Arabian Prince - "Strange Life" (Innovative Life: The Anthology 1984-1989)
Arabian Prince, the always-a-bridesmaid producer who worked with Egyptian Lover, Bobby Jimmy & the Critters, World Class Wreckin’ Cru and, most notably, N.W.A. (before the Dre/Yella tag team rendered him obsolete; his contributions to the H-bomb LP Straight Outta Compton are limited to the club track “Somethin’ 2 Dance 2”), has been “rediscovered” more than once. He released a series of mid-‘80s singles that shaped the early West Coast hip-hop sound, which were anthologized on Situation Hot, a 1990 cassette exclusive that was repackaged as Greatest Hits in ’98. Those tracks make up more than half of Innovative Life, Stones Throw’s latest rescue mission for Brother Rab’s visionary shenanigans.
Nothing wrong with that. Arabian Prince deserves better than he’s ever gotten from the wider hip-hop sphere, and every time his ‘80s records come back around, it’s another chance to delight in their never-again fusion of goofball lyrics, playful effects and stupid-hard beats.
All of Compton’s thudding cacophony can be heard here, becoming what it was. But while the synth beats can still break concrete at high volumes, Innovative Life’s strength is the Prince’s joy in discovery. Structurally, this stuff is as chilly and “minimalist” as any new-wave club nugget, but it has a lot more fun with its toys. Just by weaving moans and groans into such an aggressive mix, “It Ain’t Tough,” “Freak City” and “Take You Home, Girl” come off a lot sexier than any of the lite-porn pandering on AP’s latter-day platters. (By ’89, he was cutting tracks with titles such as “She’s Got a Big Posse,” and ‘93’s Where’s My Bytches was his sadly inevitable foray into power-fucking g-funk nihilism. By contrast, the early tracks make spontaneous sex sound like a fun thing.) The statement-of-purpose “Strange Life” throws in countless hooks and jokes as it approaches the seven-minute mark. And “Let’s Hit the Beach” features awkwardly loud, endearingly cheesy sound effects, which sound like the work of an 8-year-old shopping for a Yamaha.
Not surprisingly, this hot-and-cold, rhythm-based music owes much to the other Prince, in texture and personality. Circa Arabian Prince’s character-building raps, years before Andre 3000 and Cee-Lo, being weird is more glamorous than being tough. “Strange Life” compares our hero’s free spirit to “an 80-year-old lady trying to do a striptease,” while “Innovative Life” bemoans the hazards of giving girls his “innovative” makeover when he’s not sure if they can handle it.
Innovative Life also includes “Panic Zone,” a track that appeared on the glorified mixtape N.W.A. and the Posse and, even on that hilariously uneven collection, stood out like a pinwheel at a cockfight. Now that “Gangsta Gangsta” and “Dopeman” have been canonized, “Panic Zone” sounds even more absurd in its suggestion that the most interesting thing that could happen in Compton is a dance-off.
Arabian Prince never quite found a proper context for his talents – he thrived at a fleeting pivot point, never on one side or the other. Maybe now, in this aggressively decontextualized age, some egghead will discover what he was on about. Fuck it. This stuff is still a blast, and not just because it sounds a tad ridiculous.