It's amazing how appropriate it is that Notorious B.I.G.'s voice opens "Lyricist Lounge 2." In just under two minutes of freestyling captured at one of the Lounge's legendary open-mike nights, B.I.G. once again proves he was a master MC. But the prowess Biggie displays on "16 Bars" isn't what makes this opening so apropos.
Biggie, along with Tupac Shakur, represents all that went wrong with hip-hop in the mid-'90s: the commercialism, the nihilism, and, ultimately, the life-ending violence. But while Tupac has emerged to become bigger than hip-hop, an iconic mixture of James Dean and Malcolm X, Biggie remains truly and wholly "one of us." Thus, it can be argued that Biggie, more so than Tupac, died for our hip-hop sins, and that through his blood the healing of hip-hop's divisions began. And if there is a theme to "Lyricist Lounge 2," it is the celebration of and respect for the diversity of hip-hop as an art form and a culture.
Such diversity may be a newer aspect of the Lyricist Lounge project, but respect and love for hip-hop have always been there. Started in 1991 by underground hip-hop fans Anthony Marshall and Danny Castro in New York, Lyricist Lounge was a series of open-mike nights alternating from East Coast to West Coast locations, showcasing up-and-coming talent and hosted by hip-hop luminaries such as KRS-ONE and Q-Tip. A double-CD collection of performances recorded live at LL events was released in 1998. "Lyricist Lounge Volume 1," perhaps the best hip-hop compilation ever, was noteworthy because it provided MCs such as Mos Def and Rah Digga their first major public exposure. Even Eminem cut his teeth at Lounge open-mikes. Lyricist Lounge's importance in the mid-'90s growth of hip-hop music cannot be overstated.
The founders of Lyricist Lounge expanded with a variety show on MTV. "Urban" TV sketch comedy is nothing new, but what sets "The Lyricist Lounge" Show -- currently on hiatus -- apart is the way hip-hop is woven organically into the show. Entire skits are rapped and, in some sublime examples, freestyled. At its best, the show is a brilliant manifestation of the spirit of hip-hop, and it offers glimpses into the psyches of MCs that the narrow confines of the hip-hop business usually don't allow. Who knew Common had a sense of humor?
If there is a criticism to be leveled at Marshall and Castro's endeavor, it's that it was biased toward an East Coast-flavored, lyrically intensive hip-hop style. "Lyricist Lounge 2" shatters that perception. Where else are you going to hear a song featuring Mos Def, Pharaoh Monche, and Nate Dogg? Pastor Troy and Talib Kweli? God, it's giddifying how many types of hip-hop are represented here.
Although the propensity to mix such disparate types of music is jarring in some cases, all of the MCs assembled for "LL2" are good at what they do. Redman and Saukrates rip through "W.K.Y.A." Macy Gray's "I've Committed Murder," remixed by Gang Starr and featuring Mos Def, is the best advertisement for the off-kilter diva I've heard. Q-Tip and Wordsworth's joyously playful "Makin' It Blend" is the best A Tribe Called Quest song in five years. The list of good stuff on the 16-track album goes on and on: Talib Kweli and Dead Prez get Public Enemy-style militant on "Sharp Shooters," Dilated Peoples' "Right and Exact" is just that, and Kool G. Rap and M.O.P are at their thuggish best with "Legendary Street Team." Even the production listings read like a hip-hop Who's Who: DJ Premier, Alchemist, Prince Paul, etc. There's something here for everyone.
But "LL2's" strength is also its weakness: The album is all over the place. The first Lyricist Lounge album was a success because there was an overriding sense of continuity throughout; it worked as a complete piece. As proficient as the individual cuts of "LL2" are separately, the album doesn't add up to a coherent whole.
Still, it is a noble exercise. Q-Tip puts it best in the outro, as he eulogizes B.I.G. and brings "LL2" full circle. You might not agree with Biggie's playa philosophy, and you might not even like his music, but you have to respect what he brought to the art form, and the fact that he loved it. From that unifying perspective, "Lyricist Lounge 2" is a success, and it's an effort that needs to be repeated again.