Sunday, January 9, 2011

Return of the Devil's Cash In

The latest of many posthumous Big L albums, Return Of the Devil's Son bills itself as a "brand new album with 21-unreleased songs." That's a pretty bold statement considering it... isn't. Let's break it down song-by-song, and then we'll come back to sum up and see how it compares to the many other Big L compilation albums.

Are these unreleased tracks genuinely [UNRELEASED], [OLD] previously released stuff, or just some readily available [FREESTYLES]s?

1. Return Of t
he Devil's Son [OLD] 1:46 - This isn't actually a properly recorded song even, but a clip from a live performance with Big L kicking an alternate verse for "Devil's Son." Specifically it's taken from a CD Sandbox used to sell called Live From Amsterdam, and it was also released as "Live in Amsterdam" and "Devil's Son (Europe Version)" from those Harlem's Finest releases.

2. Devil's Son From Lifestylez
[OLD] 4:00 - This one was included on the initial, promo version of L's debut album (though at least this one admits it in the title), but it was more popularly available as a 12" single, which I reviewed here.

3. Zone Of Danger
[OLD] 3:39 - The first of many (intentionally?) garbled titles on this album; "Zone of Danger" is actually a remix of "Danger Zone" by J-Love that was one of his "exclusives" a few years ago. At least this version doesn't have J-Love's vocal tags over it... I'm not sure if this was ever released anywhere without the tags on it, so that's nice.

4. Sandman 118
[FREESTYLE] 2:55 - This is an old freestyle off one of Sandman's 12"s from 1995, where it was originally titled "L's Big Freestyle."

5. School Days
[OLD] 3:15 - Another one from the promo version of Lifestylez Ov da Poor & Dangerous, and later on vinyl on the Uptown Connection LP and various other vinyl boots.

6. Principal Of the New School
[OLD] 3:54 - This one's from Lord Finesse's Rare Selections vol. 2 EP.

7. Unexpected
[OLD] 3:36 - This is "Unexpected Flava," also from Lord Finesse's Rare Selections vol. 2 EP.

8. Tony's Touch [FREESTYLE] 1:55 - An old freestyle. On 2009's Harlem's Greatest compilation album, this was titled "139," and "Tony Touch '139'" on the Harlem's Finest vinyl from 2001.

9. Right To the Top Feat Royal Flush & Kool G. Rap [OLD] 3:27 -This is the one with the big name guest stars they hype in their press releases, but I hope you didn't get too excited, because it's really just the song "Double Up" masquerading under a new title... Remember that old Royal Flush 12" I blogged about here?

10. Once Again [OLD] 3:31 - This one's been on mixtapes (perhaps most notably by J-Love) for years. ...I'm actually not sure where it first debuted, but it's really just another remix of recycled material anyway, as the vocals are from "On the Mic" (which were also recycled for "Size 'Em Up" on The Big Picture... these rhymes have seen many a repackaging!).

11. Harlem World Universal [Freestyle] 1:22 - This was called "Universal Freestyle" on Harlem's Finest and 139 & Lenox.

12. I Won't [OLD] 4:01 - This is "How Will I Make It" from that Harlem's Finest vol. 2 EP.

13. Hard To Kill [FREESTYLE] 2:11 - This old freestyle was titled "Stretch and Bobbito '93" on Harlem's Finest.

14. Power Moves [OLD] 4:01 - More sneaky retitling... This is the song "Now Or Never" that's been on other recent Big L compilation albums like The Archives and 139 & Lenox.

15. If You Not Aware [OLD] 3:45 - Retitling of "Games Females Play" from The Archives, 139 & Lenox, etc.

16. I Should Have Used [OLD] 4:26 - This is really the song "Clinic," although it's been previously released on vinyl under this title as well.

17. Doo Wop #5 [FREESTYLE] 1:31 - Obviously a Doo Wop freestyle. This one was titled "Doo Wop 'My Niggaz'" when it was released on the Harlem's Finest wax.

18. Yes You Can [OLD] 3:55 - This is just "Hit It" (which you can find on The Archives album) under another fake title.

19. Audition [FREESTYLE] 4:48 - This was titled "Rock N Will Audition" on Harlem's Finest.

20. M.C.'s Whats Going On [OLD] 3:46 - A mistitling of "I Can't Understand It (Original Demo Version)" from Lord Finesse's Rare Selections vol 3 EP.

