Jennifer Lopez was not the only geriatric millennial icon onstage this week on Saturday Night Live. Like a minor god arriving on a cloud, Redman materialized to rap on a remix of Lopez’s “Can’t Get Enough” that interpolated his 1998 hit “Da Goodness,” and the hip-hop cognoscenti saluted.
For the uninitiated (read: everyone under 35): In the boom-and-bust cycles of late-’90s/early-2000s post-Golden Age rap, Redman was everybody’s friend. He provided effortless, waggish verses for all who wanted them, and made shaggy, strange, singular albums. He is also a study in contradictions. His core competencies were insouciant weed raps, sex farce, and working-class crime narrative that could only come from a son of Newark. But this belied Redman’s impeccable rhyme patterns, his gimlet eye for detail, and his wry clear voice, which delivered irony better than any other rapper not named Biggie Smalls.
Christina Aguilera hired him for a guest verse when she wanted to shed her teenage persona on “Dirrty.” De La Soul used him on “Oooh” to leaven their bookish vibes and give them a shot at a hit single. Limp Bizkit brought him on when they needed to remix “Rollin’” after the original song became pro wrestler The Undertaker’s entrance music—a moment that belongs in the 2000s canon along with Mountain Dew Code Red and Karl Rove. Eminem ranked him ahead of all his industry peers on “Collapse” and, for the young people reading, Lil Durk named a song after him.
At his best, Redman is like if Bad Brains and EPMD (whose Erick Sermon first discovered him) and the most amiable, black-light-and-cartoons-loving, secretly smart hometown stoner ended up with one excellent album, three more good ones, no bad ones, a loveable, R-rated blaxploitation campus movie (How High, where he and Method Man end up at Harvard) and the greatest episode of MTV Cribs ever.
1996’s Muddy Waters, his third, is the album to begin with. Produced largely by Sermon and Redman himself, the sound is one of Redman taking himself a bit more seriously. Filled with scratches and dusty samples, the best songs—like “Iz He 4 Real” “Whateva Man” and “Pick It Up”—unspool the same set of references (blunts, blunders and brawls), but with tighter cadences and end rhymes: “Styles stay deeper than orca, I float the seven seas with ease / Did more drugs than pharmacies / So call me that lyrical Genovese, you can’t compare / Get you steppin’ like stairs, frats, sororities/ Don’t make me bring it on back, I fuck up the majority”
Ras Kass described Redman’s charm on Muddy Waters simply: “He’d have that one line that didn’t make sense.” That’s what made Redman special. No East Coast rapper in the 90s could touch Nas’s preciosity or Biggie’s craft or DMX’s fury. But Redman made the idiosyncratic cool. He knew dorm room stoners of all colors loved him so he rapped about that. He knew he was puckish, so he rapped about that. He knew he’d never leave Newark so he rapped about that.