After making a tremendous first impression with Doug E. Fresh & The Get Fresh Crew on their classic record “The Show”, and arguably even more classic B-side, “La Di Da Di”, Slick Rick decided it was time to leave the group and go solo. Being the hot commodity that he was at the time, it didn’t take long before the labels came knocking at his door. Russell Simmons’ knock would be the most appealing to the England born emcee, and he would sign to the fledgling Def Jam label, where he would release his debut solo album, The Great Adventures of Slick Rick in 1988, and the album would go on to be a platinum selling success that most consider a classic (you can read my thoughts on that album right…here). It appeared that Slick Rick was on the verge of becoming the next bona-fide hip-hop superstar, then everything changed on July 3, 1990.
As the story goes, Rick was beefing with his cousin/bodyguard, which ended with Rick firing two shots: one hitting his cousin in the foot, and the other hitting and injuring an innocent bystander. Rick was charged with a plethora of charges (including two counts of attempted murder) and would end up be sentenced to three to ten years in prison of which he would end up serving a total of five years. Rick was still under contract with Def Jam at the time, so Russell Simmons temporarily bailed him out of jail, and in that limit time frame, Rick would record what would be his second album, The Ruler’s Back.
The Ruler’s Back would be mostly produced by Vance Wright with some co-production help from Slick Rick himself. The album produced a couple of hit singles and would climb to 29 on the Billboards Top 200 but would fail to match the commercial success of its predecessor. The streets and the critics felt the album was rushed and didn’t feel it was a proper follow-up to The Great Adventures of Slick Rick (his 1994 album, fittingly titled, Behind Bars, would face the same criticism).
I remember a couple of the singles off The Ruler’s Back from back in the day, but I’ve never listened to the album in its entirety before today. Hopefully, time has been kinder to the album than the critics and fans were when it was first released.
King – Rick wastes no time getting to work, as he and Vance Wright slap us in the head with a frantic-paced banger that Rick uses to regally and eloquently proclaim the thrown of this here rap shit. Rick has always been revered for his uncanny ability to paint vivid pictures with rhymes, but he proves on this one that he’s no slouch when it comes to boasting and bragging either, as he sounds fresh and focused with a nimble tongue. The mix could have been tighter, as some of Rick’s rhymes are a strain to hear over the bangin’ backdrop, but other than that this was a great way to start the show.
I Shouldn’t Have Done It – This was the lead single from The Ruler’s Back. V. Wright hooks up a danceable track for Rick to get into his first story of the night. This one finds Rick coming from the perspective of a cheating man whose infidelity leads to his woman committing suicide. The upbeat-feel good-head-nod inducing instrumental seems to contradict Rick’s rather dark content, but the poorly mixed vocals make it easy to focus more on the music than Rick’s rhymes.
Bond – Rick gets into 007 mode on this one, and after at least fifteen listens to this song over the past few weeks, I still have no idea what Rick’s mission is or what the hell is going on during this sketchy storyline. He lost me during his first few bars when he stepped off the plane in Columbia. Oh well, at least you can vibe out to V. Wright’s bangin’ backdrop.
Moses – Rick takes us to church on this one, as he goes into the bible and spits a quick three verses summarizing the Moses/Pharaoh conflict chronicled in the book of Exodus, which is one of my favorite bible stories, by the way. As I’ve already mentioned a few times, the mix makes it hard to hear some of Rick’s rhymes, and some of his bars sound rushed, but I still enjoyed the content and the reggae-tinged backdrop.
Tonto – Like “Bond”, the details of Rick’s story are hard to follow. Unlike “Bond”, the instrumental is super lackluster.
Mistakes Of A Woman In Love With Other Men – Now that’s a mouthful for a song title. V. Wright and Rick cook up a slightly dark instrumental for our host to share the details that led up to him finding out that his lady has been sleeping with other men, and now he’s feeling suicidal. The bluesy groove matches Rick’s melancholic content, and this is easily one of the best mixed songs on the album.
Venus – After nearly offing himself on the previous song, Rick bounces back, nicely when he meets the girl of his dreams, “’round Wall Street” of all places. Rick spits one quick verse about the encounter, before singing a little Frankie Avalon to close things out (and he actually has a decent singing voice). V. Wright’s instrumental reminds me of an up-tempo version of “Hey Young World”, and I enjoyed it, but Rick’s rhymes and song concept sound incomplete.
Ship – Over a stripped-down basic drumbeat, Rick goes for broke and picks up where he left off at on “King”, spewing fresh lines like: “How slick ya? You best get the picture, the one-eyed kid, remain victor”. The rhymes sound a bit rushed, but there’s no denying that Rick could rhyme his ass off.
It’s A Boy – This was the third single released from The Ruler’s Back. An enthusiastic Rick talks about the joys of welcoming his newborn son into the world over a decent V. Wright produced instrumental. I wasn’t crazy about this one back in the day and it still doesn’t grab me, but the video was pretty cool and original.
Top Cat – I wasn’t feeling this one.
Runaway – Rick and V. Wright hook up an up-tempo backdrop, dripping with Island vibes that our host uses to discuss his lady love who’s leaving him for another man. Rick sure loves to write about heartbreak. Rick sounds cool on this one, but the feel-good instrumental carries the song.
Slick Rick – The Ruler – The final song of the evening features a Mr. Lee produced techno dance track that has Rick rhyming with a vocal distortion filter. When you combine that filter with the super low vocal levels, there’s not a man or woman alive who could quote the song’s lyrics verbatim. I can’t believe the powers that be at Def Jam let this embarrassingly amateur mix sneak out on the album’s final cut.
The Ruler’s Back isn’t, as Rick’s British ancestors might say, complete rubbish. Most of the instrumentals are actually dope and entertaining; it’s all the other elements that burden the album. The bulk of Rick’s stories sound incomplete, not well-thought out or just plain uninteresting, which in his defense, I don’t know how focused one would be on songwriting when getting ready to serve a significant amount of time behind bars like he was at the time. When you couple that with the extremely poor mixing and mastering of the vocals with the music, the end results are a frustrating listen from an extremely talented emcee, and thirty years hasn’t helped heal the wounds.