21. Slaying the Mic [FREESTYLE] 1:53 - And we conclude with one more old, retitled freestyle... you'll remember it as "Kay Slay Freestyle" from Harlem's Finest.

Oh, look at that! Not a single one of these songs actually got an [UNRELEASED] tag! And just to clarify, even the FREESTYLES are all OLD. This compilation does have the dubious distinction of throwing a lot of misinformation into the Big L fandom, though, by mistitling a lot of its songs to make it appear as though a lot of its content was new. You can't even say, "oh well, this is old stuff, but at least it's their first appearance on vinyl," because this was CD only.

There's really no distinction in sound quality between this and any of the past posthumous albums, so if you wanna pick one of these posthumous compilation albums up, I'd recommend 139 & Lenox on wax instead. Return Of the Devil's Son really has the least going for it of any of these albums (and did I mention it's a pack of lies?).

The quality is going down, not up, folks! ...Maybe it's time to stop releasing these things?


  1. That's disappointing. Especially since I read that interview with his brother saying that there was never before heard stuff on it. Thanks for proving otherwise.

  2. Most of the songs on Return of the Devil Son have never been officially released in digital form until now. Some songs have been released on vinyl, some have been bootlegged onto both vinyl and CD, but this is the first time they have been officially released in a digital format. And these songs have all been fully mastered, so they sound much better than anything that was available for download in the past (trust me on that). The new, better-sounding versions of School Days, Clinic (I Shoulda Used a Rubber), and Devil's Son are a particular treasure for any Big L fan.

    A piece of vinyl will always sound better than a digital transfer, there's no question about that. But if you want to hear Big L on your iPod in the best possible quality, then this is the album to buy.


  4. Hmm., that's interesting. I hadn't really considered which songs are unreleased strictly from a legit mp3 PoV... Looking at itunes, there's not much there besides Lifestylez, Big Picture, 139 & Lenox and this one. So while you still certainly couldn't say it's a "brand new album with 21-unreleased songs," I guess it does at least mean a bunch (not all) of the songs are legal, digital debuts for the people who care about that.

    I'm not convinced about the remastering, though. Right now, I'm listening to "If You Not Aware" and "Games Females Play" from 139 & Lenox, and they sound EXACTLY the same. Ear to the speaker, everything down to the volume level sounds like they're using the exact same source file.

  5. I've thoroughly compared the quality on every Big L release, and I agree that 139 & Lenox is strangely pristine-sounding. It actually sounds way better than The Archives, which is weird, considering that both projects were rushed bootlegs. Maybe Rich King actually got his hands on the original masters for the 139 & Lenox project. I don't know.

    So yes, you could buy 139 & Lenox and get a few of the songs on Return of the Devil's Son, seemingly in the same quality. But there are still a very generous abundance of songs on ROTDS that are exclusive releases. Good luck finding any of the following songs on CD or digital download, and better luck finding them in this high level of quality:

    Devil's Son
    Sandman 118 freestyle
    School Days
    Principal of the New School
    Unexpected Flava
    139 freestyle
    How Will I Make It
    '93 Stretch & Bobbito freestyle
    Clinic (I Shoulda Used a Rubber)
    Hit It

    And I understand your argument that freestyles are not actual songs, so they shouldn't be marketed as such. But please understand that when it comes to Big L, 35% of his catalogue consists of classic, untouchable freestyles. So to hear them in a better quality is a welcomed joy.

    And the name changes on ROTDS seemed weird to me too, but Clinic has existed with an alternate title in parenthesis for years and years, so I don't thinks it's that big a deal.

    So besides the fact the ROTDS is the first officially released Big L album in ten years, it’s also one of the best Big L albums of all time, way better than the 139 & Lenox bootleg.

  6. Well, a bunch of those songs you list are on the Harlem's Finest CD, and in the exact same sound quality. Taking another example, "139" (or "Tony's Touch") sounds no better here than it did before. The same with "How Will I Make It" (aka "I Won't")... "Hit It" ("Yes You Can") sounds exactly the same here as on The Archive. In fact, honestly, it sounds like they're using exactly the same audio files. And "Audition" sounds as noisy and terrible as it ever has. I really can't go along with the notion that this is some great, remastered improvement.

