Dependable tough guy from G-Side crew recasts the beats and rhymes of gangsta rap's glory days
Florence, Alabama's Bentley, who brays the hooks on G-Side's "No Radio” and "16 Shots" (he has a memorable verse that calls bullshit on the killing of Gaddafi on the latter), and whose solo track "Strap," is something of an Internet goon-rap classic, just released Bootlegs & B-Sides, a jackin'-for-beats mixtape that he's throwing out to tide over listeners until his album, Intelligent Hoodlum, drops at some point in the future. Bootlegs & B-Sides is the decidedly minor work that you release before the work everybody's supposed to be anticipating, which gains much of its power from its tossed-off presentation: Murkily mastered, uncensored street tales over '90s cult-favorite beats.
But those fairly obscure beats aren't YouTube wormhole finds in the vein of SpaceGhostPurrp, an MC who never transcends his love of the past. Bentley leans towards maudlin, wheezing production that conveys the wear and tear of hustling. And they're weird, random choices that only could be made by someone who deeply cares about hip-hop. Instrumentals include Young D Boyz's "Sellin' Them Thangs" turned into the even-more-blunt "Sellin' Cocaine"; "Like Yesterday," by PSK-13 feat. UGK, turns into "Catch 22." That "So Tired," a Devin the Dude feature from Hi-Tek's Hi-Teknology 2 shows up here, and that Bentley lays a verse across the song's defeated guitar solo, speaks to the level of rap-nerd curation.
Here's a time-traveling .zip file that sends you back to an era when insanely violent, aggressively political hip-hop was far from niche. Indeed, it was damn near pop. Bentley's hook on "Money, Murder" ("Money, murder, messing with me is suicide") is a simple catchy threat. On the verses, he leans heavy on imagery that's similarly brusque but poetic: "Up late, flicking freebase from out my cuticles / Damn straight, get cake, it was nothing unusual / Seeing fiends die from synthetics pumped through their ventricles / Never lose, I'm bagging up every crumb from off the spoon." Or check out this line from "Lil Beezy," a self-mythologizing, bad-ass-from-birth street tale of being born to raise hell: "I been caught up in drama since I was cut up out my mama."
On "Catch-22," Bentley pithily presents the dichotomy of the dealer and socially-engaged citizen, or even just the friend who helps someone going through addiction. "These drugs is hell,” he says with pain in his voice, and then adds, "I got drugs to sell," with a low-rent entrepreneurial pride. What cuts through the nostalgia of Bootlegs & B-Sides is a well-wrought, still-relevant, completely unflattering presentation of drug dealing. David Simon should reach out to Bentley to pen the movie version of The Wire that all the show's fanboys keep pretending will happen one day.
And yet, something feels hopeful about this album. For one, it's a voice of sanity and insight from someone still dangerously close to the day-to-day details of street life. Not even the most minor of victories (that usually get praised in crack rap) pass through Bentley's lips. Plus, Bootlegs & B-Sides is a document of fawning, obsessive fandom. Bentley slavishly recreated the cover, front and back, of Ice Cube's 1994 compilation of the same name, and even slapped a remake of the classic photo of Ice Cube gripping an AK-47 with B-Real next to him, on the back cover. Here, Bentley grips the weapon and ST 2 Lettaz relaxes next to him, scowling. "Sellin' Cocaine" quotes Master P's "No More Tears" ("Will I die selling dope or would I sell a million records?"), which seems like a clever way of toying with his role as a past-indebted gangsta rap aficionado and aspiring MC using the Internet, because no one is selling a million records in 2012.
Ultimately, this mixtape is a clever twist on the now-decades-old story of the dope dealer who gets into rap because it's another, more lucrative hustle. Sometimes it felt true and sometimes those "I ain't even a rapper"-type guys make some great music, and often, it felt like a way for an MC to hide behind cynicism and never express real passion for rapping. Bentley isn't one of those guys, guarded and too cool to geek out on nostalgia. He truly cares about rap music.