Big Daddy Kanes place in raps upper echelon is irrefutable.
Hes among the most fluid rhymers to ever hold a micclever in wordplay and dexterous in flow, he has those rapid-fire bars that sound like flurries of verbiage unloaded at the listener, and those slower, quotable lines that pepper so many radio hits that defined hip-hops Golden Age and the vibrancy in Black radio of the Do the Right Thing era. His debut album, Long Live the Kane, dropped in June 1988, and showcased everything the man born Antonio Hardy does well on record: ferocious rhyme showcases, hooky radio rap and cheesy lover come-ons. He arrives fully formed on his first album.
Kane has one of hip-hops more enviable legacies. His first two albums are a dizzying one-two punch showcasing the lyricist at his most confident and inspired, as Kane goes from jaw-dropping rhyme sprees like Set It Off to more topical tracks like Young Gifted & Black. His work with Marley Marl on Long Live the Kane is among both mens bestwith Marley delivering his first truly classic album and Kane announcing himself as an emcee par excellence, alongside contemporaries like Rakim, KRS-One and Slick Rick. Production on Its A Big Daddy Thing, the 1989 follow-up, would be more varied (Prince Paul, Teddy Riley, Easy Moe Bee and Kane himself helmed the album, along with Marley) and Kane would delve deeper into his bag of tricks, revealing a rapper at the height of artistry and in full command of his musical voice.
But Kanes commercial and creative decline was swift and steep.
Taste of Chocolate, released in 1990, was less inspired than its predecessor, with Kane leaning more heavily into both his loverman persona and tendency to tether his image to the kitschier aspects of the previous generations avatars of pimped-out cool (Barry White and Rudy Ray Moore are among the albums guest stars). The songs werent as strong, the presentation wasnt as fresh, and by the time Kane released 1991s new jack swing-laced Prince of Darkness, it seemed obvious that hed lost a step creatively. Peers like Eric B. & Rakim, LL Cool J and Kool G Rap opened the 1990s with some of their most inspired work, and a newly-solo Ice Cube had joined them near the top of hip-hops hierarchy; Public Enemy was on the back end of what was still a potent album run; KRS-One successfully navigated the transition from the Boogie Down Productions moniker and era into what would be a strong solo career; and EPMD was delivering their most era-defining material in the years leading up to their infamous 1992 breakup. By the time Kane released Looks Like A Job For in 1993, it looked like he hadnt been that guy in a while.
Well, the string of releases essentially ended after the first four albums. We didLong Live the Kaneand I caught the bug, Kane told HuffPost in 2016. I realized pretty much everything I did wrong withLong Live the Kaneand went right back in and didIts a Big Daddy Thing, because now I had a more universal approach. I thinkLong Live the Kanewas pretty much a real boxed-in mindset with me just doing what I represented in the hood.
In that interview, Kane said that the drop-off in his material was the result of his own frustration and indifference with Cold Chillin/Warner Brothers. Following his first two albums, he essentially rushed through releases.
After that, I was unhappy with the label, so I dropped two trash albums to try to hurry up and finish up my 5-album deal so thats why they were coming so fast after that, he added. I was trying to hurry up and get out of the deal. I guess Warner Brothers caught on afterPrince of Darknessand they just stopped me and made me freeze for a year.
Even as Kanes music began to suffer, his status as a rap game sex symbol was only rivaled by LL Cool J. Hed dropped Smooth Operator and I Get the Job Done on Its A Big Daddy Thing and subsequently evolved into a silk-robe-wearing lothario by the early 90s. In an era when hip-hop was becoming ever-more hardcore, Kane presented a version of b-boy sexuality that was macho without being hyper-aggressive or domineering, and he courted the publics sexual gaze in a way that was boldly out of step with other revered rappers of the time.
And he paid a price for it. Kanes 1991 Playgirl spread is one of hip-hops most notorious moments. Despite concern from his label, Kane agreed to do the spread and said hed wanted to do it for his female fans.
Theres no shame, he told the Associated Press in 1992. First of all, I wasnt born with any clothing. Shame is something thats man-made. I just wanted to do something different, and Im not scared to take off my clothes.
He reflected on the Playgirl shoot in 2013.
It came about by joking with my publicist at the time, Gene Shelton, Kane told The Daily Beast. He said, We did everything fromRight OntoEssence. Whats left? I said,Playgirl? So we pursued it and the shoot was wonderful. A first for hip-hop. A lot of my male fans thought it wasnt a good look for me. But as for the female fans, I think that month was the magazines highest sales for black women between the ages of 18 and 25. What can I say? I like breaking ground and exploring new things.
The Playgirl shoot was a step beyond anything even LL Cool J had done before, and Kane followed it with another moment of notoriety: his appearance in Madonnas 1992 book SEX. Posing in sexual photos with Madonna and supermodel Naomi Campbell, Kane had reached a very rare space in pop culturebut it was one that left fans confused and critical. And those two moments had occurred with a particularly ugly rumor lingering in the background of Big Daddy Kanes career in the early 90s.
