Hammer’s success can be defined as a triumph of commercialism. Through a combination of flashy videos, liberal sampling and shameless self-promotion, the high stepping rapper pushed his second album (“Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em”) over the ten million mark and scored three Top Ten singles, making it the most successful rap album ever. The American public was deluged with hundreds of merchandising gimmicks and promotional schemes, all designed to exploit Hammer’s position and increase his fame. There came Hammer T-shirts, Hammer hats, Hammer home videos, Hammer posters, Hammer commercials, Hammer dolls, and, of course, the Hammer Saturday morning cartoon show. In short, Hammer sold out, changing from a mere dancer-rapper into a gigantic merchandising franchise. In response, he was slammed by critics, “dissed” by his fellow rappers, and generally isolated from the rest of the music industry.
Well, now Hammer has returned with his follow-up effort, “Too Legit to Quit,” an album that he hopes will silence his critics and earn him some much needed respect. And there is some good news for those who had lost faith in the Hammer. There is no evidence of sampling to be found on this record; all of the album’s seventeen tracks were written solely by the Hammer and his co-producer, Felton Pilate. It seems as if the Hammer has made a conscious turn away from sugary love songs and uninspired dance tunes characteristic of his last album, turning his bespectacled eyes toward the problems of the inner city. Unfortunately, along with the good news comes a bit of bad news: “Too Legit to Quit” is a very weak record.
One frustrating characteristic of Hammer’s career so far has been his often flagrant imitation of his musical progenitor, James Brown, evidenced in everything from his musical style to his dance steps. This album is no different, with Hammer walking in the Godfather’s footsteps like some musical Arthur Murray floor pattern. The similarity is most detectable on the album’s requisite house-shaking dance tracks, which comprise half of the album. In fact, Hammer even goes so far as to hire a James Brown sound-alike for the album’s lead-off track, “This Is The Way We Roll.” Unfortunately, these cuts lack the sweat-soaked vigor and intensity of Hammer’s “Let’s Get It Started” LP, much less the live performances of the Godfather. Hammer employs a three-piece horn section to lend some fire to these cuts, but nothing seems to lift them into the stratosphere. Only two tracks – “Too Legit to Quit,” the album’s epic-length first single, and “Burn It Up” – manage to live up to the precedent Hammer set with his classic party anthem, “Turn This Mutha Out.”
But despite all of Hammer’s shameless James Brown imitations, it is Marvin Gaye’s unmistakable influence which is most in evidence here. Echoes of Gaye’s ’70s work ring clearly through Hammer’s songs of social commentary in “Brothers Hang On” and “Living in a World Like This.” In fact, there are some very recognizable similarities between the music of “Too Legit to Quit” and “What’s Goin’ On” – both drape blankets of social commentary over slinky, laid-back R&B grooves. But while classic Gaye songs like “Mercy Mercy Me” soared with sweet harmonies and light funk rhythms, Hammer’s music sinks like a lead weight, anchored down with dreary bass lines and soggy arrangements, turning each track into a mournful dirge. Also, Hammer lacks the lyrical subtlety of Marvin Gaye; his statements are dealt in too heavy-handed a fashion. Only one of these “message” songs really hits the mark: “Street Soldiers,” a gritty, bone-chilling look a crack dealer headed down the road to self-destruction, laid over a bluesy, nocturnal Barry White groove.
For the most part, “Too Legit to Quit” is a collection of uninspired, mediocre songs which fails to cause the stir it hoped to achieve. But one cut on the album is an absolute stand out, a beacon of light shining through the morass: “Do Not Pass Me By,” a lyrical plea for religious salvation, grabs hold of an old church hymn and reworks it into a glorious, foot-stomping gospel workout. It’s the kind of song you want to play over and over, and it’s the only track on the album which effectively conveys the spirit that Hammer tries so valiantly to capture. If Hammer can continue to put together tunes as great as this, then maybe someday he really will become legit. n