Penal reform hasn’t yet gotten around to offering prison inmates easy access to professional recording facilities, but the increasing incidence of jail time among active rap artists has sent associates scrambling for ways to keep their music in circulation even when they’re not. As hard as it is to juggle the logistical demands and creative resources of a busy career, having to work around the judicial system must up the difficulty factor considerably. If not quite on a par with an escape from Alcatraz, getting albums out of convicted felons takes a parlor trick of ingenious bail-based/work-release scheduling.
In 1985, Doug E. Fresh and MC Ricky D earned eternal hip-hop points for the brash, nearly innocent human beat-box single “La-Di-Da-Di” (b/w “The Show”), an early, influential and endlessly quoted party rap record. As Slick Rick, however, the London-born Ricky Walters returned with the same relaxed sing-song delivery and lyrics of stunning misogyny and vulgarity. (While it contains some innocuous rhymes, The Great Adventures pivots on such charmers as “Treat Her Like a Prostitute” and the ambiguously moralized criminality of “Children’s Story.”)
Bringing some unintended prophecies of the album to pass, Walters wound up convicted of attempted murder for a 1990 shooting incident and had to record The Ruler’s Back (named for a track on his debut) while waiting to be sentenced. Exhibiting surprisingly good judgment on what is his most entertaining and least offensive longplayer, Rick doesn’t sink to the crudity of the first album. He doesn’t make much of his legal situation, either. Instead, Rick devotes his clever storytelling prowess to a tale of sexual two-timing (“I Shouldn’t Have Done It”), a cinematic dope deal (“Bond”), a romantic campaign (“Venus,” complete with a sung and whistled interlude of the ’59 Frankie Avalon hit) and a highly colloquial version of the Old Testament (“Moses”). Besides looping “La-Di-Da-Di” into several tracks, producer Vance Wright pumps up busy, exciting dance beats, pushing Rick into a faster, more invigorated flow on its way to dancehall bounce. And with that, Slick Rick began his enforced hiatus.
Several years of incarceration (and deportation battles and parole hearings) later, Behind Bars — actually recorded during a work-release furlough and augmented by leftovers from The Ruler’s Back and remixes — touches on the live-from-inside chill of an Iceberg Slim novel in the title track, but otherwise doesn’t mention it. Referring to prison in the opener, “Behind Bars,” as “razorblade city,” Walters — sounding tougher but unbroken — breathes a temporary sigh of relief at being out: “At least for now, no more accumulatin’ cuts and scars behind bars.” From there, relationship trouble is the order of the day. (“I’m Captive” ignores the title’s obvious topical potential.)
The album is understandably fragmented; it takes a while to settle down after the shift from Prince Paul’s hard beats on “Behind Bars” to the gentle soul of “All Alone (No One to Be With),” a supportive and sympathetic portrait of a young single mother. Rick doesn’t seem very connected to the music, but his complaints ring with the rancid air of preoccupation by someone with too much time to obsess about his frustrations. Beginning with the announcement that “bitches ain’t no good,” Rick details his disastrous encounters (including the acquisition of herpes) in “A Love That’s True (Part I)”; “Get a Job” accuses women of not earning their keep. The ear-pleasing “Sittin’ in My Car” makes fine use of Billy Stewart’s summery “Sitting in the Park,” but Rick’s rude rhyme about cheating on a girlfriend spoils the music’s seductive power.