The first time I ever heard Foxy Brown rhyme was on LL Cool J’s “I Shot Ya (Remix)” from the Mr. Smith album. Legend has it that while the production team, Trackmasters, were working on Mr. Smith, they saw Foxy performing at a Brooklyn talent show and were so impressed by her performance they invited her to the studio to jump on the remix that would match her up with Uncle L, Prodigy, Fat Joe, and Keith Murray. That impressive cameo would open the door to more opportunities for the Brooklyn-bred rapper, as she would appear on Case’s “Touch Me, Tease Me” from The Nutty Professor Soundtrack, the “Groove Remix” for Toni Braxton’s “You’re Makin’ Me High, Jay-Z’s “Ain’t No Nigga,” and she would join Nas, AZ, and Cormega as the First Lady of the supergroup, The Firm, making their collective debut on It Was Written’s “Affirmative Action,” where she would infamously spit some questionable drug math. With a pretty impressive cameo resume under her belt, Foxy would eventually sign with Def Jam, releasing her debut album, Ill Na Na.
Since Trackmasters were her entry point into the game, it comes as no surprise that they would be responsible for producing the majority of Ill Na Na, and along with Jay-Z, would help write a large portion of the album as well. Ill Na Na would debut at number seven on the Billboard Top 200, selling 107K its first week of release, and making Foxy the first female rapper to debut an album in the top ten. The album would produce three charting singles, one which would earn a gold plaque (more on that in a bit), and Ill Na Na would receive platinum certification less than three months after its release.
Broken record moment: I didn’t buy Ill Na Na when it came out in ‘96, but I bought a used CD copy at least a decade after its release. I’m familiar with the singles, but this will be my first time listening to Ill Na Na in its entirety. So, without further ado, let’s listen and see if Foxy’s Na Na is as ill as she claims.
Intro… Chicken Coup – Ill Na Na begins like a movie theater experience, as Def Jam cleverly promos a few of their upcoming projects, playing clips from Cru’s “Just Another Case” and Cormega’s “Dead Man Walking” as trailers (Cru would drop their debut album, Da Dirty 30 in ‘97, but Def Jam would shelf Cormega’s debut, The Testament, which he would release independently years later after obtaining the masters from Def Jam…but I digress), setting up Ill Na Na as the feature presentation. Apparently, Ill Na Na is a blaxploitation film, as the opening scene features a funky Isaac Hayes loop for the soundtrack and a bootleg Isaac Hayes character named Panama Slim (played by Rich Nice, who plays the narrator during the opening trailers, and was also part of Trackmasters at the time, and the first rapper ever signed to the once soul music monster label, Motown) offers Foxy advice and encouragement, which all feels like a subtle homage to Pam Grier’s super sexy seventies character that our hostess’ alias was borrowed from.
(Holy Matrimony) Letter To The Firm – Speaking of Isaac Hayes, Trackmasters build this instrumental around a beautifully somber piano loop taken from the soul singer’s record, “Ike’s Mood” (It’s been flipped several times through the years, but it’s always welcomed). Foxy uses it to pledge her loyalty to her Firm Familia and declares war on her crew’s imaginary drug dealing rivals (even though he’s not credited in the liner notes, I have a sneaking suspicion this song was ghostwritten by Nas). I wasn’t blown away by this one, but it was a decent way to start the show.
Foxy’s Bells – Foxy and the Trackmasters thought it would be a good idea to remake LL’s classic “Rock The Bells.” But even with Jay-Z’s amazing pen writing Inga’s rhymes (which includes a few clever bars), this felt blasphemous.
Get Me Home – This was the lead single from Ill Na Na. Trackmasters interpolate a portion of Eugene Wilde’s “Gotta Get You Home Tonight” and invite Blackstreet to sing the classic hook from the original. Foxy plays a girl at a club who’s spotted a guy she likes, and they spend the song’s three verses sizing each other up, flirting, and finally leave the club together. Ironically, the horny couple can’t wait to get back to his place, and our perky-breasted hostess ends up spreading her mahogany thighs open in homie’s premium petrol fueled car. This was one of many low hanging fruit shiny production hit singles that Trackmasters were able to string together in the nineties. I don’t love it, but I’ll vibe to it when it comes on during an old school mix.
The Promise – Foxy and Havoc link up for this duet that finds the two on some Bonnie and Clyde shit, exchanging murderous mafioso bars over poppin’ drums and a subdued and bleak string loop. I wasn’t crazy about this one, but I suppose it makes for decent filler.