There were those out-of-nowhere whispers that Kane was HIV positive. The gossip started in New York City and spread amongst rap fans around the U.S.
AIDS hit rap back in 89/90 when a rumor gained momentum, dream hampton wrote back in 1996. The streets of New York City were abuzz with news that Big Daddy Kane was dying of AIDS. That hed been a closeted bisexual playing straight playboy all along. The rumor proved to be untrue but fatal to Kanes career. In a moment that was embarrassing for us all, Kane stood onstage at a free concert organized to register voters in Harlem and declared his negative status and his heterosexuality. His career never quite recovered from that moment.
In a 2009 article called Scared Straight: Hip-Hop, Outing and the Pedagogy of Queerness, Marc Lamont Hill revisited the backlash that occurred once those Kane AIDS rumors began circulating. Given the dominant belief that HIV/AIDS was a gay disease, public attention quickly shifted from Kanes health to his sexuality: Did hip-hop have its first gay MC? Was he gay or bisexual? Did he catch the disease from another rapper? These and other questions chased the rumor throughout the citys boroughs and into urban spaces throughout the country. Further enhancing and complicating the rumor was its apparent irony. In addition to being a lyrical giant, Big Daddy Kane was hip-hops playboy extraordinaire. With good looks, braggadocios lyrics, a flashy persona, and even a pimp-like name, Kanes very identity signified a carefully crafted and extravagantly performed masculinity. After the rumors began to circle however, Kanes image was placed in serious peril.
Kanes uniquely bold approach to rap-sex-god status wasnt entirely without concession to the most regrettable posturing of his era. He didnt seem to want to buck the sex-rap status quo in terms of tearing down bigoted macho-ism. Like so many rappers, Kane wallowed in standard-issue homophobia and misogyny on tracks like Pimpin Aint Easy, but it seems clear that Kane represented something that was threatening in terms of Black manhood, sex and sexuality. He broached taboos in a way the game wasnt ready for. But he did it while his music was at a lull in the early 90s. What may have been celebrated as boldly provocative was read by some as desperate.
Reginald Dennis of The Source said at the time that Kane had lost the people. It would almost be funny if he didnt take himself so seriously, Dennis said. He already had a reputation with the ladies as being a sex symbol, but he didnt have to cross the bridge into being a Luther Vandross where hes turning his back on the street.
When they occurred, Kanes forays into modeling werent generally hailed as anything resembling groundbreakingnot by the hip-hop media that was now sniping at him or by any mainstream platforms that had only barely acknowledged him even at his best. But Kane heard the streets chatter, and there was a sense that he was about to lose his audience completely. His label forced him to slow down before releasing Job For in 1993.
I was glad they did because at that point in time I started realizing that the streets were saying, Yo, they say you fell off. You wack. I had time to really regroup and get all the right producers like Track Masters,Easy Mo Bee,Large Professorand really do a good Kane album, he told HuffPo.
That album could have restored some of Kanes career lustermuch in the way LLs Mama Said Knock You Out resurrected his credibility in 1990but it happened a little too late.
After the album came out I think I messed it up. I dont blame it on Warner Brothers. I dont blame it on the producers, I think it was my fault, Kane said in 2016. Looks Like a JobFor…I think is a great album production-wise and structure-wise. I think that it was me who made the mistake because I was spitting a lot of dope rhymes, but I didnt realize that with artists likeMethod ManandBiggieandNas, the flow had changed. Cats were behind the beat more, they werent that rapid-fire like I was accustomed to doing so I think my style was outdated.
Kane would release Daddys Home in 1994 and Veteranz Day in 1997, but so many years removed from his 89/90 pinnacle and with those lukewarm releases and changing times, Kane saw his stature slip. Even as LL Cool J, KRS-One, Heavy D, Salt-N-Pepa and the Beastie Boys enjoyed ongoing success and visibility, Kane faded to hip-hops fringes. Over 20 years later, he hasnt released a new album.
But Kanes legend has remained intact. A show-stopping performance at the 2004 VH1 Hip-Hop Honors remains one of the high points of that semi-annual event, hes become one of the games most raved-about live acts, and his February appearance on NPRs Tiny Desk series was masterfulwith Kane and his band grooving through classics like Aint No Half-Steppin and Raw.
I love to see it grow and to see it continue on, Kane told the audience. I hope everybody out here is supporting hip-hop and trying to make it continue on. Ive seen a lot of biased stuff going on about how, This is not hip-hop, and This is real hip-hop. But I mean, you never know what floats somebodys boat. Whatever form of hip-hop you like, man, love it and keep it going. Keep it strong, make sure it stays powerfulbecause theres always gonna be different ways of presenting something and expressing yourself.
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