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Even though the devil’s all up in my face.

January 29, 2010

CONFESSIONS OF A ’90s SURVIVOR

Bone Thugs-N-Harmony – Tha Crossroads
From: E. 1999 Eternal

I’m not so ignorant that I’m going to dismiss all hip hop music right out of hand, but I think there are a lot of songs I liked, or at least tolerated in my teenage years that I probably wouldn’t even give a second thought to if they were released today. It goes with the territory when you’re a teenager and has already been explained time and again in this series — a large part of social acceptance when you’re a teenager is what pop culture nuggets you’re aware of. You don’t have to like them, but you know them well enough to fake it.

When I go back and listen to “Tha Crossroads,” it strikes me as a really f*cking weird single. I honestly have no idea what else Bone Thugs-N-Harmony ever did besides this and backing up Mariah Carey in one of those first “Hey, look I have cleavage” videos she made. I wouldn’t be surprised if anyone didn’t remember the guys in that video, though. They’d have good reason not to.

But with gangsta rapper casualties happening with surprising (or maybe unsurprising) frequency in the 1990s — especially considering the genre had also been born that decade — elegies became the new chart-toppers. Puff missed Biggie. Tupac missed himself.

And Bone Thugs-N-Harmony missed Eazy-E. Well, they missed Eazy and a lot of other people (including Uncle Charles, y’all). Eazy gets name dropped in the song and makes a couple of cameos in the video. It makes sense — he founded Ruthless Records, signed this group and this was the first Ruthless release following his death. But “Tha Crossroads” is really more of a bit of hip-hop/gospel meditation on death in general. And it’s not a really uplifting one at that.

If I’d had the need or desire to actually check out the lyrics to this song during the height of it’s popularity, I might have found it a bit less bleak (“Now follow me roll, stroll whether it’s hell or it’s heaven”), but to be honest the song scared the sh*t out of me when I was 13 — particularly because of that overproduced video with a somewhat Samuel L. Jackson Shaft-looking Death sulking around the ‘hood and taking souls at will. I think most people remember the bit when Death shows up on the front porch and offs the old man — when the eyes gloss over in black. It’s not like it gave me nightmares, but somehow in my early-teenage mind I figured that’s what death was going to be like. Some ominous looking dude showing up on my doorstep and touching my forehead. And freaking out whoever might be playing cards with me.

Silly, right? Then again, how do I know that’s how it won’t go down? Crap.

Anyway, since there weren’t many other mainstream Eazy-E tributes to be heard and the video was flash enough to get a lot of attention, MTV put the song into heavy rotation in 1995 and 1996. The song actually made it to the top of the Billboard charts and somehow got a lot of white suburban teenagers to start discussing the crossroads and who they might hope to see there.

I’m not going to dispute the fact that death sells and in that everybody’s lost someone in their life, it’s a pretty easy topic to make applicable to any listener. But the cynic in me also winces every time an elegy goes to #1. I’m not impugning the motives of the group for writing the song, but I cast a wary eye to the A&R man who listened to this and thought, “Jackpot.” If someone — particularly a fellow artist — dies, isn’t it a better tribute to revisit that person’s catalog? I kind of enjoyed seeing Michael Jackson’s records resurface last year. But when that cheap cash-in attempt was made by pushing Jermaine’s version of “Smile” as a single? Well, just look at the iTunes reviews. I don’t think I’m alone in my cynicism.

Maybe that’s not the point of “Tha Crossroads” — maybe the point was to make everyone reflect a little bit on their own mortality and the lives of family and friends lost, but it has ALWAYS sounded weird coming up on the radio in between other hip hop or popular songs encouraging promiscuity and, if need be, murder. How do you dance to this? Certainly it’s got a nice slow groove to it (lifted from the Isley Brothers, if anyone’s taking notes), but I can’t imagine a slow jam with a pretty girl to this would be as romantic as a slow jam to the Isley Brothers. Are we supposed to mimic the moves of the group in the video? Again… it just seems off.

Nevertheless, I knew the song well when I was 13 and when I unearthed the sucker for this series, I was surprised by how many of the words I remembered (if I ever really knew exactly what they were saying). It’s a weird song to be a #1 and it’s still a weird video, but hey, how many 1990s hits can you say that about? Probably every one I’ve featured thus far. Out of place as it may sound on any mix or radio station outside of a funeral home, I’ll probably still be singing along should it come on.

But if a Samuel L. Jackson Shaft-looking dude shows up at my door and raises his fingers to my forehead, I’m gonna be pissed.

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