If you were listening to rap in 1996, you may have spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about Cesare Borgia. On “B.I.B.L.E. (Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth),” the gobsmacking finale of Liquid Swords, Killah Priest cited the Valencian nobleman as the subject of a centuries-old hoax: “The white image of Christ is really Cesare Borgia/And uh, the second son of Pope Alexander,” he affirmed. On “Nature of the Threat,” an eight-minute secret-history lesson from his cult debut Soul on Ice, Ras Kass spouted a competing theory that Constantine I “commissioned Michelangelo to paint white pictures of Jesus/He used his aunt, uncle, and nephew.” By 1999, setting aside doctrinal differences, the two rappers had joined forces with Kurupt and Canibus—themselves hyper-literate occupants of hip-hop’s seedier outskirts—and announced HRSMN, a supergroup project based on Revelation’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Like Slaughterhouse a decade later, the HRSMN were united in their status as industry misfits. The group promised deliverance for listeners wary of Y2K armageddon and R&B-inflected crossovers—but a completed album was shelved and soon attained mythic status on rap message boards, Detox for the tinfoil hat crowd. Rumors of a reunion effort eventually petered out, and the HRSMN resumed erratic solo careers. But sometimes the arc of history bends toward conspiracy theories. Facing rising sea levels, a once-in-a-century pandemic, and an actual plague of locusts, the HRSMN has reassembled, incredibly, for The Last Ride. For any listeners still craving doomsday visions relayed in multisyllabic rhyme schemes, this record may be the ultimate fan service. Does Ras Kass rhyme “remarkable” with “unmarketable”? Yes! Does Canibus rhyme “give me space” with “Iditarod race”? Of course, he does! Is there a song about centaurs? You bet! Does Killah Priest insinuate that COVID-19 was a man-made bio-weapon? As surely as the pope is Catholic.
Appreciation of The Last Ride hinges upon a certain taste for bars. We’re talking bars like, “I smell the blood like Nosferatu/Inhaling visible death like CO2”; and like, “You somebody that I’m dying to meet/So I can spread your body parts on the street.” The songs coalesce around broad themes, which discourages the sort of free-associative punchline barrage you might find on Royce da 5’9 albums. Still, it’s curious to ponder that The Last Ride’s mishmash of disjointed pop-culture references, battle rhymes, and big words used for the sake of big words was once considered the apex of hardcore lyricism. It’s so over-the-top, so eager-to-please, that when Ras Kass lays a brick like “Undefeated like the internet… Tossin’ salad with the vinaigrette/I get arugula with the intellect/Introspect, from where the street code and Islam intersect,” you want to pat him on the back and give him a gold star anyway.
An album comprised of five-and-a-half-minute eschatological posse cuts has every reason to be laborious. But Killah Priest floats over the drum patterns with his imperious preacher man flow, and Canibus packs more snarling, knotty verbiage into a few bars than most rappers do in their careers. The production is better than it needs to be, even if there’s hardly anything on The Last Ride resembling a melody. Over a rugged piano loop, “Centaurs” (they’re horsemen, get it?) has a pass-the-mic verve you only get from MCs eager to outdo one another; the understated snare on “Champion” lends the air of a schoolyard cipher. The quartet’s tales of relationship woe make “Love N War” a bit of a wild card, but the “Love Is a Battlefield” interpolation actually goes hard.
Ironically, it’s the supergroup conceit that holds the HRSMN back. What’s engrossing about Soul on Ice and Heavy Mental is how thoroughly they excavate their subjects’ beautiful, twisted minds; you could lock four geniuses in a room, but together they’d never create anything as vibrantly gnarled as Tha Streetz Iz a Mutha. The Last Ride is like one of those busy renaissance paintings with a dozen events unfolding at once, heaps of cataclysmic images stacked on top of each other, entire songs’ worth of ideas packed into sixteen-bar sprints: “Apocalips Now” finds the MCs groping around for endless synonyms, yielding something akin to Jay-Z’s “Monster” verse. Kurupt is particularly bad in this setting—left adrift by the spacey percussion on “Morticians,” he resorts to a haranguing delivery and rhymes “elegant” with “elephant.”
It goes without saying that conspiracy theories carry a different weight than they did during the HRSMN’s heyday. When Ras Kass said AIDS was man-made in ’96, it was a barbed reaction to the U.S government’s indifference toward a virus ravaging poor communities; trafficking in COVID-19 lab-leak conspiracies lets those same institutions off the hook. But in the context of the mid-’90s—decades before alt-right podcasters could whisper in the president’s ear—Ras Kass and Killah Priest were at once offbeat entertainers and valiant soothsayers, conscious not only of ancient history but the ways in which that history was still playing out. They were young men immersed in scripture and civil rights texts, lavished with record deals for their ability to hold forth. Who could say that theirs wasn’t rare, precious knowledge?
The Last Ride should have been an event album—had it arrived 20 years ago, it might have featured appearances from GZA and Wyclef instead of Planet Asia and Wais P. That there was ever demand for this record points to a time when the major label rap landscape was weirder and wordier. But this is what you wish your favorite over-the-hill rappers would do in 2021: book studio time with a few like-minded vets and let it rip. If there’s a quaintness about lyrical vigilantes banding together against the onslaught of wack MCs, it’s because that battle was either lost or deemed irrelevant ages ago. But the HRSMN never conceded.
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