McKinley “Mac” Phipps is a piece of New Orleans history in his own right. Born in Uptown’s 3rd Ward in 1977, he grew up with hip hop – writing his first rap at the age of 7. By the age of 11, he had secured a record deal with a local label and put out an LP as Lil Mac. As the 90’s rolled in, Mac was one of the most recognizable faces on the New Orleans hip hop scene, notable for his distinct East Coast-like delivery and vocal clarity.
After inking a deal with powerhouse No Limit Records, Mac released his national debut, Shell Shocked, in the summer of 1998. The album proved to be very successful and confirmed lyricism at a high level existed on the Tank. Although 1999 saw the departure of nearly half of the label’s roster, Mac opted to stay with the company that had forever changed his life and fulfill his contractual obligations. Originally titled The Ghetto Commando, his sophomore LP was soon thereafter changed to the apocalyptic World War III. On September 28, 1999, Mac released his crown jewel and last album for 20+ years after wrongfully being convicted of manslaughter in 2001.
World War III’s Intro is a militant message that Mac is “willing to proceed with firm action” should No Limit continue to be the target of malicious battle records. It also introduces his Black Lion Coalition, offering a glimpse of the young MC’s plans for the future, and reaffirms that he will not surrender and refuses to die. The album’s first and only single is the uptempo War Party – a Spanish-flavored collaboration with TRU Records’ Magic and new No Limit recruit, D.I.G. It’s standard soldier fare but remains a fun record nonetheless.
Best Friends is a wonderfully-narrated example of betrayal from someone he once considered a brother. The self-proclaimed Murda Prince makes repeated attempts at reconciliation but soon realizes the only option is his enemy’s death. Renoir’s saddened production only enhances this classic. Like Before is another somber number that finds Mac struggling to maintain a relationship. Partner-in-rhyme Storm returns in fine form to play the role of scorned lover over bounce-driven XL bass. And by the outro, it actually is a bounce record with Magic and the gang showing up for those classic New Orleans chants. We Deadly, a dark Deadly Soundz contribution, features Master P and is most certainly a response to Pastor Troy’s anti-No Limit summer anthem, We Ready. You feel the anger in P’s verse, but Mac absolutely murders the mic on this one.
“My rap style is kill, kill…never forget that
See the wig? Split that, you get that? It’s that simple…
Talk is cheaper than generic goods
We Deadly Apostles, that means respected in EVERY hood!”
Bloody, with its staccato rhythm, allows Mac and Magic to display a versatile, quicker flow that feels sharp and seamless. Mac revamps an earlier verse from What Cha Mean, while both artists deliver on what remains one of my personal favorites. U Never Know is another tale of personal betrayal backed by ominous C-Los production. Mia X guests, offering much-needed advice about smiling faces whose mask of love disguises hate. Mac and Mia were always two of the Tank’s more gifted MCs and don’t disappoint in the slightest here.
Just Another Thug, with its laid back vibe, is the formal introduction to Mac’s young crooner, Jahbo. There’s a bit of Michael Jackson in his voice and it works perfectly with this C-Murder-assisted hook. As impressive as these two are though, Mac once again steals the spotlight with mature and thought-provoking commentary. His growth is probably most evident on the timeless Battle Cry (Tomorrow), a balanced view of the ghetto with all its pitfalls and traps. Listening to this 20 years later, it’s amazing to think that it came from the perspective of a 22 year old.
“I struggled and strived, long as I been alive…
Witnessed my first murder back in 1985
I walked with the wicked, and kicked it with the thugs…
In fact, dodged the police and sold some bud
But never no love, I witnessed the sickness of unprotected lust…
So many children born just because the rubber busts
I sympathize with the mothers, but fuck the men…
Cause a man ain’t shit if he’s no papa to his children”
If It’s Cool is Mac running game on wax over a signature Raj Smoove instrumental. The scratches and sprinkling in of Tupac’s “is it cool to fuck?” feels fresh and vibrant. This is how you make a radio-friendly cut without sounding forced.
