There was a time, somewhere back in 2004, where I thought it was a good idea to prop my video camera up in the corner of the garage, don a wife-beater singlet and a pair of boxing gloves and half-rap, half-punch my way into the memory of all my close friends at the time by distributing the video – all menacing looks, big swings and 14 year-old underdeveloped biceps – as an invitation for my birthday that year. One of those friends still retains a copy of that video in the recesses of one of her external hard drives, and brings it out, on occasion, to remind me of what a self-obsessed, gangster-wannabe child I was. While the rare airing is obviously meant to be devastatingly humiliating, I find rewatching the video (that hair!) serves a dual purpose: not only does it confirm what a ballsy young lad I was (authorial bias notwithstanding), but it also reaffirms, each time that imposing synth line breaks through and those mildly Arabic, distorted strings start up, what an absolute gem of a track ‘Lean Back’, then as now, is.
As much as Fat Joe may or may not have been a hulking great figure on the hip-hop scene back in the early 2000s and as much as the novelty of Remy Ma bringing a female touch to an otherwise largely male-dominated field resonated and as much as the dance move that went with it (I may have forgotten to mention that shoulder-dropping antics punctuated aforementioned film, naturally) propelled the fat Joe and his Terror Squadron to a #1 position on the Billboard charts around the time my invitation went out, I don’t think it’s any of these elements which made ‘Lean Back’ such a global force. Instead, ‘Lean Back’ introduced the world to the ‘True Story’ LP because it is such a triumph of contrasts. It’s hard to take lines like ‘If you cross the line, damn right I’m gon’ hurt you’ and claims of armed robbery and grand larceny seriously when they’re set off against large men doing synchronized dance moves. The fake drums on the Scott Storch-produced track are nothing but straight hood but they too are undone by the melodic strings, chiming in every few beats to remind you that there’s soft gooeyness behind an ostensibly hard shell. As a commercial hit, you couldn’t find a track with lyrics more removed from mainstream audiences. But again, tales of decadence, violence and ‘walking around metal detectors’ are rendered irrelevant in the face of that great universal leveller: the chorus’ simple, two-word instruction.
At 15, the lyricism sounded incontestably aggressive. The sheer effort of discovering what a ‘740 fizza’ was demonstrated for me that I was well out of my league with this one. In retrospect, though, Fat Joe and Remy clearly knew that the Storch joint was hot enough to push them high into the chart and so seemingly tempered their rhymes to offer what is a strangely realistic, autobiographic insight into the rap world in 2004. While initially the theme of the track (as with most of the genuinely enjoyable ‘True Story’) appears to be self-congratulatory in line with its mafioso rap background (noting that DJ ‘We The Best’ Khaled is one of only four remaining TS members), it is ultimately a Rap Game For Dummies look at many of the key concerns of platinum-selling artists. As such, I can conclude after having pondered and punched my way through almost eight years of dropped shoulders, ‘Lean Back’ is really a stroke of genius. By openly embracing the awkward position rap found itself in as it begun to be popularly accepted and loved, the myriad little paradoxes that underpin this track make it a continually fascinating listen. If you can’t bring yourself to mime and shadow box to it, at least pull up your pants and…
Terror Squad – Lean Back