    And yeah, "Clinic" has had both titles in the past, but none of the other ones had these crazy, alternate titles. Since when has "Double Up" been "Right To the Top," for example? And honestly, titling "Stretch and Bobbito freestyle '93" as "Hard To Kill" really just makes it look like they're trying to cover up the fact that it's a freestyle. I don't mind freestyles on an album - I've bought and supported albums that were made up of nothing but collections of freestyles - but not when they're being deliberately misleading about it.

    Finally, are we even really sure this album is anymore legal than the last couple "semi-official" releases? Maybe I'm being overly skeptical - and I hope I am - but somehow I doubt that SMC Recordings really bought the rights to Royal Flush's record from Offical Jointz (the original label that released this "unreleased" song), for example. Mind you, I certainly don't have anything against L's brother and I was as encouraged as everybody else by the statements that his family was supporting and getting paid off this. But the actual product, Return Of the Devil's Son, seems to be as rushed and shady - if not moreso - as anyo f the other "semi-official" posthumous albums we've had.

    ...Especially the stuff on Flamboyant, the label which L was genuinely signed to (he co-founded) and was putting out music with even before his passing. I hope I'm wrong and the true and honest copyright owners are really making the profits they deserve here; but this "we're legit and everything else is a bootleg" feels like unsubstantiated hype surrounding an otherwise clearly dubious product. It's hard for me to trust SMC's claims considering how poorly their other claims about this release have stood up to scrutiny.

    But even if it is 100% as legit as they say, it's still a sloppy and disappointing release either way. It's certainly not what any Big L fan was hoping for when we heard "21 unreleased songs." You can't tell me it wasn't a huge let-down when you read, "unreleased songs, including 'Right To The Top' featuring Royal Flush and Kool G Rap" and it turned out just to be "Double Up" again.

  7. No doubt, the Harlem's Finest CD does contain "139" (or "Tony's Touch") and "How Will I Make It" (aka "I Won't")... but it's just another bootleg, not an official release. And I do notice a difference in sound quality on Return of the Devil's Son, just like I can tell the 139 & Lenox bootleg sounds better than The Archives bootleg (on CD anyway, I don't own either album on vinyl).

    You're right about the title changes, I've thought and said the same thing before. I was initially disappointed and frustrated by the misleading marketing ploys, I can't deny that. It was a major mistake, but it's not so big a deal that it should deter people from the album.

    Anyway, this is how Return of the Devil's Son really breaks down when compared to all the other past Big L CD's or Mp3's (both officially and semi-officially released).

    Return of the Devil's Son (Devil's Son Live in Amsterdam)

    Available in the same quality on 139 & Lenox.

    Devil's Son

    Not available anywhere else.

    Zone of Danger (J-Love's remix of Danger Zone)

    Not available untagged anywhere else (as far as I know).

    Sandman 118

    Not available anywhere else.

    School Days

    Not available anywhere else.

    Principal of the New School

    Not available anywhere else.

    Unexpected Flava

    Not available anywhere else.

    Tony's Touch (139 freestyle)

    Not available in this quality anywhere else (as far as I can tell).

    Right to the Top (Double Up)

    Not available in this quality anywhere else (as far as I know).

    Once Again

    Not available untagged anywhere else (as far as I know).

    Harlem World Universal (Universal freestyle)

    Available in the same quality on 139 & Lenox.

    I Won't (How Will I Make It)

    Not available in this quality anywhere else (as far as I can tell).

    Hard to Kill ('93 Stretch & Bobbito freestyle)

    Not available in this quality anywhere else (as far as I can tell).

    Power Moves (Now or Never)

    Available in the same quality on 139 & Lenox.

    If You Not Aware (Games Females Play)

    Available in the same quality on 139 & Lenox.

    I Should Have Used a Rubber

    Not available anywhere else.

    Doo Wap 'My Niggaz' freestyle

    An extended version of this freestyle (which has been available online for years) blows the album version right out of the water. This may be the one track that really was unnecessary.

    Yes You Can (Hit It)

    Not available in this quality anywhere else (as far as I can tell).

    Rock N. Wills Audition

    Not available in this quality anywhere else (as far as I can tell).

    MC's What's Going On (I Can't Understand It)

    Not available anywhere else.

    Slayin' the Mic (Kay Slay Freestyle)

    Not available in this quality anywhere else (as far as I can tell).

