By the time Da Next Level was released on February 16, 1999, Corey “Mr. Serv-On” Smith was a highly decorated veteran in the No Limit Army. Having enlisted in 1994, he was among the first wave of artists signed to the legendary New Orleans label that was actually from the Big Easy. No Limit CEO Percy Miller befriended Serv-On well before venturing into the music business, with the two routinely playing basketball together in the Calliope’s Rosenwald Gym. A chance encounter, years later, at the Jack The Rapper conference in Atlanta saw them reunited under unique circumstances.
Mr. Serv-On, up to this point, had connected with a local DJ and producer by the name of KLC. KLC’s upstart Parkway Pumpin’ Records ended up being the launchpad for many N.O.-based artists, but struggled mightily from a financial standpoint. Surviving solely on Ruffles chips and honey buns, KL and Serv hit the road in a desperate attempt to network with the likes of Jermaine Dupri and Suge Knight, two of the hottest young moguls in the game, at the Jack The Rapper summit. What ultimately ended up happening was an all-out brawl between Uncle Luke’s camp and the Death Row entourage. It was during this melee that Serv recognized his old friend, Percy Miller (now going by the stage name Master P), and exchanged numbers and demo tapes after discovering P had started his own label in Richmond, California.
After much back-and-forth, with Serv-On still in and out of the streets hustling, P finally convinced both him and KLC to fly to California and formally join the No Limit family in the winter of 1994. Although it was still primarily a West Coast-flavored label, Serv, along with transplants KLC, Mo B. Dick and Mia X, shifted the sound of the company dramatically. KL and Mo formed the production supergroup, Beats By The Pound, shortly thereafter and the rest was history. Within 3 years, No Limit Records catapulted to superstardom and firmly solidified themselves as the label in hip hop.
Serv’s debut album, Life Insurance, was released in August 1997 during the commercial ascension of the Tank, and proved to be an unfiltered, hardcore offering that shipped over 400,000 copies. By 1998 though, the roster ballooned to nearly 25 acts and nearly all 25 acts squeezed out an album during this calendar year alone. It was this crowded environment that inspired Serv to head an entirely different direction vocally with his follow-up. In an attempt to further separate himself from the pack, he began crafting a speedy, experimental flow that featured him spelling out various portions of his bars. Released in the 1st quarter of ‘99, Da Next Level entered the R&B & Hip Hop charts at no. 1 and continued No Limit’s monstrous late 90’s run.
Da Next Level starts with “Forever My Life: The Beginning”, a melancholic, spoken-word intro featuring Mr. Serv-On, C-Murder, Mia X and Fiend reminiscing on the loss of their closest friends and siblings. “Tank Nigga” is the first real song of the album and, in hindsight, ended up being the last real soldier song No Limit released. Fiend, C-Murder, Mac, Lil Soldiers, Big Ed and Kane & Abel all make appearances over this KL-produced gem. When discussing No Limit anthems, this song is somehow always overlooked.
“Boot Em Up” is another underrated cut, despite relatively simplistic production. Fiend lends another hook and verse, while Serv and Mystikal bring added energy (and comedy in Mystikal’s case) to this club-inspired beat. The fourth track, and first and only single, is “From N.Y. To N.O.” – a bouncy south-to-east collaboration featuring none other than the Bronx’s finest, Big Pun. The chemistry here is surprisingly sharp and translates to the video (filmed in Manhattan’s Time Square) as well. This proved to be one of Pun’s last high-profile features before his untimely death a year later.
Visions of overcrowded clubs and elbows being thrown come to mind when listening to “F.U. Serv”, a raucous number with a deep bass line. “Murder”s’ music is supplied by Deadly Soundz’ Ke’Noe and features TRU Records artist, Magic. After spending most of 1998 emulating Tupac, Master P’s influence on Magic’s delivery is all but gone and C-Murder’s first signee does not disappoint, attacking the instrumental with ferocity and hunger. Not one to be outdone, Mr. Serv-On exercises a faster flow and delivers equally as strong. Serv takes a break from the typical No Limit fare with “I Hate The Way I Live”, a reflective and vulnerable piece that remains a signature song in his catalogue:
“Niggas close to me, too scared to let me fly…niggas close to me ain’t scared to let me die/What I’m riding for, ain’t nobody fighting for, ya heard me?” I hate the way I live!”
