Sometime earlier this week I was answering this Facebook post that was asking who was the best one-hit wonder in hip-hop history. Immediately, my mind turned to Skee-Lo, beholden of the 166-million-times-streamed “I Wish” exercise in undersized, underdog goof-off rhyming. Then, almost like a knee-jerk reaction, my mind relegated Skee-Lo, born Antoine Roundtree in Riverside, California, to the background, something I think my mind has been robotically trained to do since the slightly atonal East Side/West Side wars of the mid-’90s. Sure enough, my thought process diffused to Lord Tariq & Peter Gunz, before settling on the ultimate granddaddy of all one-hit-wonders, Master P.
Anyway, just last night, the epiphany hit me to actually LISTEN to Skee-Lo’s album. Of course, he has more than one album out, but I furnish I Wish (1995) as THE Skee-Lo album as, what with his position in the industry and the incredible competitiveness in hip-hop in the late-’90s, we’d be deluding ourselves if we said this wasn’t his one chance to hit it big, which, sure, to a large extent, he did. After 2pac, that is, the Cali rap scene pretty much dried out until the neo-soul days of Kendrick Lamar and Syd the Kyd, etc.
This brings up a valid question of whether “I Wish” is a gimmick, and I’d say, to an extent, it certainly is, nor would I deny that said “gimmick” quality helped him feed his pocketbook and get over. But this LP, as a whole, is far from a gimmick — it’s composed, front to back, of quality, slightly Dre-like beats, heavy on the Moog synth and laid-back Cali rhythms of producer Walter Kahn, and a sort of lyrical versatility that allows him to touch on girls, inner city violence, fast food and Islam, roughly in that order of apparent decreasing urgency. Despite not issuing one single curse word in his raps on the whole record, amazingly, he manages to come across hard and street ready, on “Never Crossed My Mind” (“I would fight 10 kids / And would fly all heads / I would even fight dragons / ’Til they’d be dead”). What’s even more amusing is that he manages to fuse this nugget of street bombast with his primary calling card, that sort of aw-shucks, self-deprecating sense of humor we hear on “I Wish”: “I was illiterate / And talkin’ gibberish / But never considerate of the way I’d treat friends”. And I mean, the guy can flow: this wordplay right here should give you an idea of his potential for verbal acrobatics, and he unfurls all this diction out in a tight enough little shoebox to make it digestible, understandable and easy to listen to. It’s undeniable, multi-pronged skill manifest on the mic, at work here, in other words.
All of this banter surely begs the question as to why Skee-Lo is never mentioned among the greatest rappers of the ’90s (sh**, even greatest rappers to put out an album in ’95), let alone of “all time.” The plain truth is that the 90s were just hard: the biggest names in rap around this time were definitely 2pac and Biggie, along with Wu-Tang, Cypress Hill, Bone and Mobb Deep, and each of their strong emphasis on gun violence. Don’t get me wrong: Skee-Lo touches on this sh** too. But he’s low-key about it and the messages in the songs don’t GLORIFY violence — it’s more like Big L’s “Street Struck”; where he finally pulls the cup and tells us, yo, this ghetto life is a bum trip and “Word up I try to leave the streets alone”. I would even draw a stalwart comparison to Big L, believe it or not, despite the fact that Skee-Lo doesn’t even curse, primarily for “Top of the Stairs”; an anthropologcal enquiry mimicking L’s “No Endz, No Skins” for its diagramming the social hierarchies prevalent in the ghetto: “No one really cares about the guy on the bottom… Everybody wants to be down with the dude on top of the stairs”. But for decades Skee-Lo has been sanctioned by pop culture for what basically amounts to a lack of pretentious, or sadistic, affinity for and fixation on gun violence. In this peril, we’ve ignored a great emcee, and one that’s far more skilled, well-rounded and streetwise than almost anyone outside of a select few probably realizes.
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