bonethugs.jpgBefore Paul Wall ever chiseled his first grill, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony were the people’s champs. Unveiled in 1994 by rap legend Eazy-E, Cleveland’s five-man rapping whirlwind (Krayzie, Layzie, Wish, Bizzy and Flesh-N-Bone) gradually amassed a large following, starting with their groundbreaking EP Creepin On Ah Come Up. Rather than fade away after Eazy’s death in ’95, BTNH lived on through their dedicated fan base—one that pushed their official debut, E. 1999 Eternal, to over five million units sold.

In the wake of the monstrous disc came somewhat of a downward spiral. Offsetting a subsequent pair of platinum LPs, Flesh got incarcerated, while Bizzy came and left, like a deadbeat dad, due to personal issues. By the release of their fourth full-length disc, Thug World Order, in 2002, Bone saw their appeal diminish to less than 500,000 fans paying attention. The turnout was even less notable for last year’s Koch-distributed LP Thug Stories, which barely cracked the 90,000 mark. Faced with the threat of extinction, the remaining members—Krayzie, Layzie and Wish—teamed up with hit maker extraordinaire Swizz Beatz to try to breathe life back into their flagging careers.

As the group’s most eclectic and accessible effort to date, Strength & Loyalty sets things in motion properly. “We’re back with a vengeance, this rap game is stricken without us/Let’s be honest, this industry is overcrowded with garbage,” declares Krayzie on the frantic “Bumps in the Trunk,” a dizzying array of standard Swizz sirens and machine-gun percussion. Throughout, Bone seem determined to prove their ability to adapt to modern times. Over’s gothic yet punishing instrumental on “Streets,” the Thugs make sure The Game’s sinister verse remains second priority. Layzie, in particular, spits venom: “Catch a nigga in these streets, make ’em take clothes off/Leave him dead, butt naked, you know you’re fuckin’ with a boss.” Their mission to stay current continues on “Never Forget Me,” powered by both a horn-heavy beat and a high-pitched hook from chorus king Akon.

Decades-long Bone heads need not worry about total change, though. On the Neo Da Matrix–tracked gem “C-Town,” fellow spitfire Twista tag teams with the crew atop an airy bed of whistles and sonic hypnosis. The strongest moment of seamless old meets new comes on the head-spinning “Flowmotion,” a remake of a cut from their 1993 indie project Faces of Death. Backed by newcomers the Individuals’ intense strings, all three members’ flows reach new levels of velocity, especially Krayzie’s: “I’m coming at you with a sound like thunder, strike like lightning/Hit them and they wonder where these thuggish ruggish niggas came from.”

Don’t call it a complete comeback, however. While Krayzie and Layzie show and prove, Wish’s inferior skills frequently emerge as well. Take his infantile wordplay on the Jermaine Dupri–produced radio shot “Little Love” (“Not trying to say that you’re about that paper/But me and you, yes, we’re about that paper”), which makes guest Bow Wow sound superlyrical. Further downgrading the album are scattered, drowsy soundtrack lapses (DJ Toomp’s bland bass guitars on “Sounds the Same,” for example) and stunted creativity (the “been there, shot that” murder taunts of “9mm”).
Through attempts at experimentation, such as the Fleetwood Mac–sampling rock/rap hybrid “Listen to the Wind Blow,” Bone clearly display a hunger for relevance. And as evidenced by the solemn “Crossroads”-comparable single “I Tried,” their knack for genreless harmonies is still intact. Yet, with the final product sounding slightly uneven, some fine-tuning would have done these Bones good. —Matt Barone