Following “I Hate The Way I Live” is “Best Friend II” – a sequel to Life Insurance’s single of the same name. C-Murder replaces Master P this go round but sticks to the same formula, blatantly snatching Pac’s flow for the hook. The song isn’t a total dud but lacks the charm of its predecessor. Shifting back to the streets, “1, 2, 3” is tailored for hole-in-the-wall clubs; a lane where Mr. Serv-On shines brightest. Accompanied by The Ghetto Commission’s Holloway (who provides adlibs for the chorus), Serv holds nothing back with lines like:
“I’m that thought in your mind when you see the nigga that snitched on ya…I’m that shame in your heart when all your niggas find out you like bitches to piss on ya!”
Anyone familiar with No Limit’s interpolations of classic hip hop songs, knows C-Murder is usually the one behind each concept. “Straight Outta N.O.” is no different. C revamps N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton”, bringing Magic with him to hold down the 9th Ward while Serv-On holds down 6th & Barone. This remake is incredibly entertaining, with Magic and Serv engaging in the age-old Uptown vs. Downtown debate. “Snatch Them Hoez Up” is the obligatory twerk track but suffers from bland production, and even though “My Homies” is clearly the obligatory I-miss-my-homies track: it works. The Sons Of Funk provide the hook, with their lead singer, Rico, also producing. This sad number is cut from the same cloth as Silkk The Shocker’s “It’s Going Around Outside”, released just a month prior.
“This Is 4 My Niggaz” features another quartet, only this time it’s Spiral’s The Ghetto Commission (one of the more underutilized groups on the Tank at the time). The vibe here is just as bleak as “My Homies”, an obvious departure from the aggressive nature of the first half of the album. Beats By The Pound anchor and part-time crooner, O’Dell, does his best Brian McKnight impersonation on “Freaky Dreams.” The song tries it’s hardest to replicate “Back To One” but falls far short. “Make Em Bleed” returns Mr. Serv-On to his comfort zone – “fake Tank snatching”, while professing his “dick gets hard” when (Master) P puts stripes on his sleeve. BBTP’s signature bass rifts allow Serv to “Hit The Block” and “Strap Up” for more club-aimed, uptempo numbers. Some would argue it’s overkill 16 songs into the album, but this is precisely what fans are hoping for when purchasing a Mr. Serv-On album.
“I’ll Be There” is a promise to all close family and friends, with Ms. Peaches’ heartfelt hook adding a warm layer to the production. Similar concepts have been explored in the No Limit camp but there’s a certain authenticity here that can’t be overlooked. KLC and Serv take it back to the beginning of their careers with “My Story”, a detailed account of both artists’ trials and tribulations while struggling to make a name for themselves. Even local legends like MC Dart get a shoutout, as Serv takes a trip down memory lane. “I Luv It” has a smooth Atlanta backwoods backdrop but just as Serv-On starts to find his groove, it abruptly ends. Although Da Next Level offers more than enough material, this song could’ve been a little longer. He informally concludes the project with “The Last Song” – an uplifting proclamation of his faith in the Lord through difficult times. It also serves as a dedication to his murdered cousin (notorious Calliope kingpin) Randall Watts:
“My cousin Slim body had 18 holes in it…
And get this, they say if I say his name on a song, my body gon’ have even mo’ in it!”
“Forever My Life: The End” is the conclusion of the project and plays like the end credits of a classic shoot em up flick, with Serv reflecting on life over a mafioso-inspired instrumental.
Da Next Level, in hindsight, was the commercial pinnacle of Mr. Serv-On’s career. A mere six months after its release, Serv joined countless other No Limit artists and defected, opting to start his own company – Lifetime Entertainment. Although he would continue releasing projects independently throughout the 00’s, none would come close to matching the success he achieved in 1999. The album is also significant in that it’s really the last of “classic era” No Limit product – a project with Beats By The Pound in complete control and the majority of the No Limit roster featuring. All subsequent releases noticeably lacked the family feel that made the Tank what it was. If you can find the original press (green CD case and all), I highly recommend picking it up; the music more than holds up 20 years later.
Overall Vibes: 7.1/10