Why the Pen is Mightier than the Sword: 20 Years of Scarface's "The Diary"
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Scarface is in an elite class of emcees. He is, as the saying goes, “your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper.” What he lacks in mainstream recognition is more than made up for by the affect he has had on countless others that followed him. And Face’s influence only looms larger with time. Case in point: his third solo album, The Diary. It’s a 43-minute collection of thinking man’s hardcore Hip-Hop with themes as heavy as of some of its bass lines. Today, October 18, 2014, marks its 20th anniversary. So in honor of such a milestone, I want to pay homage to The Diary by recognizing it as the greatest southern solo offering in rap history.
Just as the title suggests, the album is very personal. Even the way it starts with the instrumental intro ending in gunfire, it sets the tone for how Scarface’s aggressive perspective is there for survival and not a violent or misogynistic agenda, like many detractors claim. The first three songs do play like a drive-by shooting, but the despair that’s incorporated into those rhymes let listeners know that his psyche is just as destroyed as the streets where the stop signs have bullet holes in them. For example, on “Jesse James,” Face says, “You ain’t no motherf***in’ gangsta, g / And when I get up out your a**, you gon’ realize it just ain’tsta be / It ain’t no studio up in me, and all that bulls**t I’m hearing you talk only offends me.” Every other rapper would stop there, but he took it further. “… Cause life has no meaning, no meaning / We were all born to die, so no screaming.”
At this point, it seems as if Scarface is ready to self-destruct - not unlike the film character from which Brad Jordan took his rap moniker from. But he doesn’t. Instead, he becomes introspective and is able to rap as Death itself in the last verse of “I Seen a Man Die.” “You start your journey into outer space / You see yourself in the light, but you’re still feeling outta place / So you standing in the tunnel of eternal life, and you see the ones you never learn to love in life / Make the choice, let it go but you can back it up / If you ain’t at peace with God, you need to patch it up.” This verse is one of the reasons I didn’t agree with Kanye West when he tweeted that the second verse of “New Slaves” is the best rap verse of all-time.
The following two songs on The Diary are about lust, which is also a topic that often fills the pages of a diary. And while there are references to sexual encounters, that’s nothing new. The thing that stands out most to me are the lyrics Scarface spits leading up to them. In the first of these two records, "One," he talks about pulling his shirt down to cover an erection. Then, on "Goin' Down," he explains how he picks up a woman by telling her that sex hasn’t crossed his mind in order to get her into bed. While one example is embarrassing and the other one is disgusting, they’re both honest. And that is what a diary, wether on wax or in writing, is all about.
Track 10, “Hand of the Dead Body,” finds Scarface and Ice Cube (the album’s only guest verse) in top form. Flipping the bird to the establishment is one thing, but the way that those two point out the hypocrisy of the media that criticize them is something different and even better. By giving specific examples and naming names, the ridiculousness of using rap as a scapegoat is vocalized loud and clear. “Mind Playin’ Tricks On Me ’94” is an obvious reprise of the Geto Boys’ masterpiece. Scarface’s sequel surpasses Willie D’s (“Is It Real [My Mind Still Playin’ Tricks on Me]” from Play Witcha Mama), but falls short of the original. However, Face’s follow-up continues to prove that him getting two verses the first go-round was no fluke and that the depth he put forth on that record (among others) is who he really is as an artist, as opposed to just sounding that way for a single song. The album’s title track is simply Scarface getting it in over a frantic N.O. Joe-crafted beat. Yes, he can write. But he can also kick rhymes purely for that sake of rapping and be just as distinguished.
There’s that cliché idea about how music is a mirror of society; I think, with The Diary, Brad Jordan instead put the mirror on his own mind and documented the results. 13 tracks of true paranoia and poignancy. So while Hip-Hop often changes the way people can see the world, Scarface’s third album is different because it changed the way people could see themselves. Rap hadn’t heard anything like it before … and probably never will again.
What do you think of The Diary? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below!