Whoops!: Run-DMC, “Crown Royal”

Written by Music, Whoops!

They were tougher than leather, but these three Queens legends weren’t strong enough to resist the temptation of the cameo-laden rap album…and with Crown Royal, they paid the price.

Let it first be proclaimed that talking the smack about Run-DMC pains me on a very deep and contemplative level; it feels much like punching my grandfather, or making fun of my son’s hair when he stumbles up in the morning (to be fair, though, he looks totally drunk, and it’s kind of hilarious).

But Raising Hell was the first real cassette I ever high-speed dubbed (though I made sure to awkwardly snip out the super-bad words), and my entry into not only hip-hop but the greater world in general, as at the time I was living in a one-stoplight whistle-stop called Upland, Ind., where it was generally accepted that the music world basically began and ended with Amy Grant. My devotion lasted through for years, too, through Tougher Than Leather, through Down with the King, and through the first seven seconds of Crown Royal, which immediately thereafter turned into a pretty shocking platter of comprehensive suck.

Crown Royal has more problems than South Carolina’s political structure, but the main one is that it is a Run-DMC record like I am Lou Rawls. Because of his highly unfortunate yet crippling vocal issues, and because of the record’s guest-stuffed blueprint, Jam Master Jay’s production is all but absent and DMC doesn’t appear on the record much more than I do. (Indeed, DMC’s vocal problems had exploded by this point, and it was no secret that he’d grown more and more disenchanted leading up to the record’s oft-delayed release.)

So, Run compensated. Sure, in 2001 everyone in the world was using the guest-list thing to launch their comebacks in the wake of the Santana Supernatural behemoth, but this thing sports a cast that looked bad in 2001 and damn near suicidal in 2010: Fred Durst, Everlast, Jagged Edge, Sugar Ray, the guy from Third Eye Jesus Wept Blind. But at least the Supernatural guest stars played to the style of their gracious host, where Crown Royal found Rev. Run scrambling to catch up by trying to cover all genres of The Billboard 200.

Weirdly, the fatal absence of DMC doesn’t stop Run from frequently name-checking his MIA colleague, but without his foil Run sounds like he’s paddling in a sea of newcomers, with not much to do but repeatedly — so very repeatedly — proclaim his own importance. Sure, that can’t really be overstated, but after three tracks or so one really starts thirsting for a track about girls or something. Disastrously, it’s provided by Run and Fred Durst, whose “Them Girls” is about how they like all the girls, which sounds predictably lame from Durst, but creepily off-base coming from a newly christened reverend (especially one who’s espousing the virtues of his wife and home life like two songs later).

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Most of the poorly chosen guest stars fare about that well. With the exception of maybe Method Man and Nas, the guest stars illustrated just how far rap hadn’t come. Kid Rock did his pre-jerking off-Skynyrd thing on “The School of Old,” which is amazing when you consider the number of people who must have thought that was a good title. Stephen Jenkins of Third Eye Blind sounds like he went into the wrong studio. Sugar Ray plays Sugar Ray music as Run conspicuously handles DMC’s verse on “Here We Go 2001.” (Things aren’t all lost. The Jermaine Dupri-produced opening track “It’s Over,” all rubber groove and Carmina Burana samples, gets the head bobbing, but it sounds so similar to the Side B track “Let’s Stay Together” that I thought I downloaded the same song twice.)

To have this forced awkwardness be the last recording with Jam Master Jay, who was killed a year and a half later, is a crushing blow; and of the group’s subsequent solo releases, Run’s Distortion was under 25 minutes long and DMC’s Checks, Thugs and Rock N’ Roll was noteworthy mostly for a single in which the chorus of “Cats in the Cradle” was sung by fellow adoptee Sarah McLachlan, which will, hopefully one day, make for the weirdest Lilith Fair moment ever. Crown Royal, party people, will leave your dreams most unfulfilled.

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