The last time we checked in with MC Shan was on his 1988 sophomore effort, Born To Be Wild, which I felt was average at best (you can read my complete thoughts on BTBW by clicking this link), and I’d be willing to bet the majority of those who heard the album would agree. I’m also sure that one person will read this post and tell me that I don’t know shit about hip-hop and proclaim Born To Be Wild as the greatest album ever made, which is cool; because art is subjective, and we can agree to disagree. Two years later, Shan would return in 1990 to release his third and final album on Cold Chillin’, Play It Again, Shan.
For his first two albums, Shan relied solely on Marley Marl to sonically shape the sound of his music. This time around, Marley doesn’t receive a single production credit. Instead, Shan, along with John Ficarrotta (whom from this point on, I’ll only refer to as “Shan-John”) would produce the entire album. PIAS would produce a few trivial singles that resulted in poor albums sells, which may be the reason Shan was dropped from Cold Chillin’ after its release. Shan claims his disappearance from the industry was fueled by record exec and television producer, Benny Medina, who allegedly had him black-balled after Shan refused his sexual advances and called him the f-word that rhymes with maggot. Shan also claims his refusal to sleep with Benny cost him the role that Will Smith would eventually get as the lead man on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Personally, I find his first claim more believable than the latter.
Let’s jump into Play It Again, Shan and hope it doesn’t sound as corny as the album cover looks.
Ain’t It Good To You – This song starts with an epically funky break beat, before suddenly morphing into a techno beat that Shan uses to boast and talk his shit over. I could have done without the female vocalist (Carole Davis) on the hook, but Shan finds his pocket and gives up quality bars; and I actually enjoyed the instrumental.
I Ran The Game – Shan spins a tale about two chicks he met in Wisconsin, Vivian and Polly, who have an elaborate plan to “wine and work him” over for his loot. But little do they know that Shan is scheming too (side note: Shan’s description of Polly’s “big bold ass and rhinestone tits” sure sounds delicious!). Shan’s story gets a little hard to follow during the middle portion and the ending is anticlimactic, but it’s still not a terrible song.
Ain’t It Funkin’ – Shan continues to prove he can spit solid bars, as he flows over the mystical sounds of Barry White’s “I’m Gonna Love You Just A Little More Baby” and a funky harmonica loop. This was pretty dope.
It Ain’t A Hip-Hop Record – Shan-John hooks up a house beat that Shan uses to spend half of the song explaining why this is not a hip-hop record, and the other half telling us that it’s built on a hip-hop foundation. Contradiction, much. Shan sounds confused, the instrumental was dull, and you will always lose cool points for repeating the same verse twice in a song.
Death Was Quite A Surprise – Shan uses this drab backdrop to share a tale about a dude named Tic-Tac, who goes from being a humble kid earning his money legitimately to a big time drug dealer; and I’m sure you figured out from the song title that things don’t end well for Tic Tac (I’m convinced the only reason Shan used Tic-Tac for the main character’s name was to get off the “Tic-Tac’s toe” line on the final verse). The instrumental and the storyline were blah, but I did enjoy the Richard Pryor vocal sample (which kind of sounds like Marley Marl’s drunk uncle adlib voice) on the hook.
Walking On Sunshine – Shan-John hooks up stripped-down drums for Shan to talk his shit over, and they cleverly bring in a rough rock guitar loop and a smooth vocal harmony sample (courtesy of Central Line) in between the verses. This was dope, and easily one of the strongest songs on PIAS.
Rock Stuff – Based on the song title and the experimental feel of PIAS so far, I thought for sure our host was going to rap over a rock-flavored instrumental. Instead, he uses the plain Jane backdrop to rap a PSA about the dangers of crack cocaine. It was a noble deed to make an anti-drug record, but that doesn’t negate the fact that this shit was corny.
Clap Your Hands – Shan takes a potty break and lets the female duo, M+M (pronounced “M and M” like the classic candy and the alias of the legendary Detroit emcee, Marshall Mathers) hold things down while he tinkles. From the rhymes to the instrumental, this is nothing more than a poorly executed imitation of JJ Fad’s “Supersonic”. Next…
Music You Can Dance To – Shan attempts to fuse country music with hip-hop on this one. Like you probably surmised after you read the previous sentence, it doesn’t work. The only dancing this song made me think about doing was a square dance…and they all promenade.
Time For Us To Defend Ourselves – Shan-John combines bangin’ drums with a dark, airy and eerie sample to set the mood for Shan’s dimly lit content about police brutality in the black community: “Tales from the rhyme side, fact or fiction, I look at justice as pain infliction, sit back, relax while I bust this, there’s a big loophole in justice, law enforcement to serve and protect, but in my neighborhood they break your neck, police are ruthless-minded, wicked and villainous, but not just I see your killin’ us”. Thirty years later, and Shan’s content couldn’t be more relevant.
It Don’t Mean A Thing – Shan continues to throw shit against the wall to see if it’ll stick. This time he dabbles with a go-go beat and spews rhymes aimed at getting the listeners off their butts and on to the dance floor. The hook (which borrows the refrain from Ella Fitzgerald’s classic of the same name and is sung by Carole Davis) is borderline laughable and Shan’s rhymes are fluff, but I kind of enjoyed the go-go groove on this one…in a guilty pleasure kind of way.
I Want To Thank You – Shan continues to try new things on PIAS. This time lickin’ his singing chops for the first two verses and rapping about his gratitude for the lady he loves on the final verse. Shan receives a few helping hands, as he invites Kadejia Bass and Julia Brereton to sing the hook on this song that sounds like a hybrid between Taylor Dayne’s “Tell It To My Heart” and Shannon’s “Let The Music Play”. This was a blatant pop crossover attempt that failed, miserably.
Got To Be Funky – Shan is joined on the mic by his lady, Terri (who also graces the album cover, along with their son, Lil’ Shan aka Do-Do.), and the lovebirds take turns trying to out rap each other over a smooth beat and slim-thick bass line. Much respect to Shan for letting his Queen get a little shine time, but she shouldn’t be rappin’; and even though the instrumental was pleasant, this song shouldn’t exist.
Mic Line – Shan’s back on his emcee shit with this one, as he spits adequate battle bars. The rhymes would have shined brighter over a stronger instrumental and without the corny hook.
How I Feel About You – Shan closes the album with a dark instrumental that finds our host questioning the skeptical behavior of his lady, and things come to a climactic ending on the final verse. This was mildly enjoyable.
Play It Again, Shan sounds like our host was making a last-ditch attempt at obtaining some form of commercial success. Shan throws caution to the wind and dabbles with rock, country, techno, house, go-go, pop; hell, he even tries to sing on a record. Shan was still a competent emcee in 1990, and delivers some decent bars on PIAS, but all the experimentations result in a lackluster listen that runs a bit too long. PIAS isn’t all bad, as there are a handful of solid records. But within a fifteen song tracklist, those handful of songs quickly get lost in the conflux of mediocrity and cornball, and ultimately, our host’s (wait for it) Shan-nanigans (*rimshot*) do the album in.