    I don't know SMC's reputation, but Donald Phinazee has stated repeatedly that he's been going around to different studios for the past few years to track down the masters to use for this project. So it was actually more well-planned, less dubious, and longer in the making than any of the Rich King bootlegs.

    I agree that the album is a bit sloppy, since the pace and timeline jump all over. But I disagree that the release was disappointing. Return of the Devil's Son has a lot to offer everybody, even if you're a hardcore Big L fan or collector. Now everybody can own his music in a new, contemporary format with better quality than ever before.

  8. As someone who didn't care much for Big L during his lifetime, I found "Return of the Devil's Son" to be revelatory. It gave me a better appreciation of his talent, which is all I could ask for. It's too bad that reviewers -- not just you, but nearly every review I read on the album -- focused on the exclusivity (or lack thereof) of the material on the disc rather than asking if the songs themselves are any good.

  9. @Emmett - Some day I'm going to give you a blindfolded "taste test" of these different CDs. I think a lot of the distinctions in sound quality you're hearing are psychosomatic. hehe

    But you have made some good points. And I'm happy to see L's family at least get proper representation on itunes and wherever else kids buy mp3s. I DO definitely encourage anyone reading my blog to buy music from legit sources rather than bootlegs or illegal downloads, and this is another avenue for them to do so. I just hope SMC paid No Sleep, Official Jointz & whoever else and did everything on the up & up.

    @Plug One - That's probably because we already asked and dealt with that question the first time(s) these songs were released. What if you bought the latest season of 'Dexter' on DVD, took it home all excited, put it in, and it was just Season 2's episodes all over again in a different cover and with altered titles? Would you be like, "well, season 2 had some exciting moments!" Or would you be like, "What is going on? This is a huge rip off!"

    The story here, as far as I'm concerned, is that another CD of the same old songs is being falsely sold to us as unreleased material. Maybe if SMC had told the truth, and called this "a collection of random loose ends we think you may've missed," I'd just say, "well, it's an interesting, eclectic compilation, but there's nothing new for the hardcore Big L fans." But you know, I can only get excited about being sold the same songs so many times, and there have been four or five of these compilations in the last two years: 139 & Lenox, Return Of the Devil's Son, Harlem's Greatest, MR. MVP, Uptown Connection... that's not counting all the mixCDs and the tons of releases (and bootlegs) before 2009.

    Plus, I already reviewed the "Devil's Son" and "Double Up" records in past blog posts. I can't just repeat myself every time someone repackages the same songs. ;-)

  10. I really loved your review of Devil's Son, and I hope you review more Big L joints in the future. That would be great!

    And I don't mean to beat a dead horse, but since you said you support official releases over bootlegs, I have to point out that 139 & Lenox was released on some random label called 'Flamboyant Music Group', not 'Flamboyant Entertainment'. Don Phinazee is in charge of 'Flamboyant Entertainment' and he knew nothing about 139 & Lenox being produced (nor has he recieved any money from it). 'Flamboyant Music Group' is just a name that Rich King uses. The company (if it even is a legitimate company) isn't connected to Big L or his estate, it just uses the word 'Flamboyant' to make all these bootlegs seem more authentic.

  11. Hhe, no worries about "beating a dead horse;" I appreciate a good discussion.

    Are you sure about that stuff about Flamboyant? I'm looking, and I see what you mean that 139 says FMC instead of FE, but The Archives is an FE release (even continuing the catalog numbers), and it wouldn't unusual for their to be an LLC that operates a label. Plus, it's my understanding that Rich King was L's manager and partner in the original Flamboyant label. Don Phinazee is L's brother, of course, but I believe he was locked up when Flamboyant was formed and wasn't a part of the label. So why wouldn't King be a legit part of Flamboyant any longer?

    If Return and all the other boots dropped at the same time, I could see people being more excited about Return... but the thing is, what hardcore Big L fan has never picked up any of those bootlegs that've been coming out since the 90's (or the legit vinyls, like the "Devil's Son" 12" and No Sleep EPs)? The hardcore fan already has these songs. And stuff like the J-Love remixes might be more exclusive (cause the mixtapes are tagged), but does anybody really care much about those either way? I doubt you'll find many people who rate "Zone of Danger" as being preferable to "Danger Zone" or "Once Again" to "Size 'Em Up."

