Written on the Body: Scarface's Haunting Southern Rap Classic 'The Diary' at 25

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Scarface of the Geto Boys performs at the Regal Theater in Chicago in 1992. 

In psychodynamic therapy, the patient works to cultivate a “curiosity” -- Freud’s term of choice -- about themselves and their behavior. You try to create a space from which you can see yourself objectively, even in the midst of intense, disorienting emotional experiences. Call it a bird’s eye view, or an emotional surveillance of the self in motion, or maybe even a diary written in real time.

For 25 years, the shorthand around Scarface’s The Diary, released in October of 1994, has not changed. The album, the third from the Geto Boys breakout star, perfected the violent gangster monologues audiences had come to expect from Houston’s truth-telling MC. It also added more explicit, serrated politics, and emotional depth to become Texas’s and the South’s first unimpeachably great solo rap album. It’s mesmerizing blend of anxiety, indignation, violence and contemplation has been imitated, but never reached. 

As dark as the The Diary can get, its thirteen tracks don’t form a misanthropic dirge. The violence thrills and haunts because it dares to probe the causes and effects of murder and the drug trade. The grief and rage of the album wound because the songs make those emotions not just palpable, but sympathetic, even infectious. For each ounce of malice the album provides, there’s a counterweight of the humane. There’s no cheesy redemption or even resolution here, but there is humanity, thorny and troubled and real.

Scarface shifts perspective within songs, moving from perpetrator to victim to witness. If the lyric demands that the human body and voice be the instruments, The Diary is a cantata of reflecting on the wounded self, a self young and black and male in a “state where you rarely see a motherfucker fist fight,” giving hurt and being hurt and reflecting.

Take “Jesse James,” the album’s fourth song. The song begins with dreadful cinematic detail, “Snuck up behind him, had his hands in his pocket/ Took my pistol out, unlocked it,” and offers a nihilistic kiss-off at the end the second verse, “And you done lost the fuckin’ game of life /And that's a motherfuckin’ shame.” 

A lesser version of the song would land there, an Old West penny dreadful with soft, dusty drums. But the third verse transforms “Jesse James” into a provocation. 

“Wait!” Scarface gasps, in the third verse’s opening line, before outlining another, unplanned murder. It’s a shocking move. The victim becomes a “you,” and our crime is our insolence: “And all that bullshit I'm hearin’ you talk only offends me/ And lately I'm under a lot of pressure/ It seems to me you can't come clean, so yo, I gots to check ya.”  

When Scarface says “I’m under a lot of pressure,” it sizzles with implication. The violence in the first two verses was business; now it’s become psychological need. We wanted a crime narrative and we got one. Now we get another, this time starring us. We’re part of the “pressure.” From gangland hit, to regular impulse, this is how violence metastasizes.

The rapper, born Brad Jordan, has examined violence unflinchingly across his entire career, both on record and in print. In his memoir, Diary of A Madman, he discusses his mental health history, his suicide attempts, his involuntarily hospitalization as a teen in the psych ward at Memorial Hospital in Houston. He shares that he sold cocaine and crack and witnessed Columbian cartels in the Reagan era eliminate and replace local dealers in Houston’s south side neighborhoods. He was part of the Geto Boys, a group whose debut that was so controversial that David Geffen fled from a distribution deal at the 11th hour. 

Scarface had already lived a full, complex life at age 23 when began to record The Diary in a big, new, lonely house in the northern edge of Houston suburbs, away from the South Acres of his childhood. 

As mesmerizing as Scarface’s storytelling alone, and as a talented a producer as he was on his own, The Diary takes a sonic step up with the added production pair of Mike Dean and N.O. Joe. Dean, an instrumentalist, engineer and mixer, had worked Texas music royalty like Selena and would go on to be one of Kanye West’s closest collaborators. Joe is a Louisiana-born master of merging rap with funk who would go on to produce UGK’s Ridin’ Dirty in 1996, the bawider, brighter, other signature masterpiece of mid-90s Texas rap.  

Scarface, Joe and Dean matched stripped-down melodies with deft effects to complicate tone on The Diary. Piercing Psycho-esque strings add angst to the riot of the title track; sleigh bells soften the violence of “The White Sheet”; indolent, post-Chronic guitar licks across the album add a sedate, eerie patina to the bloody content.

