e’ve seen Bad Boy mistreat 8Ball & MJG before. The sore thumb of lyric ability, personality, and experience among the label’s selection of post-pop reality projects (Danity Kane) and soon-to-be punch lines (Yung Joc) deserve better than splatter sequencing and 112 cameos from aforementioned punch lines. They didn’t get much on 2004’s Livin’ Legends, their first outing with the Diddy-helmed label, and they sure as hell got stiffed this time around.
For one, the inorganic scatter of Ridin’ High makes for another trip on the late-career circuit that’s half victory-lap and half retirement-home-bound bon voyage. It’s ironic and heartbreaking given that the duo thrives in moments of recollection, reassessment, instruction, and remembrance—moments they should be absolutely nailing on record. But they’re stuck as the old, inert men of Diddy’s stable, and as long as they get handed blueprints with Yung Joc features, painfully cyclic couture rap (“30 Rocks”) and queasy, duplicitous love songs (“Cruzin”), all they’re going to be is archeological—not wise, or easy or weathered or effortless or grizzled or knowing or any of the other MC’s-in-sunset traits the duo should—and could—express.
Ridin’ is more proof that the duo does their best work in minimally invasive conditions. The two founded their own label, Suave House, in the mid-1990’s after spending the better part of their early careers traveling the open roads and metroplexes of Memphis, Houston, Atlanta, and Dallas, hawking regional mix-tapes and setting up the vocal patterns of twenty-first century southern rap (T.I.’s adolescent spit-fire owes as much to MJG’s punctual, plosive cadences as Wayne’s serpentine hisses and cackles are indebted to 8Ball’s wet, gluttonous lisp). Even on recent, low-budget offerings—8Ball’s most recent solo disc, the archaic, sonically noxious Light Up The Bomb—each man comes across as a human, well-trod MC. In the context of Bad Boy and all its fake ceremony, well, they sound like tools.
Expectedly, Ridin’’s producers are a grab bag of aspiring A-listers—Jazze Pha (whose “Pimpin’ Don’t Fail Me Now” is actually far more brief and pleasing than it sounds), Danja (Timberland’s protégé and co-producer of Nelly Furtado’s “Promiscuous”), DJ Toomp (T.I.’s “What You Know,” Jeezy’s “I Luv It”), among others—and at nineteen songs it ties with Legends as the longest 8Ball & MJG effort.
What few clusters of goodness the album has are packaged in Ridin’s front and back ends. Right out of the gate the album has two genuine burners, “Relax & Take Notes,” a bombastic enough lead single, and “Turn Up the Bump,” one of the few songs where either rapper sounds loose (MJG, on greenhorns: “A 300 is not a Bentley!”). And if the listener can make it through the odious middle tracks (“Alcohol, Pussy and Weed” “Hickory Dickory Dock” for starters), there are a few more successes stacked up at the album’s end.
“Stand Up” and “Memphis” (Cohn-sample-flipping haze, 8Ball nostalgia—“shotgun house, me and momma in the same bed”) are both fine analogs to any number of provincial pride and paranoia songs off Comin’ Out Hard or In Our Lifetime. Those moments, and the bushels of one-liners—Ball, on his stash: “shit to get a buffalo choking”—scattered across Ridin’ keep the album from being a true disaster, but you get the feeling that as long as 8Ball & MJG are on the Bad Boy leash, this is as deep as they’re going to get.