    And I'm still not convinced Return is really much more legit than most of the past releases... Not that I think L's family is going around telling lies or anything. But I find it unlikely that SMC licensed the Stretch & Bobbito freestyle (just as an example) from WKCR anymore than Harlem's Finest did. I mean, Traffic couldn't get the Lifestylez promo songs for their big-budget, major label release, but SMC got them for this? I don't know. I'd like to be wrong and see Tony Touch, Doo Wop, etc give interviews where they say how they were so glad to have done business with SMC and contribute to preserving L's legacy; but it feels like just another dodgy CD with the same audio file rips. And the fact that SMC's been so dishonest about the release in the other ways certainly doesn't engender my trust when they make their claim of authenticity.

  12. Rich King was L's manager and partner in the original Flamboyant label, but nowadays Don Phinazee is in charge of the company (according to a moderator on Big L Online who has direct contact with Don).

    I don't know all the details, but Rich King is not attached to Big L's estate anymore. The Archives and 139 & Lenox are both bootlegs, so I don't know why The Archives says FE and 139 & Lenox says FMG. But neither album is legit, and no money from the two projects went to L's estate.

    And I think Return of the Devil's Son is geared more towards people who aren't hardcore Big L fans, people who may have heard of L but never really gave him a chance (hence it's release on MP3 but not vinyl). But hey, I'm just about as hardcore a Big L fan you could possibly find, and I still love the album, mostly for those promo/dropped songs from LODP&D, which have only been available on bootleg vinyls or crappy mix tapes in the past (unless you're lucky enough to own a promo copy of LODP&D on CD).

    J-Love is certainly no Showbiz or Buckwild, but I think the production on Once Again and Zone of Danger is satisfactory, and it gives a contemporary feel to L's classic lyrics. Of course everyone will prefer Danger Zone and Size Em Up, but since Once Again and Zone of Danger are two of the most popular Big L remixes, it's nice to hear them untagged.

    Don Phinazee went around to different studios to track down the masters for this project, but I don't know if every song was licensed and remastered. It's possible that those freestyles weren't officially cleared, and it would be nice to hear from the DJs you mentioned. I understand why you question the legitimacy of the project, but you can't claim that Return of the Devil's Son has the same audio file rips as any other CD, because most of these songs have never been officially or even unofficially released on CD.

  13. Oh ok, well you're definitely schooling me on the Rich King/ Don Phinazee stuff.

    It's true, the LotPaD promo tracks and the Rare Selections songs weren't on CD, but more than half of Return of the Devil's Son was on CD before... mostly on three CDs: The Archives, 139 & Lenox and Harlem's Finest (I think a couple were on Harlem's Greatest, too, but I forget which ones because I don't own it and just looked it up for this article). When I was writing this, and especially when I was replying to your first comment where you said Return was remastered, I've been comparing them pretty close, and the sound really is the same. If he's been shopping them for enough years, maybe it's his remastered versions that found their way onto the discs before he could release them?

    I do have to admit J's "Once Again" remix is kinda fun. "Zone of Danger" not so much, but "Once Again" is an enjoyable listen.

  14. Well, I was wrong about the quality of 139 & Lenox being better than The Archives. It turns out that there were only 500 CD pressings of The Archives made, and the rest of the copies floating around eBay are bootlegs of bootlegs. So most likely I've been listening to a crappier version than you have (although at least one moderator on Big L Online agrees with me that the quality on ROTDS is "mildly better" than Harlem's Finest: A Freestyle History).

    Actually, you're being too generous. Out of the 21 tracks on ROTDS, only 7 have never been officially released on CD before, meaning only 1/3 of the disc is really exclusive. But (for my money) having those songs on CD or MP3 is worth the purchase price alone, because they're some of the best rap songs from the 90's (or any decade). It's not Don's fault that so many Big L bootlegs have been produced in the past. In fact that was probably his motivation for the whole "21 unreleased tracks" thing, because from a legal standpoint, these 21 tracks are unreleased (on CD anyway).

    And I get a real kick outta Once Again as well. It's funny to me that J-Love sped up L's vocals during the chorus and the ending, because it raises his already nasal, high-pitched voice to an almost comedic, Alvin and the Chipmunks level (though I doubt that was J-Love's intention).