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Article May 5 2017 Written by

Honoring The Best Hip Hop LP’s: Black Sheep – A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing

black sheep 1991

First impressions make Black Sheep out to be chauvinistic ne’er-do-wells.

Vocalist Andres “Dres” Titus and DJ William McLean fashion themselves as city dwelling Ferris Buellers, keen on left-of-center jazz, casual sex and cold Heineken. Superficial listens only corroborate their claims, but an attentive ear will reveal a crafty team of parodists, capable of lampooning the excesses of contemporary rap, while putting a magnifying glass up to society’s absurdity.

Skillfully walking the line between earnest and glib, Dres’ vocal flow is a cocky, conversational spoken word, accented by cool kid nonchalance and a penchant for vivid wordplay. His inability to show frustration, even when opening about race-related corruption and feckless rapper wannabes, reflects a deeply perceptive individual beneath the surface of sex drive and materialism. That’s not to say that he won’t “shoot you with the joint inside [his] zipper,” he just won’t break a sweat doing it.

His most interesting quirk as a writer is his unorthodox use of double entendre and metonym. Breasts become Vitamin D dispensaries, Nike goes from a sneaker to the verb for motion and the SAT exam becomes “the sad ass truth.” His tour de force of figurative language is the verse-long symbol occupying much of “Black with N.V. (No Vision),” which aligns a hopeless and unmotivated life to a Sisyphean nightmare of endlessly washing dishes. Dres paints a complex portrait of the black struggle to find a role in American culture and uses the dish as a physical representation of forced labor, lack of opportunity and indifference.

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Rhyme schemes of such a grand scale deserve equally elaborate sonic textures and the duo manages to construct a rich sound from a maxed-out organ, unremitting bursts of muffled horn and deep, playful bass guitar groove. Drums are often low in the mix, lending an atmospheric, homemade quality to the affair and tone leans more towards the bouncy, jovial strut of genre pioneers than the sharp-edged sonic collage of East Coast contemporaries. The pool of samples smartly sidesteps sacred cows, instead favoring willfully obscure passages of Canadian prog, New Orleans R&B and contemplative, loose jazz saxophone.

They’re even willing to modify their routine to match the targets of their sardonic genre spoofs. “U Mean I’m Not” mimics N.W.A’s wah-wah funk guitar and machine gun chatter, while pushing their brutish physicality to the nth degree. It’s all pure fantasy, but Dres murdering his extended family for botching breakfast and using his toothbrush is both hilarious and shockingly curt.

“La Menage” sets its sights on the other side of the Hip Hop cliché coin: the sex jam. What starts as a racy provocation slowly degenerates into an unsavory four-way, complete with detailed descriptions of engorged genitalia, ambiguously gay gestures and enough prurient behavior to shock the Marquis de Sade. By the time Q-Tip starts his guest verse, we’re too gobsmacked to realize how well it subverts the male-oriented sexuality of rap culture.

Though certainly more tongue-in-cheek than austere, a songwriting team willing to take on genre and social shortcomings right out of the gate is nothing short of commendable. It’s this enthusiasm and anomalous comedic sensibility that sets A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing apart from the flock.

Black Sheep – A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing was ranked #27 on Matt Deapo‘s Hip Hop Top 50, a ranking of 50 of the best Hip Hop albums recorded between 1978 and 2006, based on this consideration and these rules

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Matthew Deapo is a Philadelphia-based arts critic and founding writer for Hip Hop Top 50 (hiphoptop50.blogspot.com) and Kinetoscope Film Journal (www.kinetoscope.org). His essay on Awesome Dré was recently included…

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