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Street Level 

Simply put, Houston MC Scarface is a rap legend. Regional, national, international. We're talking Big Dog status. At 38, he's older than almost every other rapper. He's also way better than most rappers, a still-working master craftsman.

A handful of MCs can occupy the same space, but who are they? Rakim? Snoop Dogg? Jay-Z? Who has rapped harder? More concisely? With more honesty? As an inspiring force and talent scout, who has given rise to more household-name MCs? It's hard to find an equal to the awesome power and influence of Scarface.

Stylistically, he (Brad Jordan) was and is a beast, owner of one of the few extant original voices in rap. A deliberately no-frills bludgeon designed to deliver content, his is a voice that communicates things. His is a voice with purpose. The style for which we know Scarface is the opposite of Twista or Bone Thugs N Harmony, the opposite of artists who try and wow an audience with guitar-solo lyrical gymnastics. He imposes his poetic will with a punishing delivery and deep voice (a slight Southern accent is detectable). Scarface raps in full stories and scattered images, but always with the urgency that he must make you see what he's talking about, the urgency of a storyteller who knows he must take his time, knows the power of pace. He raps about the streets -- loyalty, sex and death -- with a high level of graphic realism. Never does he fail to rub your nose in it.

It's frightening, and they call Scarface a gangster. But it's reality, and Scarface is the truth. Listening to him rap about crime is like watching The Wire: real shit, every time.

When he drops his frequent bits of hard-won wisdom, he wants you to understand every last syllable. He's like a king who knows he's about to die. Unafraid of death, he imparts the fruits of a life spent in study of the streets and the world beyond. Timeless truths about money and problems, friends and foes, clothes, bankrolls and hoes. When he talks, you listen.

Why is Scarface never a boring rapper? Why does his brutal, simple-sounding flow never get old? Because, being the master storyteller he is, he takes topical chances other rappers would never dream of.

The chances he takes have to do with vulnerability, with revealing and reveling in disturbing aspects of his mental interior. He's not always the boss, not always in charge, but unlike Tony Soprano, Scarface is unashamed to do real psychological work. In a field overcrowded with overcompensating men, Scarface is the rare MC who talks about dreams and feelings, artfully and fearlessly exposing fears and phobias, bravely taking the result for subject matter. It is his lyrical revolution, one of his many gifts to hip-hop: hardcore introspection.

Specifically, Scarface raps about the paranoid, death-obsessed mindset better than any rapper ever. In The Geto Boys' classic 1991 song "Mind Playin Tricks On Me," he has locked himself in his room, imprisoned by guilt and regret. Witness the crushing effect of confessions like: "I often drift while I drive / Havin' fatal thoughts of suicide / BANG / And get it over with / And then I'm worry-free, but that's bullshit / I got a little boy to look after / And if I died then my child would be a bastard."

The song is dark, but if you thought it was fantasy, think again. Bringing up his reticence to abandon his son, Scarface gives suicide a real-life consequence. The lines say he's not going to kill himself, but they also say he's seriously thought about it: "I had a woman down with me / But to me it seemed like she was down to get me / She helped me out in this shit / But to me she was just another bitch / Now she's back with her mother / Now I'm realizing that I love her / Now I'm feelin' lonely."

The level of hopelessness Scarface achieves is stunning, especially given how few words it takes for him to get there.

Scarface's last album, Made -- released in December 2007 -- is great. It's not as good as the other oldest/best-rapper-alive's last record -- JayZ's American Gangster -- but it's by no means minor. Made stands with the best of Scarface's solo work and anything in the Geto Boys' catalogue. Throughout, Brad Jordan dissects game (money/politics) and brains (his own and others), and it's regularly harrowing.

It's also warm and reassuring proof that heart matters, something modern rap practitioners badly need to learn from one of the few Big Dogs worth listening to.

Scarface at the Big Easy on Saturday, April 26, at 8 pm. $21. Visit ticketswest.com or call 325-SEAT.

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