Truly successful rappers don’t have fans, they have friends; and this fans vs. friends dichotomy is actually the key to understanding the modern rap game. Think about it like this. You run into a guy you went to high school with at the bar– he was cool, but you were never really friends. At the end of the night he asks for $10 to take a cab home and you…lie and say you just spent your last $10. Same bar, only this time you’re with your homey from way back in the day. At the end of the night he asks for $10 but all you have is a $20 and you…give him the $20. In a day and age where free albums are just a Google search away, no one’s going to cough up $9.99, let alone $120 to go to a show – for some cool guy. But for a friend? Of course, I got you, and the next drink’s on me.
And how does a rapper convert fans into friends? Friends, for better or worse, know you. The real you; or at the very least a version of the “real” you that you display so often it becomes the real you. Since the inception of Dilated Peoples the L.A. crew has been been friendlier than most, but even five group albums and a solo effort, Weatherman, from Dilated co-founder Evidence, we never felt like we truly knew the Venice Beach native. Not only is Ev’s new album Cats & Dogs one of the more carefully crafted projects to hit our eardrums in recent memory, it consistently displays a willingness to reveal the pain and joy behind the man behind the mic. I don’t know about fans, but the man’s definitely going to have some more friends after listening to Cats & Dogs.
We might as well jump right into the deep end. On I Don’t Need Love, a record Evidence called the most personal song on the album, he uses a self-produced beat to trace the death of his mother to the resent-fueled collapse of his relationship with other women: “I trashed every girl I had since…I don’t need love any more, I need pressure / pain, my veins, feelin’ so electric.” Those are exactly the kind of lyrics the casual fan doesn’t want to hear, but a friend will stay up late night listening to. Well Runs Dry walks in the footprints laid down by Don’t Need Love, peeling back whatever artistic artifice he previously employed even further: “I’m makin placements but livin in my basement / what’s a verse if I don’t really say sh*t.” From the more head nodding but still personally revealing You to the narrative, super-collab Late for the Sky featuring Slug and Aesop Rock, two dudes who aren’t exactly strangers to letting listeners inside, Cats & Dogs isn’t the work of a rapper, it’s the work of a person. A real person.
Make no mistake though, this “new” Evidence hasn’t replaced the “old” Evidence. The same “I’ll wreck any emcee in my path” side of Ev that had him going toe to toe with Eminem back in the day is still very much alive, and makes multiple appearances on Cats & Dogs. Strangers is nothing but head-nodding aggression, although some part of Ev’s flow always sounds relaxed (what else would you expect from a SoCal native?) and James Hendrix finds him simply having fun alongside his brother from another hip-hop mother Alchemist. Crucially though, Evidence is too complicated to divide the album into such easy categories like deep hard. He, and the album, are best when both sides of his rhyme skills are in full display. On Red Carpet he joins legends Raekwon and Ras Kass, and while a younger Ev might have overreached in an effort to impress, the 2011 Ev is confident enough to both hit his bars hard and embed his words with enough layers to reward repeat listens. It’s the same story on Where You Come From, a cut that on the surface sounds as dark and threatening as any, but a closer listen will reveal nothing short of a statement track.
Cats & Dogs isn’t easy listening. It’s not background music, there’s nothing here to woo your lady too and, let’s be honest, there’s no way you’ll be hearing it on your mainstream radio dial. Honestly, I don’t think Evidence really gives a f**k. This is an album that isn’t particularly interested in winning over casual fans, it only wants loyal friends. You’ll have to decide which side you’re on.
Door Nathan S.