EVE, Ruff Ryders’ First Lady (Ruff Ryders/Interscope)
Village Voice, October 6th 1999
by Simon Reynolds
was like the changing of the guard—that moment this summer when Missy's
"She's A Bitch" flopped spectacularly while Eve's "What Ya Want"
established its long thrall over BET and Hot 97. This wasn't just Eve
Jeffers displacing Missy Elliott as "that next bitch" (as she describes
herself in her album's notes), it was the defeat of Timbaland by Swizz
Beatz, chief producer for the Yonkers label/MC clan Ruff Ryders. Indeed,
there was a definite hint of slay-me-not Oedipal anxiety when Timbaland
paternalistically bigged up Swizz in The Source as the only producer he checked for.
that other new beat pretender She'k spere (TLC, Destiny's Child), Swizz
is rhythmatically a son of Timbaland, though; both take the latter's
trademark microsyncopations and hiccuping hesitations and make them even
more fiddly and off-kilter. The flagship single off the Ruff Ryders'
Ryde or Die, Vol. 1 compilation, "What Ya Want" worked as a perfect
advertisement for self—Eve pushing herself forward both as
look-don't-touch fantasy object (for male rap fans) and "the one to
fear" (for rival female rappers), Swizz polyrhythmically announcing the
Ruff Ryders sound as "changing the game." The ultra-languid groove of
"What Ya Want"—a slinky lattice of Latin percussion and piano—dovetails
perfectly with Eve's seductively supercilious flow.
Man," the first single from Eve's debut album (which entered the
Billboard pop charts at No. 1 a few weeks ago) is even more striking.
It's so sparse, so deceptively simple, there's almost nothing to it: a
loping, falter-funk beat, a pre-orgasmic female moan like the lowing of a
lovesick cow, and a plangent mandolin refrain doubled at the chorus by a
singsongy schoolgirl vocal with the indelibly catchy play ground chant
quality of "The Clapping Song," "Double Dutch," or "Iko Iko." "Gotta" is
a chip off the same block as Swizz's other smash production of the
moment, Jay-Z's love song to diamonds "Girl's Best Friend"—similar
clip-clop rhythm and ultrafeminine vocal hook, but even more so-wrong-
it's-right sounding. With its asymmetrical beat-loop and staccato Morse
code synth-riff, "Girl's Best Friend" could al most be a hip-house or
early rave track, some thing by Shut Up And Dance or 4 Hero from
1990—there's that same makeshift, threshold-of-disintegration quality.
blending supple lilt and stilted lurch, "Gotta Man" and "Girl's Best
Friend" are the most peculiar black pop hits since Aaliyah's "Are You
That Somebody?" So it's a little disappointing that nothing else on
Eve's debut approaches their idiosyncrasy and charm. Most of Ruff Ryders' First Lady
sounds like Swizz's productions for DMX—that grimy, "ugly" sound that
defines street (as opposed to under ground) hip hop in 1999. The formula
is crude but effective: muddy bass thump, kick drums impacting like low
blows, snares like syncopated flurries of punches to the head, and the
Hook. Usually played on keyboards (Swizz prides himself on not using
samples) and exuding that cheap-and-nasty '80s-digital odor, the Hook
ranges from the bleat of a traumatized pocket calculator, to spindly
semi-melodies like ad jingles or videogame muzik, to sub–Harold
Faltermeyer synthstrumental refrains of the sort you'd hear in a
pre-Hollywood Jackie Chan movie, to riffs that oddly recall early-'80s
hard core techno, to random-sounding, atonal trills like mice scampering
on Schoenberg's piano.
There have been hints that First Lady
is not exactly the record Eve intended to make—one early interview
promised a Lauryn Hill –style mélange of styles and collaborations with
multiple producers. But Swizz wound up producing almost all of it—a
putsch that might explain his low placement in Eve's sleeve-note
thank-you list, after virtually everybody else involved in the record,
including the team who designed the sleeve. And you can sorta see why
she might be pissed. From the testosterone-soaked production to the
title Ruff Ryders' First Lady itself, Eve is subsumed within her
crew's identity. Although she holds her own amid the gruff-voiced brawl
of posse cuts like "Scenario 2000," she's had to play down what was so
unusual about "What Ya Want"—the sultry skrewface poise, the sweatless
cool—in favor of a more in-yer-face, tomboy raucousness.
a time when hardcore rap's sole acknowledged value is flow (verbal and
cash), Eve is more than capable of running with the boys, though.
Rhyming with an impressive blend of smooth 'n' vicious, she finds the
requisite new twists to the standard-issue thematic repertoire: boasts,
threats, brand-name checks, click salutes, and territorial boosterism
(like her Illadelphian anthem "Philly, Philly," which is preceded by a
nativist-verging-on-racist skit caricaturing a Bangladeshi immigrant who
can't make a cheese steak correctly). Predict ably if entertainingly,
Eve righteously scourges inadequates and haters, blasting "little-dick
niggaz" and "fake-ass bitches" in "Let's Talk About," and in "Stuck Up"
humiliating a suitor with "insufficient funds" and an unfortunate
allegiance to last year's designer goodies. "Ain't Got No Dough" is the
most sonically arresting track after "Gotta Man," an amalgam of con
temporary r&b beats, electro high hats, and scratching (skids
and disconcerting decelerations, like your turntable keeps switching off
midbeat). Lyrically, though, it's just a late entry in 1999's
quasi-feminist trend of divas trashing "broke-ass niggaz." The skit
"Chokie Nikes" similarly savages a scrub with a fake Rolex, chronic
halitosis, and poor chat-up technique. And while the anti-wifebashing
"Love Is Blind" could be construed as pro-empowerment by those looking
for strong women in hip hop (what other kind could there be, though, rap
not exactly being a haven for the shy or self-doubting?), Eve seems as
disgusted by her girl friend's weakness in sticking with her abusive man
as by the perpetrator's brutality.
persona is the thug's moll. As guest rapper DMX puts it in "Dog Match,"
"behind every real dog there's that bitch behind
him"—you'n'me–against-the-world, Bonnie & Clyde romanticism
undercut somewhat by the chorus's marrowcurdling image of "paramedics
on your chest/pushing and breathing." (The couple that slays together,
stays together?) By far the best of First Lady's (th)ugly tracks
is "Maniac." Driven by rowdy call-and-response and a TV sports–style
triumphant synth-horn fanfare, the song thrillingly evokes the bristling
alpha-male energy of a nightclub. It's a milieu through which Eve moves
confidently, flirting with the scene's "top dog," getting "drunker than
a muthafucker," and finally cutting in line for the ladies' room. The
image of Eve gloating as she leaves a long line of "chicks hating" in
her wake says something about the bitch-eat-bitch "reality" that rap in
1999 so doggedly represents. And it says something about Eve herself—in
the contrast between the originality of the rhyme versus the petty
triumph of incivility it celebrates.