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The name Scarface comes loaded with expectation.

You can’t just move weight, commit violence or command attention – you’ve got to live up to the impossibly high standards set by Al Capone and Tony Montana, gangsters genuine and fictional that have captured the popular imagination for decades. So it’s to Brad Jordan’s credit that he’s not only carved out his own identity under the alias but is now the first person rap fans think of when you mention the name.

Whether solo or as part of legendary gangsta rap act Geto Boys, Scarface has written everything from macabre shock rap to political missives, from Top 10 chart hits to deep cuts about depression, from West Coast funk to East Coast boom bap. He put Houston on the map years before Southern hip-hop became a mainstream concern, linking up with North Houston’s Rap-A-Lot records in an era when the fashion, drugs and gangs cleaved his city in half. His music is universally respected, and you’ll find Scarface fans everywhere from the hood to Hollywood thanks to his ability to juxtapose street rap specifics with universal truths: love, sadness, betrayal, paranoia, and above all, death. He’s also an extremely underrated musician with a longstanding love of classic rock, and he’s co-produced a shocking number of hit records – though you’ll rarely hear him brag about it.

With a career stretching into its fourth decade and a label that hasn’t shied away from releasing outtakes in search of a quick buck, Scarface’s discography is far from user friendly. So rather than attempting to document every album he’s ever been associated with, this guide seeks to highlight some of the best music from Scarface’s various phases: his proto-horrocore gangsta rap as part of the Geto Boys, his gothic southern funk with N.O Joe and Mike Dean, his outreaches to New York and LA with alongside those regions’ stars, and his late-period triumphs at Def Jam.

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Geto Boys
‘Mind of a Lunatic’
(From Grip It! On That Other Level, Rap-A-Lot, 1989)

Scarface joined the Geto Boys following the group’s first incarnation as a RUN DMC clone, shifting their musical focus towards the noisy, sample collage style popularized by The Bomb Squad and Dr. Dre. Even at this early stage, the Geto Boys’ sound could compete with anything coming out of New York or LA, but it wasn’t yet evoking a unique Houston identity. Instead, what set the group apart from their coastal peers were lyrics so violent they made controversy magnets NWA look like PM Dawn in comparison. Drawing on slasher flick imagery and never letting an opportunity for shock value slide, Mind of a Lunatic may have been a ploy for attention, but it was as successful one, getting the group signed to Rick Rubin’s American Recordings and jump-starting the Rap-A-Lot empire. A period piece for certain, but a brilliant one which featured Scarface’s iconic opener: “I sit alone in my four-cornered room, staring at candles.”

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Scarface
‘Diary of a Madman’
(From Mr. Scarface is Back, Rap-A-Lot, 1991)

Decades before Kanye West and Drake made vulnerability in rap an essential tool for connecting with a wider audience, Scarface was using hip-hop to explore drug abuse, mental health issues and the root causes of violence in the black community. Already moving past his early shock raps into more nuanced territory, Diary of a Madman sees Scarface use his music as a space to confess his darkest thoughts, a strategy he’d return to throughout his career. The result is a quantum leap forward – instead of a one dimensional killer, Scarface paints a portrait of a neglected teenager dealing with alcoholism, suicidal thoughts, existential dread and a culture that places no value on the lives of black boys. It’s a reality he not only lived through but shared with millions of kids in cities across the US, and it made for a song as dark and seductive as anything by the rock and metal groups he grew up admiring.

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Geto Boys
‘Mind Playing Tricks On Me’
(From We Can’t Be Stopped, Rap-A-Lot, 1991)

The Geto Boys’ greatest hit and signature tune, ‘Mind Playing Tricks on Me’ stands as one of gangsta rap’s finest moments, a song that combines themes of paranoia and violence with a groove so funky it’s easy to forget just how grim the subject matter really is. Built on a loop of Isaac Hayes’ ‘Hung Up On My Baby’ and produced by Scarface but credited to Ready Red, ‘Mind Playing Tricks on Me’ perfectly illustrates the individual characters that made the Geto Boys so successful.

Willie D is the archetypical gangster haunted by his success and looking for jealous foes in his rear view mirror. Bushwick Bill closes the song with a comparative dose of levity with his out-of-this-world Jason Voorhees fantasies. Once again, though, it’s Scarface who steals the show, baring his soul and increasingly fragile mental state for all to see while railing at the church for failing to provide him with a sense of peace. Sonically stripped back, the song also saw the group begin to define themselves musically, moving away from NYC’s uptempo hype in favor of the slowed down funk that would eventually define Houston’s entire rap scene. It’s a song so good, Scarface himself would reprise it three years later, augmenting the arrangement with live instrumentation.

