hall of fame, even though I cannot disagree more with the motive behind its second bar. Feel free to question why, the comment section is there for a reason. Nevertheless, Sticky probably delivered the best verse of his career on this very track. Some way to break out of the cartoonish image, huh? 3 songs out of 3.
OK, I have to state that Onyx deserve all the credit for not compromising their vision for this album. So far, this shit is consistent and you'll love that about it. I highly suspect that the way Def Jam pleaded with them to record a song close to their previous album's work was funny as all hell. And the trio STILL pulls it off nicely & without being too chipper. Fredro, the leader & workman of the group, lyrically shines here, with Agallah once again delivering a beat that is a nice homage to Bacdafucup. Sonsee & Sticky keep up pretty nicely. This shit will liven up any party.
6. I MURDER U (SKIT)
The title above is a full single recorded by an Onyx-affiliated group called Gang Green, consisting of five teenagers, two of them younger brothers of Fredro and Sticky, one of whom would have a pretty major role in Onyx' future, so it's a family thing. The single was pretty decent, with a dope video shot and a remix that actually features Onyx rapping alongside their disciples. Agallah's beat was a nice & calm contrast to the thuggery present from the five runts, which was dope. It fits the remix even better, which is also dope. Since this skit only featured the hook to said single, it doesn't count as a real song and is pretty much a waste of everyone's time. Oh, you wanted me to tell you to skip this barf, right?
7. BETTA OFF DEAD
Remember how Bacdafucup had a slamming beat that was wasted on the intro then redeemed later in the album in a kickass song? The sequel, my fellow lonely soul. And it expands on the intro's theme with threats that become truly evil because of our hosts' delivery. And, I'm surprised I'm writing this, but Fredro steals the show yet again. I'm sincerely looking for a flaw in this album's music so far. Yet another Agallah home run!
8. LIVE N***Z
Yep, the exact same song as Live!!!. Storytime: I have this obsession with nostalgia, so anything remotely nostalgic captures my attention right away. So, how did this song capture my attention in that particular way when absolutely NONE of its components are even slightly nostalgic to me? That, my friends, is the definition of artistry: To force you to enjoy a certain piece the moment it connects with your senses. And I can honestly say that the way Agallah sampled the somber Isaac Hayes ballad, Wherever You Are, and flipped it into an almost whimsical beat forced me to do just that. It reminded me of the children movies about New York that I constantly and obsessively watched in my early childhood, but the fact that it's a continuation of the party theme introduced in Shout remains fascinating to me. Lyrically, Onyx do their thing well on these songs and this one is no exception. And they still didn't compromise and write lyrics for the radio! This would be the final time that Fredro would steal the show from any of his baldmates on this album. Even with Sticky doing his warped version of Slick Rick's verse on Doug E Fresh's La Di Da Di. This was lovely, son!
Onyx fans were reasonably pissed that the full version of this song wasn't on the album. The full version, however, has been available for the past 3 years on the Onyx compilation, Cold Case Files Vol. 2, which I may review later, but until you clean up your room, I'm not reviewing that shit. Don't repeat Daddy's bad words!
10. MOST DEF
Agallah really is achieving something very special on this album. He's taking you on a unique emotional journey, as displayed with this amazing wind-down of a beat, where Onyx dial their voices down with their threats & braggadocio, thereby focusing your attention on their lyrics, and it works for me. Sticky set the proceedings off very nicely, indeed. Fredro sounded fucking weird but delivered some decent lyrics, but Sonsee takes the cake for me. The way he said "Gimme all that green stink shit, thank you" made me laugh my ass off. All in all, great chemistry between the trio.
11. ACT UP (SKIT)
Yeah, this was pretty pointless. Shame that Agallah's beat, which sounds like a pretty damn good EPMD imitation, was wasted on this.