World War III only briefly comes up for air though before immediately returning to chaos and paranoia with Cops & Robbers. Those familiar with Mac’s history know that before he ended up with No Limit, he once collaborated with an up-and-coming rapper by the name of B.G. The song was called Niggas N Trouble and established itself as one of the stronger spots on B.G.’s classic, Chopper City. With No Limit and Cash Money now at odds, Mac uses the intro to salute his friend before running through three excellent verses.
Following Cops & Robbers is the poignant and ultimately foreshadowing Lock Down (Remix). Originally recorded for the I’m Bout It Soundtrack in 1997, Mac’s spirit was clearly drawn back to its heavy-hearted subject matter. It works much more effectively here; the production is stripped down and barren, allowing the lyrics to pierce through. Knowing Mac’s fate a few short months after its release, this is at times a painful listen. Its depressing and Makaveli-an all at once, and remains his signature song to this day.
World War III pushes its brilliance forward with the eerie Paradise. Samm, of Mac’s Warlocks sect, makes his No Limit debut alongside Popeye and Mac. Samm and Popeye’s talent are evident but Mac simply won’t be outdone on his own project. With each passing song, his venom becomes that much more potent – it really is Game 6 Michael Jordan stuff:
“Eating Popeye’s chicken and biscuits..
With a little jelly for my little belly, that I just can’t fill…
Cause mama barely make the bills
And I know shit’s real, when we go to school just to eat meals…
And for dinner we got sleep, nigga…it’s deep, nigga”
That’s Hip Hop is Mac’s organic dissection of rap’s mainstream arena. A backpacker at heart, he relishes in kicking street corner rhymes over handclaps and a funky Bass Heavy guitar. Biters, sellouts and studio gangsters are all led to a lyrical slaughter over this old school number. Can U Love Me? (Eyes Of A Killer), at least for me personally, is one of the purest hip hop songs ever made. Again, Mac displays wisdom not of his age, questioning everything from God’s promises to what is truly right or wrong when faced with life or death. Its gentle piano keys and Spanish guitar provide a rich backdrop for Mac’s inquisitive content.
Genocide (Skit) features children (played by Mac’s younger siblings) in a classroom being questioned about the meaning of genocide. The song of the same name immediately follows and is another reflective view of unforgivable choices one has to make, or not make, growing up in the ghetto. Father’s Day offers a glimpse into Mac’s heart, specifically his love for children and resentment of parents who abandon them. Mac again displays a willingness to touch on topics all too often avoided. This “radio be damned, I’m going to say what I have to say” attitude is what makes World War III so raw and ambitious.
Still Callin’ Me, a sequel to Callin’ Me, comes up just a bit short. The production is a little too relaxed and lacks the charm of the original. Assassin Nation is WWIII’s last full entry and ends it on the highest of notes. This, like We Deadly and Bloody before it, is a lyrical exercise over a haunting Raj Smoove groove. Smoove masterfully weaves in excerpts of Nas’ N.Y. State Of Mind, while Mac bodies that signature soldier style he’s come to be known for. The album’s Outro is a continuation of Shell Shocked, although much more bluesy and seasoned this time around. It’s almost as if eagerness is replaced with wariness; a subtle shift after being exposed to years of war.
Pound for pound, World War III is the most introspective and fleshed out album to come from No Limit Records. It’s flawless in foundation and execution, and sounds as riveting and sharp as it did when first released. There are a million and one “what if” stories in hip hop history but the biggest for me will always be…what if McKinley Phipps wasn’t locked up for a crime he clearly didn’t commit? What if he continued his career on its then trajectory…was he capable of topping this masterpiece? Sadly, these are questions we’ll never know the answers to. All we can do is appreciate the classics that he gave us and continue championing his freedom.
Overall Vibes: 10/10