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Geto Boys
‘Damn It Feels Good To Be A Gangsta’
(Rap-A-Lot, 1992)

Of course, while The Geto Boys’ songwriting matured, they were still primarily known as a shock rap group, and if a chunk of their audience related to the drug dealing and anguish of their lyrics, an even greater part were suburban teenagers treating their music as entertainment and as a way to piss off their parents. It’s this side of the group that made director Mike Judge use B-side ‘Damn It Feels Good to Be a Gangsta’ to comic effect in his film Office Space – unless you’re a stone cold killer, there’s something inherently ridiculous to walking around to music this gory. Behind the laughs, there’s kernel of truth – plenty of office drones rode to work listening to gangsta rap, and while there’s humor to be had in an office badman blasting Scarface while pissing off his boss, it’s also proof that rap was able to tap into universal emotions, regardless of the listener’s background.

Kool G Rap ft Scarface, Ice Cube and Bushwick Bill
‘Two in the Head’
(From Live And Let Die, Cold Chillin’, 1992)

In the early 90s, hip-hop was still a collection of insular, regional scenes with New York dominating the conversation, and while rap’s mecca tentatively engaged Los Angeles’ nationally popular sound, few New Yorkers considered what was going on in Houston to be of any importance. Queensbridge legends Kool G Rap & DJ Polo, however, always had as much in common with the country’s rising gangster rappers as they did with their city’s lyrical purists. ‘Two in The Head’ saw the duo team up with Ice Cube, Bushwick Bill and Scarface, but it’s the latter who’d make the greatest impression – his lines “Die motherfucker, die motherfucker, die” would later be sampled by Biggie Smalls, another rapper haunted by a criminal past and suicidal thoughts. The song was also the beginning of New York’s love affair with Scarface, with emcees championing him as a lyricist of note.

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Scarface
‘The Wall’
(From The World Is Yours, Rap-A-Lot, 1993)

By the mid-90s The Geto Boys were winding down, with Willie D replaced by The Convicts’ Big Mike, a great emcee who was a poor fit for the group. Meanwhile Rap-A-Lot Records was putting out music by the ton, providing a blueprint for future Southern empires No Limit, Hypnotized Minds and Cash Money. It’s a strategy that saw Scarface’s songwriting stretched thin between his solo efforts and group commitments, but it also saw him tinkering with his musical approach and rebuilding ahead of a grand statement. ‘The Wall’, like most of The World is Yours, featured Louisiana-born N.O Joe behind the boards, a man who’d go on to define Rap-A-Lot’s mid-90s sound and one of rap’s most underrated producers. Emphasizing live instruments over gritty samples, he’d keep both Scarface and Rap-A-Lot relevant in a post-Chronic world, and along with future Kanye West collaborator Mike Dean, he’d become the backbone of Scarface’s best records.

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Scarface
‘Jesse James’
(From The Diary, Rap-A-Lot, 1994)

Rap moves fast. By 1994 Scarface was already a veteran; the early Geto Boys albums may as well have been ancient history. A new generation of emcees including Nas, Biggie, Snoop, and OutKast were shifting the conversation towards smoother flows and more complex lyrics, while producers were using increasingly sophisticated techniques to move away from rap’s reputation for sonic assault. It’s in this context that Scarface, N.O Joe and Mike Dean dropped The Diary, the album that cemented Scarface’s spot in history. Samples were out and dark, gurgling funk with Southern Gothic flourishes was in. Scarface’s rigid, on-beat flow was replaced by the languid baritone that would become his trademark from here on out. Finally, if the lyrics still included more fucks per minute than a Pulp Fiction monologue, their new surroundings infused them with a gravitas that ended the shock rap conversation once and for all.

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Scarface
‘I Seen a Man Die’
(From The Diary, Rap-A-Lot, 1994)

While The Diary’s deep cuts focus on Scarface’s penchant for ultra-violence, first single ‘I Seen a Man Die’ is downright serene, a meditation on life and death that stands up against any piece of music on the subject, from blues and folk to black metal. In a deliberate monotone, Scarface breaks down the cycle of violence behind the gang wars gripping America: a corrupt justice system, a lack of opportunity for young ex-cons, the allure of fast money in the drug trade and the senseless machismo of gang life. From there, the song dives into the pain and emptiness of dying and the hollow promises of an afterlife.

It’s a song that encapsulates the appeal of Scarface’s writing, as poignant when dealing with the specifics of 1990s America as it is when contemplating the universality of death. Musically, it’s timeless – Face and his co-producers layer trip-hop speed, MPC-flipped drums over haunting keys and wailing organs, combining soul’s heart with rap’s pulse. This is the moment where Scarface became hip-hop’s answer to Johnny Cash: a man in black unafraid to stare into America’s dark side.

