Album Review: Onyx – Onyx 4 Life

[X-Ray; 2021]

Despite it all, Onyx have yet to truly get their full due. Of course, they’re revered in head circles, but these are the guys who gave 50 Cent essentially his first feature, the very same gentlemen that Drake explicitly shouted out on Thank Me Later. Where is their mainstream adoration already? While other New York greats ranging from The Wu to Mobb Deep and even the likes of Cam’ron have long since received their flowers from even the most casual rap fans, Onyx linger in comparable obscurity.

Not that they seem to mind. If anything, de facto leader Sticky Fingaz is almost intentionally defiant about it all. This is a man who nearly put out an album on Aftermath, who not only appeared on, but actually may damn well have bested Slim Shady on The Marshall Mathers LP; by all rights he should be a god MC slotted right alongside the likes of Prodigy and Ghostface. Instead, he’s barely bothered to put out solo material the past decade, making the material he did record near inaccessible, available exclusively to those who commit ritual sacrifice and sign up for some secret website of his – I don’t even know, that’s how tight lipped he is about it all. When he all but snarls here on Onyx 4 Life, “New album, Sticky Fingaz – I ain’t droppin’ it,” well, it says plenty.

Frankly, while it can certainly be frustrating for those of us waiting on a classic group to receive their long overdue laurels, it’s also completely refreshing. In a genre replete with egos demanding attention, hyping up each and every whiff of a come back, Fredro Starr and Sticky simply keep their damn heads down and put the work in. If you know, you know. If you don’t… I’m sure Sticky would have words far cleverer than he can conceive as to just what sort of sucker you are.

To the album itself: Onyx 4 Life is the late career haymaker that even the loyal of fans may not have been expecting. After all, Onyx seemed to have settled into a comfortable, if respectable, lane for the past several years, churning out material alongside lifelong fans and beatmakers Snowgoons. It’d be unfair to call these efforts diminishing returns, but it also felt a bit akin to if Three 6 Mafia simply began to rely solely on Suicide Boys for inspiration, the masters beginning to follow the disciples. Not that there’s anything wrong with such a move, and it was surely an exercise lacking in ego, but it’s nonetheless exciting to see them truly left to their own devices here. To be short, directly from the crackling, sinister piano loop of opener “The Whole World” Onyx 4 Life feels like it was beamed in from the 90s.

Nothing else could have aided it better. Onyx know full well there’s no purpose in them bending to meet current trends, no point in seeking out ‘buzz’ features (opting instead for the likes of Cappadonna and Planet Asia); their fans are here for one thing and one thing only, and that’s for them to get to damn business and spit pure acidity. To put it mildly, they do just that. Sticky, in particular, has yet to age a damn day, completely defying his increasing age with a flow that’s still every bit as abrasive and menacing as the day he hurled out of the stratosphere on “Atak Of Da Bal-Hedz” way back in 93. To even attempt collect his best bars here is an exercise in true futility, a meager drop in his endless stream of wit, but to collect just a few, sample, “Take n**gas out like a fuckin’ clean version,” on “Ha Ha Ha Ha”, or, “Only job I ever had was an inside one / Got a four fifth, but the 22 my inside gun,” on “Coming Outside”.

It does, however, takes notes from the current climate in all the ways necessary: it’s blessedly free of filler, tight across 13 tracks and 39 minutes. It also consistently addresses that state of our sagging world, particularly on closer “Coming Outside”, which sees them seethingly (and memorably) implode from quarantine anxiety.

In a truly Herculean feat of will and defiance, Onyx 4 Life fits comfortably enough alongside their 90s classics All We Got Iz Us and Shut ‘Em Down; they haven’t lost a step. Instead, they’ve kept the pace with energy and dedication to their craft. Even this writer wondered if Onyx could still bring the heat in 2021. I sure as hell got my answer. While they may not enjoy quite the same stature, it’s hard to imagine any of their similarly aged peers keeping up with this one: while the Wu-Tang Clan fumble A Better Tomorrow and hawk million dollar albums to repulsive pharmabros, Onyx simply stand, reliable as ever. This is an album full of reactions intended to get a reaction, spitting right in the face of an industry that was fool enough to count them out.