Re-posted From Pitchfork
Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we explore Scarface’s deathly personal 1994 solo album.
There is the fact of rivers—how when water falls, they can only hold so much of their kin close to their bodies before they open their arms and let the waters run free into somewhere, anywhere. The San Jacinto River in Houston is no different. On October 15th, 1994, a series of unique meteorological events joined hands before heading towards Houston, causing the largest rain event in the city’s history. On the west and east banks of the San Jacinto, the waters rose and spilled over. The city of Houston got almost a foot of water, which was mild compared to surrounding areas. Upper Cypress Creek, Spring Creek, and Lake Creek were all subject to endless rainfall, with the flood claiming 17 lives and shutting down Houston and surrounding cities for days. More rivers and creeks swelled, forcing people from their homes, or to the tops of buildings. Children went missing and others drowned.
For anyone who has been through a vicious cycle of weather, it is known that there is a calm directly after the storm, too. To talk about the calm which comes after a turbulent moment makes for a less romantic cliche. The calm after the storm is the one that is eerie. There is ruin, and a cloud of silence—more about a confirmation of what has happened than a signaling of what is coming. It’s the difference between someone might not survive this and there are people to be buried now.
On October 18th, as the rains persisted but weakened, Scarface released his third album, The Diary, into a world where no one in his home city could safely get to the store and hold it in their hands.
If you are going to be a writer who writes about death, I only ask that you honor the fullness of loss and the space left by loss. Rather, that you cut through the mess and define death not only by the person but by the people who perhaps loved that person and by the people who sit in that person’s old room, dressed in their old clothes. Scarface is a writer who writes about death, and by 1994, the rapper born Brad Jordan was figuring out the type of solo artist he could be for years to come. His first two solo albums outside of his success with the underground Houston rap group Geto Boys—1991’s Mr. Scarface Is Back and 1993’s The World Is Yours—were both critical and commercial hits, casting him slightly outside of his group and making him a viable solo star.
By 1994, Scarface was in a position to capitalize off of his momentum while also asking his existing audience to grow with him. His work with the Geto Boys was often steeped in a dark vulnerability. Scarface battled with depression his whole life, even attempting suicide in his youth. While his first two solo efforts had glimpses of this, both albums felt more like a collection of the best songs he could make at the time, without any thought of single narrative structure. The Diary set out to be different.
First, the sonic landscape changed. Though The Diary was only made a year out from his last album, the sound of rap was shifting rapidly in the early ’90s. Sample laws had come into play, cracking down on the uses of other people’s music in rap songs, and forcing producers to figure out new tactics after skating on lax rules through the late ’80s and the first two years of the ’90s. Additionally, Dr. Dre and Death Row Records had cemented their sound with the releases of The Chronic and Doggystyle, introducing a more laid back instrumentation, crafted with live, in-studio musicians re-creating sounds that might have otherwise been lifted from soul and funk samples, like James Brown or Motown records. The first two Scarface albums were frantic, sample-heavy, and brilliant, but a shift in tone was needed. At only 24, Scarface was building towards the rapper he wanted to be for an entire career. His anger, paranoia, and obsession with unraveling a life lost is a common thread throughout his work, but on The Diary, he made the themes palpable and heavy.
I imagine it’s difficult to write about death as something you endure and something you are willing to deliver to others in equal measure. What makes The Diary fascinating is that Scarface raps comfortably about killing with what appears to be little or no remorse, but the difficulty appears in the nuances. On the album’s proper opening track, “The White Sheet,” Scarface outlines visions of gunning down his enemies, in great detail. Still, it must be said that in all music, there is the difference between glorifying murder and using the tools and imagery of murder as a way to present your fearlessness. It’s all a means of survival of wherever it is you come from.
Scarface dragged a razor blade across his wrists when he was 14 years old because he wanted to die, or at least wanted to escape a darkness which felt endless. The thing about surviving an attempt to take your own life is that it is often framed as a failure, on the other side of which is your responsibility to continue to endure living. I am mostly saying that Scarface has his own relationship with death. Yes, he grew up poor and black and among violence. Yes, he knew what it was to kill as a survival tactic, but he also nearly couldn’t find his way to surviving himself. When Scarface raps about killing, it is with a fine lens, with nuance and haunting detail. On “The White Sheet,” he raps about visualizing the mother of someone he’s killed, crying in a hospital waiting room. It is a small detail—one he drops in before quickly jumping to the next image—but it is lasting and haunting. Even in violence, his scope is on the impact it leaves.
The Diary has its tropes, of course: The song about a sexual encounter (“One”), the song about misconceptions of rap in the mainstream media, which ticked up as rap began to seem like less and less of a passing fad (“Hand of the Dead Body”). But its two most interesting tracks are “Mind Playin’ Tricks ’94” and “I Seen A Man Die.”
