While the black-and-white album artwork for Fat Joe’s 11th studio album very easily could have found its way into an infomercial for Rolls-Royce Manhattan, it better serves as a representation Joe’s musical disposition in 2019. Parked alongside partner-in-crime Dre Cool & Dre fame, Joe can be seen dangling his bedazzled wrist out the window, a steady stream Armand de Brignac pooling between the twin Phantoms like sea foam lapping at the hulls passing ships in the night. It’s an image awash in bombast and luxury, ideal for the grand farewell its skipper has imagined for himself.
From trading bars with Big L to appearing in the Def Jam: Fight For New York video games, Fat Joe has long stood on the rap frontlines as an intrepid rabble-rouser. He has a way with words that is the byproduct witnessing Big Pun flip muttered tongue twisters into iconic couplets, and a “predator or prey” mentality that nourished his rise from the Forest Housing Projects. Although the era white Cadillacs and Terror Squad chains is now a fragment the past, it lives on through Joe’s animated retellings $50,000 cash withdrawals and subsequent door-to-door shake downs after being informed his balance had dipped into the red. He recounted all this and more during his visit to W 25th Street’s 40/40 Club on Tuesday night, where he spoke at length with Elliott Wilson as part Tidal’s ongoing #CRWN interview series. With the utmost respect for Wilson, Joe had little need for discussion facilitation, enchanting those in attendance with vivid studio vignettes and tales run-ins with the likes Dapper Dan and First Take’s Stephen A. Smith. “What I’m missing is a classic album,” Joe told the bewildered moderator, a Celtics green tracksuit gripping to his every gesture as if directed by some invisible puppeteer in the rafters.
Unfortunately for all those involved, Family Ties is no such masterpiece, even as Joe pulls out all the stops and calls in plenty favors from friends far and wide to assemble the 11-track ensemble. If Family Ties is indeed his final album, then at the very least it’s an admirable enough send-f for the Bronx-bred behemoth, albeit one that doesn’t muster much replay value beyond its 42-minute duration. Arriving at a time when many the genre’s old guard are being sent to the breakers, the closing chapter to Joe’s 26-year-old discography struggles beneath the cruel hand Father Time in an effort to postpone such a fate, and in the process manages to scrounge up mostly run–the-mill scraps. That’s not to say that it lacks redeemable qualities, but rather that it’s forcibly linear in its tastes, which is a shame given Joey Crack’s aforementioned back catalogue stories and credentials.
“Projects” is a decent tone setter, its rattling percussion chiseled around street buzzwords as Dre and Joe exchange platitudes. “Been Thru,” originally intended to be a solo single for Dre, is a similarly-structured rags to riches ode, with a chorus that fashions bullet holes “big enough to fill Shaquille’s socks.” Listeners (particularly disciples the Wu) will recognize the sample Wendy Rene’s “After Laughter” on “Heaven & Hell” but will likely find themselves perplexed by the manic use Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” on the Lil Wayne-assisted “Pullin’.” Crooner Jeremih pops up on the album’s two R&B cuts, first with Bryson Tiller as part “Hands on You” and later with Ty Dolla $ign for the sensual, coupe-for-every-day–the-week “Drive.” Elsewhere, lead single “YES” attempts to fill empty space with shoddy strip club lyrics, while “Lord Above” finds Eminem taking provocative cracks at Nick Cannon in what has been one the most talked-about if preposterous rap beefs in recent memory.
Fellow New Yorkers Mary J. Blige (“Lord Above”) and Remy Ma (“Splash”), the latter whom collaborated with Joe in 2017 on joint LP Plata O Plomo, display excellent chemistry with their host. Yet even the presence such high-flying acts does little to distract from the apathetic blend trap melodies and inner-city parables that is Family Ties. For what it’s worth, Joe does well to hold up his end the bargain, and there are glimpses his intellect as an emcee, both in his delivery and diction (“Seen more faces than Midnight Marauders”). But by in large, both Joe and Dre indulge a mold that overcompensates in accommodating past glories and the stylistic inclinations the new generation. Perhaps this isn’t the end the rope and there will be more striking musical endeavors from the certified hip hop hall famer in the future. In the meantime, the bonds fatherhood call. “I want to make sure every time (my daughter) turns around, her dad is there … and I’m there for her,” he said during an appearance on CBS This Morning. Retirement is a fickle thing, but family ties are forever.