It sounded like a good idea.
Take a handful of the best rappers in the East and take the most renowned producer from the West and form a supergroup that would satisfy the hardcore fans and pack it with enough star power to raise the eyebrow of the mainstream. The brainchild of Steve Stoute, The Firm was originally composed of Queens rapping legend Nas, AZ, Cormega, femcee Foxy Brown, backed by the legendary Dr. Dre and the Trackmasters. Soon after its formation, artistic issues began between Cormega and Nas as well as with Steve Stoute which forced Cormega to be outed from the group before their debut album could be released. This led to a very shortlived Nas vs. Cormega beef in the early 2000s. But they had to bounce back, and Mega was replaced by Nature, and they finally were able to crank out The Firm: The Album in 1997.
We first caught a glimpse of the group united on Nas' sophomore album It Was Written, featuring the four vocalists spitting venom on "Affirmative Action", as well as Nas and Dr. Dre coming together for the first time on "Nas Is Coming", the former being an amazing posse cut and the latter being the worst song on the album. Quite mixed indeed, which followed incredibly fittingly into The Firm: The Album, which in reality sounds like a continuation of It Was Written, both in the Nas Escobar-esque mafioso subject matter and overall sound, and in the fact that its incredibly disjointed. The album was also released during a VERY interesting time considering that Dr. Dre had JUST parted ways with Death Row shortly after the murder of Tupac Shakur and collectively signed The Firm to his new label: Aftermath.
And yet, despite all of this simultaneous mainstream appeal and respect from the purists, many fans and critics alike panned The Firm: The Album and called it a disappointment. Lyrically, you'd be hard pressed to find a bad verse from Nas, and for that matter, AZ, anywhere in his entire catalog pre-1999. Nature was able to carry his own for the record and Foxy's verses (and Dre's when he raps) were allegedly ghost-written by Nas, so that's not the concern here (even though the lyrics are, for the most part, phoned in). Thankfully, Dre's production throughout the album is nowhere near the mess that it was on "Nas Is Coming", but its also not even CLOSE to touching his Chronic-era pieces. As I said, the LP is very disjointed and unremarkable, focusing on a much more radio-friendly sound; full of pop hooks and silky beats; a far cry from the legendary sound that made Nas and AZ such highly respected emcees found on Illmatic and Doe Or Die respectively. You can somewhat FEEL that they are out of their comfort zone, although Nas continued to push the Escobar character for his next two solo albums and AZ, I feel, didn't recover for a while neither. I don't mind the mafioso stuff whatsoever, but its just not what they're good at.
For example, take "Firm Family" and "Firm All Stars". Both of these sound like singles Puffy's Bad Boy label would've released at the time. "Firm Family" has a syrupy, non-threatening R&B hook backed by phoned-in verses. But that doesn't compare to "Firm Family", which finds Nas singing a hook so ridiculously stupid that I picture him doing the Carlton dance from Fresh Prince of Bel-Air while he's singing it. If Nas is embarrassed by garbage like "Hot Boys Remix" and "Big Things" (and for that matter, the entire Belly movie), this ranks right up there with songs he hopes the world forgets. Oh but, that's not the end of the garbage on this LP. "Fuck Somebody Else" is downright sad. This is a Foxy Brown solo track, glorifying cheating and sexual exploitation that sounds like the very worst of Lil Kim, both in subject matter and in poor rhyming. Another R&B hook here, and its not that I dislike those kinds of hooks because I don't, I only dislike the terrible ones like this one. Nas and Foxy collab on "Hardcore" is an early version of "You Owe Me" except with lines about "twat-licking" from Foxy. It belongs with the rest of the filth on Nastradamus.
But naturally, with this much talent, the entire album can't be bad, can it? Of course not! Most of it however, is rather dull and uninspired. There are a number of attempts at fictional storytelling on the record that fall flat ("Five Minutes To Flush", "Throw Your Gunts", ) due to lackluster production and half-assed rhymes. It gets old very fast. As far as storytelling goes though, you can't go wrong with the single, "Phone Tap", which is a brilliantly put-together tale of two mafioso kings, played by Nas and AZ, planning out future crimes while being investigated by the feds, played by Dr. Dre. The thumping production and the undeniable chemistry between Nas and AZ kind of make me wish that they would've ignored Foxy and Nature and just done every song like this. The album's opener, "Firm Fiasco" is a tease considering that its such an awesome song and makes you expect that kind of greatness for the rest of the CD. Everything comes together beautifully, including the beat, the verses, and the nice little Goodfellas-esque introduction before each verse. This is the kind of creativity we wanted for the ENTIRE ALBUM!!! Then of course, there's "Desperados", featuring one of Canibus' early mainstream appearances along with all four emcees focusing purely on dangerous rhyming.
I really wanted to like The Firm: The Album, but I'm afraid the other critics were 100% right. There's a few good moments here, but they are rapidly overshadowed by the bad. After all the hype, The Firm was a flop, and all four members went their separate ways. Strangely enough, for a few years following the end of The Firm, every member had their own issues, including Nas and AZ hitting creative roadblocks, Foxy losing support, Nature doing absolutely nothing, Dr. Dre's Aftermath did nothing until Eminem, and Steve Stout getting smashed in the face with alcoholic beverage bottles. They all managed to bounce back (or at least, the ones that mattered did) and I still wonder what would happen if they tried again. I guess sometimes, you can't mix compounds and expect great results.
Track List & Rating
2. Firm Fiasco (*****)
3. Phone Tap Intro
4. Phone Tap (*****)
5. Executive Decision (****)
6. Firm Family (***)
7. Firm All Stars f/ Pretty Boy (*)
8. Fuck Somebody Else Intro
9. Fuck Somebody Else (*)
10. Hardcore (*)
11. Untouchable (***)
12. Five Minutes to Flush Intro
13. Five Minutes to Flush (***)
14. Desparados Intro
15. Desparados f/ Canibus (*****)
16. Firm Biz f/ Dawn Robinson (***)
17. I'm Leaving f/ Noreaga (***)
18. Throw Your Guns f/ Half A Mil (**)
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