Interlude… The Set Up – Short skit that sets up the next song…
If I… – Through Jay-Z’s pen, Foxy does a little reflecting, reminiscing, and wishing she could turn back time (shoutout to Cher). On the first verse she recalls a childhood friendship lost once she got her deal, while the second verse finds her harkening back to her first love, who was also the first to sample the ill na na and break her heart. The third verse is dedicated to her brother (I think) who lost his life to the dope game. Trackmasters loop up a Luther Vandross record to create a beautifully pensive backdrop that sounds great backing Foxy’s stories. This is definitely one the strongest records on Ill Na Na.
The Chase – The song title, Foxy’s hook, and the sound of a revving car engine laced throughout the track, imply there’s some type of high-speed chase going on, and Trackmasters provide the perfect unsettling and frantic-paced backdrop to support the song’s theme. But after several listens to this song, I have no idea what Foxy is rapping about. After she “Jumped out the ride” during the song’s opening line, all I heard was a string of brand names, a bunch of Firm references and other randomness for the next three verses. What a waste of a dope beat.
Ill Na Na – The title track finds Inga talking her shit and sex over the bass line and drums from The Commodores’ “Brick House,” while her Def Jam label mate and another contender for cameo whore of the year, Method Man, co-signs for her on the hook, boasting that she has the best pussy on the planet, as if he’s had the pleasure of sampling every living vagina. This was obviously recorded before Foxy started feuding with Lil Kim, as she shouts her Brooklyn contemporary out on the first verse (“Shakin’ my ass half-naked, lovin’ this life, waitin’ for Kim’s album to drop, knowin’ it’s tight”). It would have been nice to hear Meth get off a full verse, but it probably wouldn’t have made much sense on a song called “Ill Na Na.” Still a decent record, though.
No One’s – This record officially makes The S.O.S. Band’s “No One’s Gonna Love You” the undisputed champion of sampled records for 1996, worthy to be retired and hung in hip-hop’s rafters, as China Black and Divine Allah become the millionth producers to use it for this instrumental. Foxy doesn’t do much to make the overly used loop stand out either, as she spits mundane flossy name brand bars, while Khadijah Bass reinterprets the chorus of the original record on the hook. Next…
Fox Boogie – The legendary Kid Capri stops by to co-sign for our hostess with a few adlibs and a silly hook, while Trackmasters provide a melodic bouncy groove for Foxy, who continues to spew subpar stanzas.
I’ll Be – This was the gold-selling second single released from Ill Na Na. Trackmasters loop up another obvious eighties hit record for the backdrop (Rene & Angela’s “I’ll Be Good”), as Jay-Z assists Foxy on this one that finds her more focused on her ill na na than she’s been during the rest of the album (by the way, I love her line: “Na Na, y’all can’t touch her, my sex drive, all night like a trucker”). This is probably the best Foxy has sounded on the whole album and will forever be her biggest hit.
Outro – The album closes with the same Isaac Hayes loop from the Intro and Panama Slim sharing a few parting words, before a snippet from what sounds like a blaxploitation flick, ends the evening.
After living with Ill Na Na over the past three weeks, I’ve developed a newfound respect for rappers with writers, whom I’ve often referred to as puppets on this blog. On her debut album, Hard Core, Lil Kim was able to take Biggie’s penned bars (or reference tracks) and breathe new life into them with her personality, charisma and a welcoming voice that was very easy on the ears. On Ill Na Na, Foxy proves that all puppets aren’t created equal.
With the Trackmasters shiny and plush, commercially friendly brand of hip-hop, Jay-Z’s pen (and though he’s not credited in the liner notes, Nas’ pen as well), and the machine that was Def Jam backing her, Foxy Brown had all the pieces in place to make what could have been an incredible album. The only problem is Foxy’s performance. I like Foxy’s huskily feminine vocal tone, but much of Ill Na Na finds her spewing uninspired materialistic mafiosos raps and occasionally discussing how ill her na na is. While most rappers who were on this mafioso trend in the nineties weren’t living the life, they were able to sell it by making it sound entertaining. Most of Foxy’s bars ring hollow, sounding inauthentic and almost robotic. Speaking of mafioso, as many times as Foxy shouts out The Firm on the album, why the hell aren’t they on it?
Ill Na Na is not a horrible album, but Fox Boogie’s blah performance is far from…ill. But the album sold a shitload of records, so who cares what I think? Happy Women’s History Month!
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