12. GETTO MENTALITEE (FEATURING ALL CITY & PANAMA P.I.)
Onyx bring out the weed carrier bandwagon, consisting of Panama P.I. (whom we already know from the title track) and rap duo All City, comprised of rapper J Mega and Greg Valentine. (Whom we've already heard crooning his lovely little heart on Purse Snatchaz) All of whom make their rapping debut on this posse cut. Now, I like Agallah's beat, and the MCs sound like they're having fun, with Sticky stealing the show, as usual. But, two things, Greg's voice is too squeaky soft, to the point that he does not possess any resemblance of menace in his voice, and Sonsee: how many times have I told you NOT to eat from Taco Bell before recording your shit? (Pun intended.) Anyway, this isn't a trash song or anything. The song ends with our three protagonists exploring their conspiracy theorist sides...
13. 2 WRONGS
...which seamlessly leads into this song. Now, this beat isn't horse manure per se, but it's just there. Kind of wish they used Act Up's beat here because the lyrics would've fit like a glove. All three members bring their Ice Cube on, with good results. Sonsee's verse was slightly better than everyone else's. The end result could've been so much more with the Act Up beat. Can't win em all, Onyx.
14. MAINTAIN (SKIT)
15. WALK IN NEW YORK
Our album finale carries its weight well, with one last uncompromising beat from Agallah, truly the unsung hero of this album, for our hosts to state how New York is not a city for the lighthearted. Onyx shot a video in their neighborhood that encompasses everything this album is, and everything it's not. Appropriately enough, Sticky steals the show batting cleanup, but his baldmates keep up pretty nicely. And we're done.
FINAL THOUGHTS: Unlike Bacdafucup, this album is a record label's goddamned nightmare. JMJ made sure of that, as he saw a long-term investment in the group. Which is why he agreed with Fredro in choosing Agallah, proving here to be a BEAST of a producer, for this album. This last part is what changed this album's aesthetic and catapulted it to being a potential classic, even with there being zero interesting skits. It's also been the answer to a huge misconception: A whole goddamn country-load of people, myself included, believed for the longest time that Fredro produced this album, given the fact that his name is plastered all over the credits. Make no mistake, though: this was where Agallah became a sought-after commodity in the rap game, as evidenced by his later equally-stellar work with EPMD, Sean Price and many more. As for this album, all that was left was that our trio maintains lyrical consistency. However, they went truly above and beyond, stepping up their pen game tremendously. Sticky, in particular, received a lot of accolades for his contributions, and believe me they're well deserved. But, what's constantly lost amidst all the hype around him is the fact that both Sonsee & Fredro deserve a ton of credit as well since neither has been recognized as a lyrical force of any sort since releasing this gem. Put simply, this is Onyx' artistic peak as they have broken through every obstacle that came up against them. So, yeah, of course, the album went plastic as it didn't sell zilch, but guess what? Nobody gives a shit now, least of all Onyx themselves. Give yourselves a big round of applause, baldmen. You have earned your place in hip hop's elite.
No. Buy Young Thug instead. WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU THINK? If you claim to love 90s hip hop and for some reason don't have this in your collection after reading this review, rectify that mistake NOW!
TRACKS TO TRACK DOWN:
Deriving from the same Hubert Laws' Trying To Get The Feeling Again sample that blessed the original, Agallah presents a more upbeat beat (clever, eh?) for Onyx to demolish, which they proceed to do quite nicely. Sticky steals the show, as per usual and the back-&-forth between Fredro and Sonsee is very entertaining, indeed. Good remix, even though I prefer the original.
The very last Agallah production he provided to Onyx, before briefly falling out with them. This song was off the Sunset Park movie soundtrack, a film in which Fredro was simply awesome and in which Rhea Perlman was equally ridiculous. I know everyone's tired of me saying this, but Agallah delivers the perfect swan song for his production career with Onyx. The man was that good, I'm telling you. And appropriately, the baldmates send him off in style with lyrics of equal potency about life in the ghetto. Each MC reflects by stating the grim situation then provides a story as an example, except Sticky who provides his story first, then the reflection. Nerd talk from my part, really. Awesome song, though.
Did I lay it on too thick? Did I not lay it on thick enough? Leave your opinions below.
Craving more about Onyx? Hit this