The album’s diegetic sounds create a social fabric. It has a real verisimilitude, as if microphones were held up to Houston itself, capturing snippets of conversation and the sound of car wheels rolling across marshy highways. We hear the voice of a cellmate at the beginning of “I Seen a Man Die”; the hiss of a police radio at the end of “No Tears”; the fictional televised newscast at the start of “Hand of the Dead Body.” The world beyond Scarface’s stories breathes, giving The Diary the air of a public documentary as much as a personal confession. 

“Hand of the Dead Body” and “I Seen a Man Die,” the two artistic peaks of the album, and the two charting singles, represent that tension between the social and the personal, between political rhetoric and existential grief.

In the former, Scarface and Ice Cube (in the only guest spot on the album) unpack censorship, police brutality, and the unfair burdens placed on black art: “Let’s peep the game from a different angle/ Matt Dillon pulled his pistol every time him and someone tangled/ So why you criticize me/ For the shit that you see on your TV/ That rates worse than PG?”  With a hook from a then-unknown Devin The Dude, what could have pedantic becomes another swirls of truth and myth: “Don’t believe that song/ that n---as wrong/ gangsters don’t live that long.”

“I Seen A Man Die” is the album’s best song, probably Scarface’s best ever, and one of watershed songs of ‘90s rap. All of Scarface’s gifts are on display. He treats the narrative with care: The song begins in third person, with a man released from prison and reuniting with his family. In the middle, Scarface follows the man as he reflects on his own crimes, only to be shot as retribution. Finally, in first person, Scarface raps directly to the man as he dies in a hospital bed.  

Scarface’s phrasing haunts. On family: “He greets his father with his hands out/ Rehabilitated slightly, but glad to be the man's child.” On guilt: “You took his life, but your memory you'll never take/ You'll be headed to another place/ And the life you used to live will reflect in your mother's face.” Even the hook probes at what we now might call “toxic masculinity” with an unanswerable question: “I still gotta wonder why/ I never seen a man cry 'til I seen a man die”

Doubling and mirrors and reflection fill the song and the album. There is a dread of self-realization here, a struggle to see yourself completely. When Scarface raps, “I've got the mind of the man in the mirror so I'm looking at me vaguely/ But I can't seem to fade me,” you can hear echoes of Paul’s search for a true vision of the self and of life, in the Bible: “For now we see in a glass, darkly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12)

These are unanswerable questions, the kinds that authentically great art offers. Peers and followers have tried their best to answer them. 2Pac’s late career religiosity, an easier to commune with blend of remonstration and redemption, is a response to Scarface’s nearly Calvinist deprivation. Biggie’s recurrent tropes of suicide and fate on 1997’s Life After Death were more commercially successful because of the Puffy-meets-Scorsese cinematic luxury. Jay-Z’s middle career “I’ve seen it all!” faux-world weariness tried to take Scarface’s earned wisdom to Davos. It sounds like a media executive whining about the Malbec in comparison. 

Kendrick Lamar is perhaps Scarface’s truest protégé, picking up subjects like addiction, colorism, authenticity and familial violence with Scarface’s same refusal of easy answers. Go listen to good kid, m.A.A.d city and tell me you don’t hear The Diary and Scarface in every other wound, every third reflection. 

So fully integrated is Scarface’s influence on rap, that younger listeners might think that the idea of mental health in rap is new, and that Kid Cudi’s and Kanye West’s public discussions of treatment, illness and medication were the first of their kind.

Twenty-five years later, Scarface’s The Diary remains a voice crying in a wilderness. For an album that went platinum, and for a rapper who would go on to record another nine albums and who remains a legend to fans and other MCs, an aura of burden exists around Scarface and The Diary. This album cleared acres of space in dark woods and taught rap itself how to reckon with emotions and the self and violence.

Reflecting on “I Seen A Man Die,” and its connection with a generation of listeners, Scarface writes in his memoir: “That’s real power. Not my power, but the power of the art and the music that I was put here to participate in, create and mold. If I had lived a happier life, those lives would have never been touched because that record — that whole album — would have never been made.” 

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