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NGZ 20 Year Anniversary Series: Fiend – Street Life [Album Review]

Ricky “Fiend” Jones made his No Limit debut on the hugely popular soundtrack for Master P’s first film endeavor, I’m Bout It, in May of 1997. The booming, Colors-inspired Don’t Mess Around put the struggling artist ON THE MAP. Not only was it an incredible song, it was prominently featured during one of the more gripping scenes of the movie. Shortly after the release of I’m Bout It, Jones made it official with the Colonel and inked a deal with the rapidly-ascending No Limit brand.

If Don’t Mess Around reeled listeners in, they were hooked on his brand of “ghetto dope” after spotlight-stealing performances on smashes such as Make Em Say Ugh, Tryin’ 2 Do Something and Captain Kirk. He released his No Limit debut (and sophomore LP), There’s One In Every Family, almost a year to the day of signing with Master P and found himself standing tall on the top of the rap game. The sprawling 75 minute endeavor featured some of Beats By The Pound’s most polished production and quickly shipped gold.

No Limit’s run in 1998 was unlike anything seen before or after, but they say all good things must come to an end. And that end began with Master P chasing childhood hoop dreams and stepping away from the day-to-day operations at the company. That, coupled with a crowded roster and growing fan fatigue, caused No Limit’s popularity to wane significantly. Tasked with anchoring the label’s musical direction (along with stalwarts C-Murder and KLC), Fiend began work on his third album. Only this time, he approached it from a completely different perspective and crafted most of its concepts and ideas while touring in Europe. He admitted later that there was a period of clarity during these sessions; it was almost as if the pen was the driving force and he just let it happen. Today, Newtral Groundz celebrates 20 years of Fiend’s magnum opus, Street Life.

It begins with an eponymous reflection on Fiend’s introduction to the concrete jungle. C-Los’ weeping guitar and soft drums add depth to this spoken-word appetizer. As Fiend details, the streets are where he makes his money and feeds his people. Above all though, it’s real to him and provides the source of inspiration for his 3rd solo offering. The album officially gets underway with The Rock Show – a charged up KLC number with enough bass to quake blocks for miles. Add some jubilant horns and what you’re left with is that signature Sleepy Eyed Jones sound. Talk It Like I Bring It is Street Life’s first single and plays like a cool-but-confident cut tailored for small clubs. Fiend’s flow is as sharp as ever over KL’s roomy bass, while a light, jingle-esque vamp adds a nice touch throughout.

Street Life has always been categorized as an insulated, organic project that brought out the best of Fiend’s artistry. It’s as if he locked himself in a basement with his most trusted contributors and simply made music. This feel is perhaps most evident on War 4 Reason, a methodical and resistant song that finds Mr. Jones deep in the trenches – combat ready and battle-tested. Hell, it even starts off with KLC proclaiming that the record is being cut at 4:30 in the morning on a tireless spring night. And the momentum only picks up with Get In 2 It, a rowdy collaboration with the unladylike diva, Mia X. Both artists compliment each other well but Fiend’s gruff delivery ultimately shines brightest:

“I can’t give a nigga the satisfaction of altercations…
Miscommunication got his ass with a banged face in…
Chasing motherfuckers up the block if I have to…
Don’t think that I won’t smack you or bitch slap you…”

Longtime associates Mystikal and Skull Duggery accompany Mr. Whomp Whomp on the ominous and superbly-produced Ak’n Bad. One would correctly assume that Mystikal offers the best performance, especially after being conspicuously absent for most No Limit releases in 1999, but there’s really no weak spot here. All three MCs bring their A-game to this fan favorite. If Street Life has managed to offer some of Fiend’s hardest performances to date thus far, Heart Of A Ghetto Boy is undoubtedly the most introspective song of his career. Craig B.’s jazzy landscape is enhanced by the poignancy of Fiend’s uneasy subject matter, particularly the hopeless outlook of impoverished black teens. Soft whispers of “live, live, live…” are followed by “why? why? why?” Let this one sink in.

Trip To London, with its regretful tone, tells the tale of a murdered friend that might’ve managed to dodge the reaper had he joined Fiend on tour. Jackson, Mississippi’s Kage pops up for a quick 16 but doesn’t remain consistent with the song’s theme and probably would’ve been better off sitting this one out. The Truth Is is Street Life’s only attempt at appealing to the ladies and while it’s certainly not the album’s strongest entry, it doesn’t feel out of place at all, acting as a quasi-sequel to Ghetto Dope’s Tryin’ 2 Do Something.

The ever-animated Magic (who was poised for his own personal breakout with the following month’s release of his sophomore LP, Thuggin’) shows up for Been Thru It All – an upbeat production with an experimental guitar riff courtesy of The Drum Major. Magic and Fiend’s erratic back-and-forth exercise is fun, even if it is nothing more than the album’s meat and potatoes. Perhaps the most well known song of Jones’ solo catalogue also happens to be named after his most well known alias – Mr. Whomp Whomp. KL is again working the boards, this time sprinkling in some effects straight from Disney’s Space Mountain, but still packing enough punch for Fiend to bust on. Beyond making you want to start a riot at your local club, it also sports an impressive lyrical showing and remains the headliner at any Fiend concert.

The Ghetto Commission’s Holloway (who was always deserving of his own solo push) acts as the persuasive sidekick to an emotionally unstable Fiend on I Was Placed Here, a song that finds the latter on the brink of insanity after a lifetime of setbacks. The story ends with Holloway aggressively turning around their Cutlass, after spotting an adversary, so Fiend can “handle his business.” And handle his business he does on I’m Losing My Mind, another truculent track that finds Jones’ imbalanced alter ego killing someone for even suggesting that he poached their rhyme book and bit their style. The third installment of this brief trilogy of murder music is They Don’t Hear Me. The chorus is comprised of chants of “you don’t want to fuck around with me, dog!” That much is evident after the death of the last person to step to “Get It On Jones.”

If They Don’t Know acts as a quick interlude but instead of padding it out with some bland skit, Fiend breathes more fire on another prime-era KL production. Walk That Line pulls from the bounce nostalgia of There’s One In Every Family’s For The N.O. and gives the listener a glimpse of the New Orleans you don’t typically see on T.V. KLC creates a second line atmosphere (and lends backing vocals throughout) as Fiend uses his sing-a-long flow to shout out various projects and hot spots. Street Life concludes much like TOIEF by scaling the excitement back for a closing moment of reflection. Waiting On God finds Fiend with a much more relaxed tone, tackling everything from racism, inner city violence and economic inequality:

“I’m just sitting here, waiting on God…
So I can ask Him, is life supposed to be this hard?
Cause, the truth is I know He cares for me…
Just I want to know if there’s a place up there for me”

Sadly, Street Life was Fiend’s last release for the label he’ll always be associated with. Even more significant, it marked the last time Beats By The Pound did any type of production for the Tank. As popular as Master P was becoming in California throughout those early years, the No Limit sound was built on the backs of KLC, Mo B. Dick, O’Dell and Craig B. That much isn’t up for debate. And it’s no coincidence that BBTP’s departure (along with foundational pieces like Fiend, Big Ed, Mr. Serv-On and so on) helped shift interest from No Limit to their crosstown rivals, Cash Money Records.

Politics and financial disputes aside, however, Street Life is a brilliant album that ultimately goes down as the greatest effort in a 25 year career chalked full of great efforts. Fiend’s songwriting, creative approach and musical output peaked with this – his 3rd and finest album to date.

Overall Vibes: 9.6/10

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