Like Easy E, Doctor Dre, Ice-Cube and a host of others before him, Guerilla grew up in the now legendary suburb of Compton in the urban gangland of South Central Los Angeles. Though he only moved to Compton at age 8, he did so just as "gangsta" rap was emerging - a time when Compton based crews like NWA were redefining the world of hip-hop. Like many of his compatriots he has dealt crack cocaine, done jail time, shot people and been shot himself.
Apart from his undoubted credibility, it's easy to see why any label would sign Guerilla Black. His effortless West Coast drawl oozes that unsettling mixture of charm and menace that made gangsta rap so popular around the world. His slick rhymes are as catchy as they come and the range and control of his rapping is superb, betraying years of practice on the porches of his adopted hometown.
Many critics point to his uncanny resemblance (both in looks and sound) to the late Notorious BIG - a source of much irritation to the chunky rapper. But any parallels are, at worst, coincidental and ignore Black's obvious and unique talents.
But talented as he may be, Guerilla Black is still little more than a thug. Clever lyrics laid over catchy cuts sound great, but track after track celebrating murder, misogyny and crack cocaine aren't so much offensive as tired. The themes he's exploring have been covered (and re-covered) by two decades of West Coast rappers. Even his skits, usually a showcase for clever humour, are cliched to the point of irritation, with little more substance than late night crank calls.
This lazy thematic shorthand seems particularly wasteful when you hear what Guerilla can do when he cares about the subject of a track. In "My First" - a tribute to his late wife - a tender, subtle individuality emerges and Guerilla's fierce and original intelligence is at its most prominent. It may not have the visceral appeal of the swaggering "Guerilla City", but it's one of the only tracks with any kind of lasting emotional impact.
Still, viewed as disposable mood music, this first album is solid gold. Tracks like "Hearts of Fire", "Guerilla City" and "What We Gonna Do" sound absolutely gorgeous - bouncing along aggressively to tightly produced backing and often featuring some of the hottest collaborators in hip-hop (Nate Dogg, Beenie Man and Jazze Pha to name a few). But when the gorgeousness wears off (and it does) all you're left with is a bunch of empty-headed songs celebrating the baser things in life.
Expecting a west-coast hip-hop album to promote touchy-feely social values is as naïve as it is silly (though some, like Dilated Peoples, manage it without sounding at all silly). Gangsta has always been the preserve of gun-toting trash-talking thugs whose criminal reputations often sell more records than their music. It's just a pity that a talent like Guerilla Black is blunted by the perceived need to "represent" the 'hood. We can only hope that, once his career is more settled, we hear more of the real man and less of the cartoonish perona he hides behind.
- Alistair Fairweather
"Believe it or not, Guerilla City is one of the best rap albums to surface over the course of 2004, even if you've never even heard of this guy before..."- Jason Birchmeier, All Music Guide
"The dude can rhyme, though. And when you've got Beenie Man, Nate Dogg, Jazze Pha and Mario Winans on your debut album, you've gotta be doing something right."- Pete Richards, Chart Attack
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