Since the early 1990s Tha Alkaholiks (a.k.a. the ‘Liks) have been producing what’s most easily described as hardcore party music, and they’ve been doing it with a good deal of local success. They were never quite able to crack the national scene, however, and 2006’s Firewater is to be their last hurrah. E-Swift (a.k.a. Eric Brooks, DJ), J-Ro (James Robinson, vocals) and Tash (Rico Smith, vocals) will each be moving on to his own solo project, retiring Tha Alkaholiks’ name. Notwithstanding nostalgia and such, now is a wise time for a group like the ‘Liks to bow out gracefully (and amicably, in case you were wondering). Hip-hop in the ‘00s is bearing less and less resemblance to the hip-hop of the ‘90s, and mature acts can only go to the “old-school” well so many times. As mentioned above, the ‘Liks trademark throughout their career was a hardcore, g-funk sound paired with primarily hedonistic lyrics. Firewater doesn’t stray much from this formula, and while that will no doubt please die-hards, it may make it hard to garner new fans. Then again, if it’s your group’s final album, who cares about increasing your audience, right? Might as well play to your strengths.
It’s not surprising, then, that much of Firewater has a blast-from-the-past feel. Aside from the Dr. Dre-esque beats and samples, J-Ro and E-Swift spit rhymes that seem decidedly late-‘90s. There’s tons of West Coast aggrandizement, for example, which, given that the whole East/West rivalry died down years ago, may leave some listeners confused. Then again, maybe “aggrandizement” is the wrong word. Maybe it’s just the ‘Liks way of giving props to the state that proved their biggest supporter throughout their career. If so, great. Only haters dislike California.
Less susceptible to being explained away, though, are the technical aspects of the lyrics. Both J-Ro and E-Swift rely heavily on straight similes paired with punning syllepsis, a technique that was extremely common in the gangsta-rap era. While this technique often makes for clever lyrics, and can give a song that “hip-hop battle” feel, newer rappers have tended to supplant it with analogy and pop-culture reference, so it comes off as conspicuously retro on Firewater. Retro, of course, isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but you’ll want to make sure it’s your thing before you buy this album. On the other hand, the ‘Liks have injected Firewater with a good deal more self-praise than usual, which, as anyone who listens to rap regularly will tell you, is always popular with MCs.
A perfect exemplar for all of the above is “Popular Demand,” an early-album track sporting a beat that could easily be mistaken for one of Dre’s finest. Indeed, one verse hits West Coast praise, simile, and self-aggrandizement, all in sequence: “The best come from the W-E-S-T/You try to steal a nigga flow like Elvis Presley/I got so much game I should win an ESPY./Hefty./That’s how big my check be.” The Elvis line is a clever shot, but where does it come from? No one has been called out earlier in the song, and the immediately preceding lyric was praising California. Then again, knowing the ‘Liks, it’s better not to ask such questions. Just sit back, enjoy the cleverness, the smooth flow, and the funky beats and don’t worry about where it’s all going. If that sounds like your cup of (Long Island Iced) tea, then you’ll definitely enjoy the last booyah of a fun-loving hip-hop group. But if you’re the kind of person who likes social commentary or deep meaning in your hip-hop, you’ll need to look elsewhere.