Band/Artist: MC Ren
Origins: Compton, California, USA
Studio albums: 4
Taste Test: Playlist
Good day denizens of Sputnik, and welcome to the seventh instalment of my diagnosis series. After covering a mixture of rock and metal bands, I thought I’d tap into some hip-hop, and more specifically, highlight an underrated MC in the game: Ren. For my money, Ren is a great rapper – his baritone voice has the same kind of well-rounded warmth and weight to it his peers Ice Cube and Dre have, and his feral attitude and cold-killer bars make his discography a very engaging one. Yet, he’s not really talked about a great deal. Why? Well, being in, arguably, the most important hip-hop act in music history won’t have made his situation any easier, giving that N.W.A was comprised of pedigree talents Ice Cube, Eazy-E and Dr. Dre, all of whom went off to shatter and re-define the genre with their own solo careers. As such, while MC Ren didn’t grapple the zeitgeist as aggressively as Ice Cube say, his music still deserves every hip-hop fan’s attention.
The Doctor’s rating: 4/5
Analysis: After the success of his debut EP Kizz My Black Azz in 1992, with the aid of Eazy-E, Ren set to work on a 1993 follow-up titled Shock of the Hour – a rock-solid meat and potatoes record that highlights Ren’s talents and offers a buckshot of undeniable instrumentals. For me, the biggest downfall on here is the lyrics, spitting about, frankly, trite topics: bitches, ballin’, and fat Gs. I can’t be too critical of this mind, since this was the fertile year of 1993 when this stuff still sounded fresh. That aside, Shock of the Hour is a pretty unique album, using the tried-and-true Compton formula, but lacquering the head-bobbing beats with horror-esque atmospherics. Ren’s flows have that calculated ruthlessness Cube’s earlier works are so well-known for, but the beats here are met with dejected electronics that give off this unsettling vibe. “Attack on Babylon” with its haunting industrial groans, the apocalyptic “Shock of the Hour”, with its elasticated bassline, creepy scream sample, and Ren’s dominating rhymes, and “One False Move” and “All Bullshit Aside”’s stalking electronics all make it feel like Ren is spitting in the centre of civilization’s collapse. There are some conventional numbers here, like “Same Old Shit” and “You Wanna Fuck Her”, but it’s the aforementioned tracks that make this album and Ren stand out from other MCs.
Prescription: A great first album. What distinguishes Ren from his peers is he takes the album’s mood to really dark places, with moments that border on industrial’s nihilistic sensibilities. Listen to it 3-4 times a day for a week, then jam where necessary after that.
The Villain in Black (1996)
The Doctor’s rating: 4/5
Analysis: For the most part, The Villain in Black is everything you’d want in a sophomore album. It takes the majority of its predecessor’s strongest qualities and works to improve upon them. The most notable upgrade is the production, which is now a lot punchier, and Ren’s flows and approach to writing, structure and lyrical composition is much more varied this time around, displaying his talents on a much broader scale. However, The Villain in Black makes a shift away from the end-of-the-world-styled sounds of Shock of the Hour in favour of a more traditional hip-hop one. There’s nothing wrong with this, and on its own merits it’s an excellent record, but it’s hard not to be a little disappointed by Ren stripping the creepy horror show aesthetics from last time. Still, compared to this, Shock of the Hour feels a little more one-dimensional, with The Villain in Black offering a more intricate experience with a lot of facets to unearth, including guitar passages and a great emphasis on ribcage rattling sub.
Prescription: The Villain in Black is a worthy successor and continues to improve on Ren’s formula. It lacks the same unique style the debut had, but it more than makes up for it with more varied songwriting, a better production, and Ren spreading his wings to showcases his capabilities as a spitter. Listen to it 3-4 times a day for a week, then jam where necessary after that.
Ruthless for Life (1998)
The Doctor’s rating: 3.2/5
Analysis: The dreaded third album is a daunting task for any artist worth their salt; it’s a hurdle that gets a lot of people, especially the ones that preceded with two high-quality records. In hindsight, it also tends to be the moment in time where the said artist attempts to shake things up – be it stripping a particular stigma, or maybe just being bored of doing what they’ve been doing thus far. For Ren, his 1998 album, Ruthless for Life, isn’t a failure but you can feel the arthritis beginning to set in. Ruthless for Life is a much smoother offering than last time – the record is heavily produced and contains barrel loads of samples and effects over the status quo hip-hop low-end, finishing off the presentation with a hedonistic, slick finish. Indeed, for those who loved the terror-induced bleakness of the debut album, or the delicate balance between technical proficiency and street grit on The Villain in Black, you might be a little disappointed with this record’s sanitisation. Artistic aspirations aside, there’s a host of prolific guest spots dotted along the tracklisting, including Ice Cube, RBX and Snoop Dogg, however these appearances are far from highlights on here. Ice Cube’s spot is quite disappointing and “Comin’ After You” is a little dull, honestly. Still, the authoritative grooves and Ren’s further-improved display of talent makes the record a very solid outing. The problem is that the record lacks charisma and buries itself in hundreds of other albums sounding like this at the time.
Prescription: It’s not a bad album, but it’s certainly run-of-the-mill hip-hop that lacks its own unique voice. Ren is excellent on this, hell, it might even have his best performances hitherto. It’s just a shame the production choices and styles don’t meet the same standards. Give it a spin once and see how you get on.
The Doctor’s rating: 4.2/5
Analysis: In a way, Reincarnated is a return to Ren’s roots and indeed, is certainly a return to form. Just over a decade after the production-heavy Ruthless for Life, Ren releases Reincarnated on his record label Villain Entertainment, after parting ways with Ruthless Records, and sets out to deliver the most barebones album of his career. Considering 2009 was an era where hip-hop was heavily produced and reliant on experimentation – mainly mixing hip-hop’s precepts with vapid pop tropes – Ren veers course and delivers a brutally austere album that leaves Ren’s rhymes, story-telling, and overall talents to do the talking. This is Ren going into the bush alone, with little to no assistance from previous long-standing friends and partners like DJ Yella. Maybe feeling he made his last record a little too polished, he throws all of that out of the window here and makes Reincarnated’s songs pithy and effective: a pounding drum beat and a snappy melody, that’s the extent of the music running in the background here, so Ren can unleash his savage flows and intriguing lyrics onto the listener. It’s a tough one for me, because I love the vibes and songwriting on the first two albums, but Reincarnated’s lean run time and punchy no-messing songwriting make it a runner for Ren’s greatest artistic statement yet.
Prescription: A fantastic return to form for MC Ren and debatably his best album to date. Listen to it 3-4 times a day for a week, then jam where necessary after that.
Kizz My Black Azz (1992) – An excellent debut EP that sets up his bright future.
Osiris (2022) – Ren returns after 13 years of silence to unleash yet another unwaveringly excellent batch of tracks. No matter what trends come in and out of fashion, Ren remains steadfast and does his own thing, killing it every time. A great EP that shows no sign of him fading out.
Diagnosis: Going through all of MC Ren’s work is a joy to sit through. He hasn’t made anything that remoulds the formula, which could be why he’s overshadowed in the pantheon of the obvious greats, but he’s always utilised the tools within the framework with an intimidating efficiency. Even the mighty names like Ice Cube, Eminem, 50-Cent, Jay-Z and Dre have served up iffy moments that capitulate, to some degree, to the current trends. MC Ren can proudly proclaim he hasn’t made anything that kowtows to the current day thing and has simply made stuff he wants to, on his own terms. If you haven’t already, check out his work.