Perhaps it was wishful thinking, but wasn’t ”The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” supposed to set a new standard for hip hop, especially in the realm of female MCs? Hill isn’t the funniest or most dexterous rhymer, but the musical diversity and ”respect yourself” vibe of her album still put nearly every other female hip hopper in the land to shame. Few seem even remotely interested in picking up where the former Fugee left off, leaving us to settle for the likes of Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown, both better known for their hoochie mama wardrobes than for music (and rightfully so, since most of their tracks have been cluttered or lackluster).
And then there’s Eve. On her first album, 1999’s ”Let There Be Eve…Ruff Ryders’ First Lady,” the former Eve Jihan Jeffers fell somewhere in between the Hill and Kim camps. Unlike most of her peers, she radiated power, and she clearly had the verbal skills to fend for herself amid the testosterone fueled world of the Ruff Ryders posse. Yet with her ultraclose cropped blond Afro and ”Xena: Warrior Bitch” wardrobe, she wasn’t above presenting herself as a rap fantasy object, and thanks to its underwhelming beats and conventional flow, ”Let There Be Eve?” wasn’t the knockout it was hyped to be. Its follow up, however, is another matter. More than just a dramatic improvement over its predecessor, Scorpion is the first female hip hop project that even attempts to fill the void left by ”The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.”
The reasons why are immediately evident in the music. ”Scorpion” is rooted in hardcore stomp, rhymes, boasts, and slams. But just as Hill’s album encompassed a broad range of styles, so does ”Scorpion”; it even covers some of the same territory. The diverse array of grooves dips into reggae (a remake of Dawn Penn’s ”No, No, No,” coproduced by Bob Marley’s son Stephen) and gospel (”Life Is So Hard,” with old school R&B queen Teena Marie exhorting along). With its stark, brooding interpolation of beats and strings, ”That’s What It Is” (one of two tracks helmed by Eve’s onetime mentor, Dr. Dre) feels like a sequel to Hill’s ”Everything Is Everything.” Throughout the album, Eve both sings and raps, much as Hill did.
Yet ”Scorpion” whacks out its own path with a sharp machete. So much contemporary hip hop feels sluggish and monochromatic; it’s no wonder Eminem stands out. From start to powerful finish 16 tracks later, ”Scorpion” pumps up the volume, the rhythms, everything. Swizz Beatz, the young producer who oversaw most of Eve’s debut, is back, and his contributions — the ”I’ve returned” anthem ”Cowboy” and ”Got What You Need,” another back and forth with fellow Ruff Ryder Drag On — are among his best, their rubbery bounce cushioning Eve’s burly, taunting machine gun of a voice. ”Who’s That Girl” and ”You Ain’t Gettin’ None” also prop up their ”no scrubs allowed” sentiments with, respectively, a swaying Caribbean vibe and girl group harmonies. Like ”The Marshall Mathers LP,” in fact, the album hits you with one hook after another, even if Eve isn’t anywhere near as psychologically complex as Eminem.
Sometimes, of course, you wish she were; Eve’s raps are largely about her skills. On ”Be Me,” she brags about owning her own publishing rights (a first in a song lyric?), and her rough ride in the music business during the last two years (which she’s said resulted in a mild depression) is one of the album’s underlying themes. Her other principal topic is blowing off, and declaring independence from, feckless men: ”You’ll never catch me wishing on a star for some nigga to come bless me,” she announces in the self explanatory ”You Had Me, You Lost Me.” The stance is very much part of the current trend in female pop, but it grows a little tiring. At times during ”Scorpion,” you may find yourself longing for a little of Hill’s civics class sermonizing. But Eve has such vocal presence (and her producers such a flair for texture) that her lyrics don’t detract from the album. Even the inevitable series of cameo appearances, including Da Brat and No Doubt’s Gwen Stefani, don’t overwhelm her.
On ”Scream Double R,” Eve gripes, ”I’m tired of the same old beats.” Thankfully, ”Scorpion” is one hip hop album that lives up to that lyric. On that same track, she even gets the notoriously surly and far from touchy feely DMX to pledge his allegiance to her. When was the last time that happened?