A Prince Among Thieves is the second studio album by acclaimed producer Prince Paul. He had already gained recognition for his work with Gravediggaz and De La Soul, and for his next effort he aimed to create an album that could also be made into a movie. Despite the ambitious nature of the task, he succeeded in doing so but apparently the budget would only stretch to a 5 minute video. Movie or no movie, he managed to create what is, in my opinion, the most perfectly executed concept album and perhaps the greatest story ever told in hip-hop.
The album follows the story of a young man named Tariq (played by Breezly Brewin’) who struggles to get by with a 9 to 5 but has aspirations of becoming a famous rapper and needs to make $1,000 to finish his demo tape in time for his meeting with the Wu.
The story begins at the end with Tariq’s Dilemma and Pain, as the protagonist tries to comprehend the recent events that have left him betrayed and close to death.
Then it goes goes full circle as Tariq narrates the story from the beginning. Starting when he awakes after a night in the studio, only to be harassed by his mom who wants him to get a promotion and move out. He turns to his best friend True (Big Sha), who is described as being “like a brother” for help. True is also a well-connected drug dealer who takes him under his wing as they embark on a journey through the criminal underworld and meet a number of intriguing characters along the way. These include an eccentric arms dealer played by Kool Keith, a pimp portrayed by Big Daddy Kane (who arguably offers the strongest lyrical performance on the album), De La Soul as a bunch of crackheads, Everlast as a corrupt cop and Xzibit, Sadat X & Kid Creole as prison inmates. Through all its twists and turns, the story is truly engaging and you will find yourself actually caring about the fate of the characters. All this builds up to a dramatic and tragic ending (which I won’t go into to avoid spoiling it for new listeners).
Despite being surrounded by a cast of hip-hop legends, the relatively unknown Breeze and Sha play their roles spectacularly well, and it’s hard to imagine anybody who could replace them.
The skits (which account for almost half the album) are used to great effect in order to progress the story and tie everything together. It doesn’t just rely on the concept either, as with any album it is only as good as the music itself. Each individual song is brilliant and could stand equally strong on its own.
With everything going on, it’s easy to forget that the creative genius behind it all is primarily a producer, but the production is just as cinematic as the storyline itself.
The sound varies greatly to mirror the events of the story. With Uplifting beats on Steady Slobbin’ and What U Got, eery strings on Pain and Handle Your Time, to the ominous vibes of The Men in Blue and You Got Shot, this is a key component in creating the atmospheric feel of the album.
The captivating plot blurs the lines between a movie, an opera and a concept album. Whatever you want to call it, this is truly a storytelling masterpiece which even 13 years later, hasn’t been matched since and is unlikely to be exceeded anytime soon.