The former is a retread of the Geto Boys song of the same name from just three years earlier. But with Scarface alone on it, he stretches out the idea of his failures, flaws, and the survival of both. What ties all of this together is Scarface’s voice. It, like him, walks a multi-layered line. His voice is a fashioned brass instrument, a horn played by a rusty but enthusiastic student. He bellows like a hustler turned preacher, or a preacher turned hustler, or anyone familiar with the corner and the pulpit in equal measure. He has a voice that commands attention, which allows him to unfurl his narratives patiently, with the full ears of any listener. His voice particularly hums at a good rhythm on this album, blending in under the bass lines and the waves of drums. It becomes a function of the album’s movements and darkness, in concert with the music itself:
Sometimes I want to end it but I don’t though
They tell me see my pastor but I don’t go
Sometimes being alive is not, alone, worth celebrating. That sounds harsh, but depression is real and worth the weight it rests on the body. I have always appreciated Scarface most in these moments: how he comes to terms with still being alive, despite not wanting to. It’s raw and unfiltered. I’m here, but you can’t make me be excited about it some days, although I’m trying.
“I Seen a Man Die,” the album’s centerpiece, consists of a narrative arc which involves Scarface detailing a person’s failed rehab stint. First, Scarface takes on the role as a storyteller, guiding the listener through a man’s final days. And then, he almost hovers above the song, a ghost himself, shepherding the dead to whatever waits beyond. He goes from the interior of the man’s life, to narrating the end by honing in on all of the small parts of life exiting the body.
I hear you breathin’ but your heart no longer sounds strong
But you kinda scared of dying so you hold on
And you keep on blacking out and your pulse is low
Stop trying to fight the reaper, just relax and let it go
The subtlety in this is the shift of view: in the first verse, Scarface is using the “he” to address the man’s life, as an entry point. By the time the last verse pops up, Scarface has become more intimate, shortening the emotional distance by addressing the man directly with “you,” understanding that the “you” could be anyone we know, or love, or could us. It is a small move, something that only a writer would pull off. Taking a listener from a specific experience to a universal pain that they, themselves, could be a part of.
There is much to be made of how Scarface rendered himself more emotionally vulnerable than people gave him credit for being, despite his open-book approach to writing rhymes. The song is the one on the album where the stakes are raised. There is a defined character, and one must grapple with his leaving.
Scarface has said about The Diary that he wanted to make an album for the people he grew up with in Houston, and I think that this is one of the ultimate goals of a creator who is from a place where a lot of people don’t make it out with an ability to create. You want to make something legible, or touchable for your people, and their people, and the people who didn’t survive. So much of Scarface’s work, particularly after The Diary, feels like it exists so that he, himself, can stay alive a little bit longer, or at least so that he can archive a life that wasn’t always promised. J Prince, the head of Rap-A-Lot Records, told Scarface that there was a ghetto in every city, and therefore, he had to make an album that would resonate in the ghettos of every city. At that point, Houston wasn’t an unknown commodity in rap, but it wasn’t New York or Los Angeles. People had to listen to the lyrics and envision the sprawl, skyscrapers and hot open roads inside of it, and see themselves in it.
This is why The Diary trades so richly on pain and despair with no light at the end of it. I appreciate an honesty which doesn’t offer light at the end of the tunnel, and so it is refreshing to hear a meditation on ideas about darkness and the promise of more, particularly if it is all you have ever known. Every ghetto isn’t the same, but Scarface seemed to know that the missing link in all of these ghettos was conversations about the frightening nature of how to survive them. What was being offered on The Diary was a mental escape route. Someone reaching out two hands and telling you they are ready to catch you if you jump, even if they can’t save you from the large cloud of despair, they can pull you closer to them so that you’re not alone in your ruin.
There was water again in Houston in 2017. Hurricane Harvey tore through the city in mid-late August and early September. The damage was focused on Houston this time. There were 88 deaths directly associated with the hurricane, and 125 billion dollars in damage. When the hurricane hit, Scarface was in his home, just outside of the city. He’d decided to ride out the storm, despite warnings for residents to leave if they could. His home lost power, but was largely unharmed.
The calm after the storm exists, but it’s mostly to shine a light on what has been lost. To call attention to those who didn’t survive, and to push those who did survive to rebuild, even if they don’t feel like they want to go on. Some people sent money from afar and watched the city try to build itself back up before the news cycle zoomed away from it. Some people went to put feet on the ground. Houston is a resilient city, one that has survived more than one drowning. Though it shouldn’t have to wear that resilience as a badge of honor, of course, it does.
Scarface has built a life and career off of resilience. He has not wanted to be alive and then has lived. He has made and remade a career off of an honesty which isn’t necessarily optimistic but remains inviting nonetheless. And so, it makes sense that he is one of Houston’s most notable rappers, the one who is still proud to be there, who still makes music for his people as if he is building a place for them to survive and survive again. The Diary reflects the promise of an imperfect place, and the perils of living inside of it and wanting to stay, despite. A place not necessarily better, but needed, nonetheless.