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Memphis Flyer Smoked Out

Three 6 Mafia's latest may be the biggest record out of Memphis in years, but is it all good?

By Chris Herrington

JULY 24, 2000:  I'll be honest -- since exploring the Hypnotize Minds catalog about a year ago for an article in these pages, I've made it a point to avoid anything related to Three 6 Mafia. As a music writer in Memphis, I'd like nothing more than to be a fan of the city's most popular musical export, but this stuff turns me off in every conceivable way--aurally, morally, politically, you name it--and I'm a huge hip-hop fan.

But when the group's latest, When the Smoke Clears, debuted at number six on Billboard's album chart, it was obviously time to reevaluate. Even in a musical climate conservative and aggressive enough to embrace rape-inciting goons like Limp Bizkit, Three 6 Mafia's pleasureless, rabidly antisocial horrorcore hip-hop couldn't possibly break this wide without exhibiting some degree of um progress? Could it?

So, have they gotten any better? The answer: kinda, sorta. On the new album's "Mafia N****z," the group chants, "We gotta come like we're equipped to pull back on some triggers. We gotta come, you know that devil shit is still up in us" over a "chilling" sample that reeks of second-rate horror movie soundtracks. But the reckless, kitchen-sink sensationalism of previous Hypnotize Minds projects has been toned down in favor of more believable hyperboles about "street" life. And musically, though the group's rough, hectoring flow isn't any easier on the ears, they've recruited some more talented vocal acrobats for guest duty in the form of Houston's UGK and Big Gipp of Atlanta's Goodie Mob.

But the breakout success of When the Smoke Clears is a shock only partly due to its local status. Never mind B.B. King or the local-through-technicality likes of 'N Sync -- Memphis no longer expects true homegrown products to make such a huge national splash. How long has it been since a true local album made top ten Billboard?

Beyond that, When the Smoke Clears might be about as unlikely a national top ten record as there's ever been. That might sound like an exaggeration to those who'd point out platinum-selling, so-called gangsta rap artists from N.W.A. to New Orleans' currently ubiquitous Cash Money crew. But, though most people aren't moved to make these kinds of subcultural distinctions, Three 6 Mafia shares exactly none of the redeeming traits exhibited by any of the roughly similar artists who have dented the national charts.

When the Smoke Clears contains none of N.W.A.'s political rage, and the group's literally fantastic "reality rap" (as lone female member Gangsta Boo has called it) conveys none of the reportorial integrity of artists as disparate as New York's late Notorious B.I.G. or Houston's much-maligned Geto Boys. Of all the subgenre touchstones Three 6 Mafia's success conjures, the closest comparison is probably Dr. Dre's epochal The Chronic. When the Smoke Clears shares that record's unnerving, amoral coldness and calculated, bone-deep cynicism, but there's no MC in the Three 6 contingent as distinctive as Snoop Dogg.

As for the difference between the Hypnotize Minds camp and their Crescent City competitors Cash Money (or even the more cartoonish No Limit), that can be boiled down to three letters: F-U-N. On When the Smoke Clears, sex-soaked songs like "From Da Back" and "Tongue Ring" display the same depressing attitudes toward intimacy as previous Three 6 Mafia releases: Sex is a crude, pathetic transaction that turns every woman into a prostitute and every man into a john (or rapist). By contrast, the horny party vibe (and butt-shaking beats) of N'awlins cuts like the 504 Boyz' "Wobble, Wobble" and Juvenile's near-historic "Back That Azz Up" is so infectious and good-natured that minor qualms about misogyny don't stand a chance.

In a recent feature on Three 6 Mafia in The Village Voice, appropriately titled "Memphis Bleak," the paper's critic wrote that the music of the Hypnotize Minds crew is "the least soulful, least upbeat black pop Memphis has ever produced," and then tried to defend what he perceived would be taken as an outlandish comment. But we all know better. Hypnotize Minds have often stated their desire to build a music empire on the Stax model, and their commitment to building it locally is commendable. But musically speaking, they've got a long way to go.

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