The Great Adventures of Slick Rick
The rap album, once a kind of misnomer for those who came up on novelty singles like “Rappin’ Duke” — and never thought that hip-hop would take it this far — had by 1988 become not only a thing in the world, but the standard format in which to hear the genre. No longer the stuff of one-hit wonders, rap had matured to the point where a fully developed sensibility could be expressed via the long player in a way that even the firmly entrenched rock establishment could no longer easily discredit.
That said, in retrospect even such classics as Straight Outta Compton, or Follow the Leader, monumental as they are, have not, for all that exactly aged well (who in 2019 really needs to hear “Somethin’ 2 Dance 2,” or the God MC’s assurances that you’re “doin’ it with ‘the R’”?). Released in November of that year, The Great Adventures of Slick Rick presented a seamless and filler-free portrait of a master yarn spinner — hilarious, raunchy, wildly charismatic, and perfectly capitalizing on his long-overdue moment.
Beginning with 1985’s seismic “The Show” (and its arguably more resonant B-side, “La Di Da Di”), Slick Rick, then MC Ricky D provided to posterity a fluid flow and enchantingly droll tone, one which added a playful layer of nuance to his verbal hijinks, placing just the right accent on lines (“Excuse me Doug E. Fresh . . .”), which were buoyed by his across-the-pond-by-way-of-the-Caribbean accent and marked him early as a vanguard MC at a time when rap was still practically in its embryonic stages. This, of course, was still the era of straightforward “cat-hat” couplets, when Run ruled the roost — embodying the Rush Management/Def Jam style of stark black-and-white dynamics — leading up to when Salt-N-Pepa and Heavy D were in the limousine (before Rakim or Big Daddy Kane became commonly credited for leveling up the “new rap language”).
That “Showstopper,” a novelty single by Salt-N-Pepa was in response to “The Show” proves how ahead of his time Rick actually was. In other words, if The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, which was released on Def Jam had come out in late ‘85 — and the level of mastery, as displayed on “The Show”/”La Di Da Di” suggests that an album of that superior quality may have been possible — it likely wouldn’t have fully resonated in a climate where smash singles like “Push It” and “Mr. Big Stuff” remain more noteworthy than the respective albums on which they were featured. But by ’88 Slick Rick had resurfaced as a golden-voiced hip-hop superhero in impossible truck jewelry and an eye patch (that somehow made partial blindness look dashing, as only he could), with his own smash singles on a debut album where each cut exquisitely split the difference between how a rapper sounded and what he said.
The obvious point of entry is “Children’s Story,” though the attention-getting opener “Treat Her Like a Prostitute”’s comparison of unfaithful women to sex workers sets things off on a descriptively ribald, if politically incorrect note some 30 years in hindsight. The latter, in context, is fun advice-column fodder (“Don’t treat no girlie well until you’re sure of the scoop”) — the Ruler holds forth like some project-staircase Dear Abby. But what to say about the former, an obvious Billboard-topping dancefloor staple? It still rings off, though, yes, there is a small but very determined coterie of otherwise smitten partygoers (and, admittedly, yours truly at times) to be like, “Oh cool, it’s only the most popular song in the Slick Rick catalog — again” when it comes on during the old-school set at the club nowadays. But there’s something about the tinny sound of those synths on that unforgettable intro leading to crispy detective-series pianos and shakers for percussion, over which Rick masterfully delivers four minutes of marvelous social commentary in the guise of a cautionary tale for the ages.
You know the story by now, so, enthralling as it is, a synopsis isn’t necessary here. It’s the impersonations, rather (“Keep still, boy, no need for static”; “why’d you hit me?” — dull and dunderheaded in the case of the former, the undercover cop; spoiled and impertinent in the case of the little boy, who is the protagonist of the story), the way he inhabits the personalities of these disparate characters who populate this particular section of the Bronx at this particular time and place. It’s the way he stretches out syllables, clearly enunciates specific words or phrases (“Dave, the dope fiend, shootin’ dope”), so that the overall effect equates to an auditory experience not unlike that provided by a richly detailed, annotated picture book.
“The Moment I Feared,” for that matter blends perfectly with “Children’s Story,” whose orchestrated backdrop exudes a similar atmospheric, panic-room sense of drama. Except here Rick’s tall tale is equal parts historical document (“Boogie Down was performing, hey, they ain’t no joke”), cinéma-vérité style documentary, and plain old account of what sounds like just a regular Saturday night uptown. His version of an after-work journey to the Latin Quarter gone bad is so vivid in its panoramic scope that it all but demands a letterbox.
Bolstered by the Bomb Squad’s uncharacteristically sparse production, the part, especially where he rides back on the train (after a “whole bunch of furious fists caved my world”) is like a tragicomical scene which jump cuts to him in front of an opened bodega door, which he enters to buy a quart as you see and hear an elevated train pass by above in the background before he’s suddenly sitting in the park with his 40 ounce of Ballantine and sees “Danny Boy and Sarah,” the sighting of whom is described in such a way that it perfectly captures that pregnant animated feeling in the air on a hot summer night when anything goes, as a tracking shot follows him up to the “Rivera” they’re both seated in.
There’s next a quick cutaway from Sarah, who he ingeniously mimics (“I need Veronica’s place, that’s right near Tilden”), back to him (“I know where that’s at ’cause that’s right next to my building”) as the story unfolds and the tension builds on up to the song’s denouement in a jail cell. Never mind that that’s where he’d end up a few years later on an attempted-murder charge; art didn’t need to imitate life for such imperial storytelling.
Similarly regal (and yet another cautionary tale that Rick himself might have done well to heed) is “Hey Young World,” the album’s crown jewel. Here he’s hip-hop’s Charles Dickens with a narrative that’s wise, providential, and timeless as those biblical characters engraved in the medallions on his gold dookie chains. And while the quintessential wop anthem “Mona Lisa” is a clear precursor to that other King of New York (B.I.G.’s alter-ego voicings of his “flat” characters, à la “Gimme the Loot” are straight out of the Slick Rick annotated playbook), it’s the underappreciated “Teenage Love” which provides an insightful and nuanced look (“Get back on your feet, with a hop and a skip/But no, you rather go with this dead relationship”) into the dynamics of love and moribund relationships that few rappers in the ’90s (let alone the ’80s) were capable of, Dickensian yarn spinners though they may have been. All told, The Great Adventures of Slick Rick represents a magical moment where the stars were aligned and everything was clicking, and hip-hop was behaving like it ought to: good.