The Pack busted onto national hip-hop charts four years ago, when the members were still high-school students, rhyming a hypnotic jingle about the sex appeal of their footwear of choice -- Vans skateboarding shoes. Much more than free advertisement, this MySpace-fueled hit served as a declaration of independence. The Pack wasn't following the herd mentality declaring Nike sneakers the national kicks of hip-hop. No, these MCs embraced their Berkeley roots and all the hippie-hipster-punk influences that seem to be in the water here.
Of course, this was at the peak of hysteria over the hyphy hip-hop movement, itself a celebration of Bay Area-bred kookiness, with the brightly dyed dread, oversized stunna shades, and spontaneous outbursts of manic dancing. Too $hort quickly signed The Pack to his Up All Nite imprint on Jive Records, but the major label dropped the group as quickly as hyphy fell out of fashion and failed to hit critical mass on national hip-hop radio.
Now, here in 2010, the word "hyphy" is usually met with groans or eye-rolls, dismissed as hopelessly passé. In the wake of the brutal recession, hyphy seems naive in a way, suggesting that despair could be danced away or that brilliant beats and rhymes -- and perhaps a few clever marketing schemes -- could lift the Bay Area's most depressed ghettoes out of poverty.
Thankfully, The Pack, featuring Damonte "Lil Uno" Johnson, Brandon "Lil B" McCartney, Lloyd "Young L" Omadhebo, Keith "Stunnaman" Jenkins, are still young enough to keep the faith in the power of partying. On their new nearly 70-minute album, Wolfpack Party, they're still living it up like it's 2006. Tracks like "Front Back," "Booty Bounce," and "Dance Floor" have the frenetic climbing and descending scales and chaotic layers of beats that suggest these kids never stopped "going dumb." Yet this album is not stuck in the past, even with its cheeky sampling from Boston's "Peace of Mind" and its hip '80s nostalgia on "E.T."
For a group known for its DIY videos and word-of-mouth success, a number of the Auto-Tune tweaked dance grooves, like "Wolfpack Party" and "Sex on the Beach," shake off the bass-heavy hyphy beats in favor of a more mainstream sound, which would be at home on VH1 Top 10, rubbing elbows with Lady Gaga and Drake. The love ballad "Super Man" hits a surprisingly sweet note, while even the more sinister-sounding rhymes steer clear of gangster tropes. No, songs like "Bend That Corner" take out their aggression on women.
Amid the positive party energy, women still get the short shrift, reduced to jiggling B-girl playthings. A title like "Titties" pretty much guarantees the closing track is going to spread across the Internet like wildfire, but this tune is surprisingly innocuous, a mindless sex-positive chant about reciting the wonders of breasts with wide-eyed adolescent glee. Sure, it reduces women to their body parts, but it in no way matches the derogatory, vulgar details laid out on songs like "Red Light" or "Booty Bounce."
The sexual braggadocio of Lil B, in particular, is becoming legendary -- as his borderline loopy assertion that he gets sexual favors thanks to a resemblance to Mel Gibson is all over the Web. He's become a star in his own right, with a constant stream of Internet postings on Twitter, MySpace and other blogs. His solo rhymes and ramblings are regularly captured on video and posted on YouTube, where he also comments on them. This newfound celebrity has Lil B palling around with Soulja Boy in Atlanta and even landed him on the cover of last week's Guardian (Sept. 8).
In fact, being plugged in to the Twitterverse seems to be key to The Pack's wild success -- just like their young sex-addled fans, they practically came out of the womb texting. And this relentless, youthful enthusiasm shines through every track of Wolfpack Party, as the group continues to trumpet its own hip-hop spin on the free-wheeling free-loving Bay Area vibe.