Why Scarface's unparalleled pathos makes him a GOAT.
In this series, we'll be making the case for specific rappers to be included in "greatest of all-time" discussions. The more obvious choices (such as André 3000, Lil Wayne, Eminem, Jay-Z, Nas, Biggie, 2Pac) will be ignored in favor of artists who tend to get overlooked these days, for one reason or another. Previously, our writers have made cases for Pusha T, Ice Cube, DJ Quik, Big Boi, DMX, and Ghostface Killah. Today, we're going to bat for Scarface.
"I sit alone in my four-cornered room staring at candles."
There's a case to be made that all depressive, paranoid, and anxiety-afflicted rap music stems from that one line. First uttered by Scarface on Geto Boys' 1989 track "Mind of a Lunatic," those words would appear two years later in the intro of "Mind Playing Tricks on Me," perhaps the pioneering Houston group's best-known song. Most of what followed in Scarface's original verse was pretty standard for the Geto Boys at the time (IE: horrorcore), including outing himself as a "homicidal maniac with suicidal tendencies," but that vivid imagery and palpable claustrophobia would soon be given its due elsewhere.
In their heyday, Geto Boys very much fit within the gangster rap genre that stayed, by today's standards, unbelievably marketable for nearly a decade. Their depiction of violence, both on record and on record cover, surpassed N.W.A.'s and soon begat darker heirs like Three 6 Mafia and Brotha Lynch Hung. But what made the group special was their exploration of all sides of violence and crime, not just the pulpy, in-the-moment gore. 90% of that exploration was carried out by Scarface, the most devoted rap psychologist of all time.
Other contemporary gangster rappers made songs that played like highlight reels of their exploits; "Mind Playing Tricks on Me" depicted the off-camera aftermath of a murderous lifestyle that, despite frequent glamorization, has clearly never been a cakewalk. Real and imagined threats bleed into one another during Scarface's two verses, which depict a sleepless night fraught with a plethora of fears: of death, of disappointing his family, and of leaving a fatherless son behind. "I often drift while I drive, he raps, "Havin' fatal thoughts of suicide/'Bang' and get it over with/And then I'm worry-free, but that's bullshit." That type of internal debate, that admittance of severe depression simply didn't happen in hip hop, let alone its most macho subgenre, in '91.
Like many other artists who have been slapped with the "gangter" or "horrorcore" tags, Geto Boys' gruesome tales may not have been entirely nonfiction, but we know one thing for sure: Scarface's depression was no myth. In his 2015 autobiography, named after 1991 solo track "Diary of a Madman," the rapper opens by recounting an attempted suicide from his high school years. Not the first time he tried to off himself, 'Face downed a bottle of sleeping pills and after surviving, spent the better part of the next two years in a mental institution. In retrospect, he admits he was depressed, but believes that if he truly wanted to die, he would've seen at least one of his attempts all the way through. He writes, "If you really want to go, dying is the easy part. It’s the living that’s hard. That shit takes a lifetime. And it will test you every step of the way."
His entire career has subsequently been spent relating that hardship and recounting those tests.
Scarface began his solo career in '91, the same year "Mind Playing Tricks" dropped, and on his debut album, the song that would later inspire the title of his book took his introspection further than ever. "Diary of a Madman" differs profoundly from the similarly-titled aforementioned Geto Boys track "Mind of a Lunatic." Violence still surrounds it, with 'Face describing shooting a man in the head, but the main conflict takes place within him. "I got a head, but ain't no screws in it," he raps, after describing how he can't talk to his father about his affliction. "What about n**** with the cane and the black suit? And what about cancer?", he asks himself, calling back to the specter of death he envisioned on "Mind Playing Tricks." His trauma gets progressively more severe as he compares himself to a "Vietnam vet with a thousand yard stare" and claims, "I'm know I'm here somewhere, but I can't find me." This is almost a full mental breakdown.
The Diary, Scarface's third album, is where his attention to internal struggle reached its peak. I remember hearing the album's "No Tears" as a kid, and chuckling at the line, "I got this killer up inside of me/I can't talk to my mother so I talk to my diary," because 'Face sounded so hard but was saying stuff that even I would be embarrassed to say. Though I didn't realize it then, that's what makes him so important: the fact that he can be an imposing dude and candidly discuss private thoughts. If I could go back to 12-year-old me, I'd tell him to skip to track six, the horrifically detailed "I Seen a Man Die," and promptly shut him up.
'Face has matured gracefully, letting the gangster aspects of his music fall to the wayside as he's come to peace with himself, and instead honing in closer on the big issues and questions of life and death. His heartbreaking verse on Jay-Z's "This Can't Be Life," and his insanely well-produced 2002 album The Fix are definite late-career highlights. He continues to drop music that resonates and speaks truth, and seems like more of a prophet with every passing year. His biggest contribution to rap, however, is the fact that he made it okay to discuss mental health.
We wouldn't have 2pac's Me Against The World without Scarface. We wouldn't have Biggie's Ready to Die, UGK's "One Day," Eminem's "Rock Bottom," Future's "Codeine Crazy," or Lil Uzi Vert's "XO Tour Life" without him. That's not to say that every one of those artists considers Scarface a key influence, but rather that he changed the genre's climate to allow space for such wide-ranging feelings. Rap's not just boasting, and no one is more responsible for proving that than Scarface.
In closing, here's what Chuck D had to say about 'Face in the introduction to Diary of a Madman, which beautifully sums up his genius:
"He can put the fear of God in you, turn around and uplift you, then take you down a path that you never saw coming. He can put fear into your heart and also touch your soul at the same time. He can take you on a journey to the dark side and also bring you to the light. That is the beauty of what he does. There is so much to him, so many layers to peel back as an MC, as an artist, and as a man."