Black Mafia Life is another one of those albums that has been pretty much unknown by most of today's Hip Hop listeners. In fact, the same could almost be said about Above the Law's entire catalog. The third entry, (yes third, they released an E.P. between Livin' Like Hustlers and this album), while not quite as good as their debut, continues in the same vein as their first release.
There are, however, some very large differences. The first is the obvious lack of in person guidance from Dre. While Dre was involved more from a supervisory position on Living Like Hustlers, he had completely left the Ruthless camp and had already released his classic first Chronic album when this Black Mafia Life was released. Dre has, for lack of a better description, some of the best "ears" in the industry, meaning that he can make something sound better just with his input and natural talent. And while Dre's influence is clearly heard on Black Mafia Life, it is obvious from the mixing and overall sound quality that the good Doctor did not help in delivery of this baby.
With that slight in mind, this album is a little harder and a lot darker sounding than Livin Like Hustlers. That is not necessarily a bad thing. When it works, it works extremely well. The MC Ren featured "Process Of Elimination", the 2pac and Money B featured "Call It What You Want", and the unofficial sequel to LLH's "Another Execution" entitled "Commin' Up" all reflect the effectiveness of this sound. The brilliance of looping the original sample for "Another Execution" on "Commin' Up" must fall on deaf ears of the many reviewers below who are unfamiliar with LLH.
That is not to say Black Mafia Life is completely free of the pimped out funk of LLH. On the contrary, "Never Missin' A Beat", the classic lead single "VSOP", and the funky as hell "Game Wreck-Oniz-Iz Game" still satisfy the less hardcore minded. On the latter, guest appearances by the underrated Kokane and an unusually inspired post NWA appearance by the late Eazy-E are true treasures. After listening to E's performance, most will likely be scratching their heads going "where'd this come from" and "I wonder who ghost-wrote or coached that?". This comment is not meant as a slight to Eazy, rather to pay homage to how great this verse is and how truly amazing Eazy could sometimes be. This track, in my opinion, is worth the price of admission alone.
So why not a 5 star rating as others have suggested. Well, having this album since it came out 13 years ago, I've had time to reflect on it. Some of the tracks on here are remarkably skippable after a few listens (ie. "Harda U R Tha Doppa U Faal" and "Pimp Clinic". The overall production quality is not as "clean" as it should be, (reflecting a possible problem with the final mastering).
And last, but certainly not least, there was something left to be desired from the overall lyrics and choruses. Before anybody jumps down my throat, let me first praise the coninued chemistry between Cold 187um and KMG. I think these two together are one of those classic combinations of certain duos in Hip Hop like Erick Sermon and Parish Smith or DJ Run and D.M.C. They sound good together but...They just don't really have a lot to say on this album. The ideas here, for the most part, had already begun being worn into the ground by their many gangsta rap competitors. Tracks with extremly funky beats like "G's And Macaronies" and "G-Rupies Best Friend" seem wasted on rather mundane and formulaic lyrics and concepts.
Ultimately, innovative releases from both Dre and Ice Cube left a pretty big shadow looming over Ruthless records and their camp and the West Coast in general. While this album would be a classic by 1990 standards, the game had been stepped up by it's release in 1993. It had moved a little ahead of ATL when they weren't looking.
My advice would still be to buy this disc. It is a very good album with some required skips and fast forwards but has held up pretty well over the course of time, (hence the 4 star rating). Any 2Pac or Eazy-E fan should scoop this up right away for rare performances by both.