Hip Hop Culture for Grown-Ups
Words by Pierzy
“All you niggas that said that I turned pop, or The Firm flopped/
Y’all are the reason that Dre ain’t been getting no sleep”
– Dr. Dre, “Forgot About Dre”
It’s been nearly 15 years since the supergroup The Firm dropped their creatively titled effort, The Album, in October 1997, on Aftermath Entertainment. Produced by Dr. Dre and Trackmasters, it was the only LP the supergroup, which was led by Nas and featured AZ and Foxy Brown, would release. They had generated significant buzz by collaborating on a few songs together, most notably “Affirmative Action” off Nas’s It Was Written album, and considering the anticipation surrounding it and the individuals involved in creating it, The Firm (and The Album) is considered to be one of the biggest flops in hip-hop history. Since that time, everyone involved with the project has moved on – some to better things, some not so much – and they all try to pretend as if the whole thing never happened.
I, however, am still fascinated by it.
In my new book that’s available now, The Hip-Hop 10: The Best of the Best that Shaped the Music and the Culture, I wrote a chapter that addresses what I consider to be the ten biggest busts in the history of hip-hop. The question of The Firm was one of the more difficult ones for me to answer. Was the group a bust? How much of a bust was it? It’s not as simple as you may think.
If you were to ask any hip-hop fan about The Firm, they will probably grimace and try to change the subject. The die-hard fans of Nas and AZ treat it as if it were an artistic sabbatical in which the two experimented with weird sounds in order to find their true selves, like the Beastie Boys releasing an instrumental album or Prince changing his name to a symbol. Those fans would prefer to focus on Illmatic and Doe or Die and pretend like 1997 never happened.
The Firm was a transition period for all involved – Nas after the success of It Was Written, AZ trying to reach the next level, Dr. Dre after Death Row but before Eminem – and it’s clear in the music. Moreover, having Dre produce one half of the album and Trackmasters produce the other half is a great idea in theory, but in practice it created a disc that is disjointed and schizophrenic. Their skills were so different that it sounded like a blended mixtape put together by a fledgling DJ.
But here’s the dirty little secret: The Firm album was number one on the Billboard 200 chart and is certified platinum. It helped bring name recognition to a young artist named Nature that most people had never heard of before. Also, despite its missteps, there were some inarguable bangers on that LP, like the ridiculously good “Phone Tap,” the polished greatness of “Firm Fiasco,” and “Desparados,” which was so good that they made it twice, the second of which made the album and featured an amazing Canibus verse.
It’s fitting that Canibus exceled on the album as he is the epitome of what is a bust in hip-hop. While he has released more than 10 solo albums in an attempt to recapture his original promise, he’s never managed to do so. Conversely, The Firm disbanded after that lone LP. In the book, I ranked them as the fourth biggest bust in history, behind only Shyne, Papoose, and Canibus, and while I struggled with ranking the group that high, I think it’s appropriate. Anticipated for several years and backed by two of the top producers in the game at the time, The Album was a disappointment to both critics and fans and went a long way in ending the Mafioso era in rap. In the end, despite the sales and classic tracks, if they never reunite, their ultimate legacy will be one of disappointment.
Words by Pierzy
Pierzy is the author of the new book, The Hip-Hop 10: The Best of the Best that Shaped the Music and the Culture, which can be ordered via the publisher here or on Amazon here. He is also a featured contributor to I Hate JJ Redick, where he writes a weekly NBA column during the season, as well as columns revolving around other sports, hip-hop, movies, TV shows, food, beer, marriage, (impending) fatherhood, and a variety of other topics. You can follow him on Twitter @Pierzy.