In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing. This week, we’re picking from 1994’s most popular cuts.
Hip-hop history is littered with rappers who dropped in for a guest verse on hot songs but never took off on their own. (Whither Memphis Bleek?) But rare is the rapper so outshone on his own hit, he’s eclipsed into almost total obscurity. That’s the story of Craig Mack, who laid the foundation for Puff Daddy’s Bad Boy Entertainment empire, helped launch the careers of The Notorious B.I.G. and Busta Rhymes, and was partly responsible for the resurgence of East Coast hip-hop, all through the platinum-selling remix of his 1994 single “Flava In Ya Ear”—a song that succeeded almost in spite of, rather than because of him.
Mack was a former gofer for EPMD who’d released one dismal single under the name MC EZ, when an encounter with Sean “Puffy” Combs led to his landing a verse on a Mary J. Blige song, then a record contract. His debut, 1994’s Project: Funk Da World, was a certified hit—though it was mostly thanks to a song that wasn’t even on it. Of course, the album version of “Flava In Ya Ear” is perfectly groovy in its own right, driven by its two-note, strangled funk stab, and Mack’s loping flow definitely had a certain swagger. But lyrically, his braggadocio is laden with flat simile (“You’re crazy like that glue,” “That’s sick like the flu”), some unfortunately dated references (“This bad MC with stamina like Bruce Jenner”), and some straight-up rhyming dictionary nonsense (“The Mack’s dope with more hope than your Pope”). Without that infectious guitar loop—or the remix that followed—it seems doubtful we’d still be talking about it 20 years later.
Just how tangential Mack would prove to his own song—and just how embarrassing his boast that “there’s no competition in this rap world expedition”—was made clear on “Flava In Ya Ear (Remix),” which was released shortly thereafter. Ever the savvy businessman, Combs took the underground mix-tape and made it pop, assembling a super-team of past and future East Coast talent by way of engineering the biggest hit possible. First and foremost among them was his other rising star, Biggie Smalls, whose debut was teased alongside Mack’s on the infamous B.I.G. Mack promo cassette (immortalized, sort of, in the movie Notorious).
Biggie’s opening verse on “Flava In Ya Ear” is a star-making showstopper, whose best couplet, “You’re mad because my style you’re admiring / Don’t be mad, UPS is hiring” has more bite than anything Mack spit on his entire original track. (Indeed, some of that may have been directed at Mack himself, as Biggie frequently made it clear he wasn’t a fan.) He’s joined by Flipmode Squad’s Rampage and Busta Rhymes, with Rampage adding a little gangsta aggression, and Busta getting typically unhinged in one of his first solo appearances. And then there’s LL Cool J, who one-ups Mack’s own nonsense by rocketing off into some truly bizarre, Dadaist shit: “Hee-shee, blowticious / Skeevy, delicious,” LL squeals. “Gimme couscous, love me good / Hollis to Hollywood, but is he good? / I guess like the jeans—uhhh.” I’ve listened to this song 1,000 times over the years, and I still have no idea what the fuck LL Cool J is talking about. And yet, I remember every word.
That’s more than I can say for Mack’s verse, which he mostly spends on some tossed-off stuff about how he “did your girl’s butt,” before repeating his most cutting hook from the original: “You won’t be around next year / My rap’s too severe, kickin’ mad flava in ya ear.” It would prove ironically prophetic. By 1995, Mack had been completely overshadowed by Biggie’s Ready To Die and was an afterthought at Bad Boy. He eventually got dropped from the label, releasing just one more, unsuccessful album in 1997 before leaving the industry altogether. (These days, the only videos he’s seen in involve being shrieked at by Southern Pentecostal preachers.) Still, at least Mack gave us one classic, game-changing song before he went, even if it ultimately did little for him.