I was sitting in the Soho offices of Interview Magazine on a hot July day in 1996, working on one of the most challenging album reviews of my life, MC Lyte’s Bad As I Wanna Be. Its sheer mediocrity was giving me a bad case of writer’s block. A dose of inspiration was required, so I began rummaging through the piles of unopened jiffy envelopes with various promo CDs that were strewn all over the tiny office of my boss, the Music Editor. I was his intern.
I tore one open and out fell a regular 60-minute TDK cassette tape. Hand-written on one side was: “copyright Wordsound Recordings” and on the other: “Prince Paul, Psychoanalysis.”
Prince Paul! The producer of two of my favorite albums of all time, De La Soul Is Dead and Three Feet High and Rising, member of Stetsasonic. Of course! The tape felt mysterious, begging to be listened to immediately. Excitedly, like a kid that just found a map to a secret treasure, I put it in my bag and hurried home.
It was a hot, hot summer. Not like this year’s quasi-summer, but a true sweltering New York, ice cold shower-taking, hiding out in air conditioned stores at every opportunity, concrete melting the soles of your flip-flops kind of summer. It was also the summer of carefree hip-hop, the rotating soundtrack at the then-endless slew of clubs like Tunnel, Wetlands, Tramps, Vynil. It was all one big party, the kind that had you stumbling out into the streets at 6 am, looking for breakfast after a night of dancing to joints like “Lex, Coups, Beemaz, Benz” by the Lost Boyz and “Put It In Ya Mouth” by Akinyele.
But this was still the mid-90s, when New York was much grimier and more dangerous than today, long before Starbucks and Whole Foods invaded the Bowery and yuppies decided to settle into overpriced rentals in Alphabet City. Back when you used a token to get into the subway. It was out of this New York that Psychoanalysis emerged, a perfect accompaniment and at the same time, an antithesis to everything that was happening.
I popped the tape into my walkman, and a man with a thick German accent began to speak. “How do you do? I am your analyst. What I’m going to do is to psychoanalyze you,” he said, as a warped, synthesized melody floated in, followed by the rambling voice of a male patient. From that first minute, I knew this was going to be unlike anything I heard before, a journey into a hip-hop twilight zone. For some people, it’s too
weird of a place, too far out there, but I immediately felt at home.
“Before I come, one of my nuts gets sucked up inside my stomach,” the male patient declares at one point to the German doc. It’s a great set-up for the track that follows: “A Beautiful Night,” a kind of stream-of-consciousness confessional of a sociopath. As an R&B chorus sings passionately in the background: “It’s just a beautiful night for a date rape, a beautiful night for a kill / It’s a beautiful night for a homicide, a beautiful night, let’s go steal” the narrator describes his “wilding out” activities, like killing a “cracker” at a Beastie Boys concert and gang raping a girl. As crazy as the song was, it was impossible not to like it because the beats were so DOPE and tangled with these perfect, moody horns like on an old soul record.
Sometimes Psychoanalysis played like a dark comedy album. One track, “The World’s A Stage,” essentially parodied those BET-style late night comics (among other parodies on the album, which included Miami Bass music and dancehall reggae). “So so so I saw your mother the other day! She had on a sweatshirt,” the comic busts out during his routine, “It said, UCLA on it. I said, ‘Well Goddamn, I didn’t know you went to college!’ She said, ‘I dee-int, my name is OOKLA.'” And an exaggerated laugh track erupts and plays almost repeatedly, until the very end when the comic steps off the stage and overlapping voices start repeating, “they’re laughing at you.” Suddenly, it’s no longer dark funny, but plain dark. And it’s that darkness that constantly snuck up on you on Psychoanalysis, giving you an unexpected chill.
But the song that really blew me away, called “You Made Me,” was not weird at all. In fact, it was almost romantic, saturated with this urban longing, like a couple on a city street embracing under a street lamp. It was mostly instrumental, save for the occasional sound-bite from some movie I couldn’t identify, a conversation between two lovers. “I’m crazy about you,” says a young girl at one point, “and I think you should know this. And…now that you do, I’m just gonna go with my life.” I remember hearing that and it took the breath out of me. Something about it was so bittersweet, so different from anything I had heard before on a hip-hop record.
As taboo as many of the subjects on Psychoanalysis were, everything about that album felt breakthrough, a precursor to DJ Shadow’s instrumental cut-and-paste hip-hop, to mash-ups, to Eminem’s dark fantasies about stuffing his girlfriend into the trunk of a car and throwing her into the river. It was brave, uncompromising and, if you were truly receptive, it burned into your mind forever.
Stacy Gueraseva is the author of the acclaimed Def Jam Records biography, Def Jam, Inc. (Random House 2005). A former editor in chief of Russell Simmons’ Oneworld Magazine, she has also contributed to XXL, The Source, Vibe, Interview and other publications. You can also find her on her blog, Strangetopia. Image and tape courtesy of the author. Stacy wrote this exclusively for NERDTORIOUS.