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Scarface ft Ice Cube and Devin the Dude
‘Hand of the Dead Body’
(From The Diary, Rap-A-Lot, 1994)

Though Scarface’s catalog includes its fair share of gangsta rap genre pieces, and some of his early material has aged poorly, ‘Hand of the Dead Body’ feels as relevant today as it did in 1994. A blistering response to the conservative backlash against rap and the argument that art incites violence, the song feels shockingly timely in today’s outrage economy, where rappers are one lyric away from boycotts and online witch hunts. Attacking a complacent and hypocritical middle class that would rather demonize black male self-expression than make any real efforts to improve the lives of black men, Scarface and guest star Ice Cube name names and refused to be cowed, while the Odd Squad’s Devin The Dude’s hook gives the song a timeless, soulful edge. Give it a year and Cube’s “Fuck Bill and Hillary” line might come back in fashion too.

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Geto Boys
‘The World is a Ghetto’
(From The Resurrection, Rap-A-Lot, 1996)

Willie D rejoined The Geto Boys for The Resurrection in 1996, and the results were surprisingly on point considering rap’s horrid track record with comeback albums. N.O Joe is once again behind the boards, and his funk is lusher than ever, with hints of then-ascendant Organized Noise’s ATL pop appeal thrown into the mix. Lyrically, the group’s on-the-ground coverage of life in the hood was neither groundbreaking nor particularly trendy at a time when rap was taking a turn towards the jiggy, but the appeal was all in hearing that classic Geto Boys line-up over new school funk. This is about as fun as a song about poverty can get.

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Scarface
‘Southside’
(From The Untouchable, Rap-A-Lot, 1997)

Where The Diary’s Southern Gothic DNA has seeped into practically every Houston rap record since its release, The Untouchable is a Los Angeles album through and through. Recorded while Scarface was living in LA during the peak of the G-funk boom, the album reprised The Diary’s production roster but added Oakland beatmaker Tone Capone to the proceedings, incorporating the cleaner synth lines and sound separation that rappers like 2Pac used to sell millions. Living up to the album title, ‘Southside’ finds Scarface looking back at his drug dealing days from a boss’s point of view, happy to escape the day-to-day struggles but uneasy with the knowledge that his street years aren’t too far behind him. Most rappers who come upon a bit of money are quick to chase pop hits, but it’s this unimpeachable approach to street life and (yes) real rap that earned Scarface the respect that still has fans venerating his bars to this day.

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Scarface
‘Mary Jane’
(From The Untouchable, Rap-A-Lot, 1997)

It’s an unwritten rule that any rapper who wants to be considered among the all-time greats needs a weed anthem. Appropriately, Scarface’s entry into the canon is downright religious in tone. ‘Mary Jane’ is a song you put on after a shitty day, when you’re rolling a spliff to escape life’s hardships, not burning one to celebrate. It’s surprising, then, that Scarface cites ecstasy as The Untouchable’s driving chemical force, though that does explain the track’s hyper-clean production with shifting hi-hats and bird chirps. Scarface has long dealt with his chemical ups and downs in song, but ‘Mary Jane’ (and the accompanying ‘Faith’) are rare moments where he seems to have found peace, however brief.

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Scarface ft 2Pac
‘Smile’
(From The Untouchable, Rap-A-Lot, 1997)

Scarface’s sole gold single, ‘Smile’ dropped in the wake of 2Pac and Biggie’s tragic murders, a fact that played no small part in its quick rise up the charts, given that Pac’s name meant instant sales in 1997. The song’s feel-good sentiment helped too, and ‘Smile’ is notably lighter and more optimistic than Scarface’s usual fire-and-brimstone missives. Reminiscent of Pac’s own ‘Keep Your Head Up’, ‘Smile’ finds the two emcees alternating between rage and hope over the kind of laidback beat that would soon be replaced as rap’s drive for new sounds led to G-funk’s rapid demise.

This meant the end for most of Scarface’s gangsta rap peers as a new generation of rappers from New York and the South rose to prominence. Unsurprisingly, Scarface survived the generational purge, going on to become a respected elder statesman, as comfortable signing Atlanta emcees as president of Def Jam South as he was collaborating with New Yorkers hungry to appeal to rap’s growing Southern demographic.

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Nas ft Scarface
‘Favor For a Favor’
(From I Am…, Columbia, 1999)

Often overlooked due to landing on I Am…, Nas’s criminally underrated third album, ‘Favor For a Favor’ is the sound of two legends sparring in their prime. Frankly, the song topic barely registers. Sure, they’re talking about committing Mafia-style murders in stunningly gruesome detail, but that’s entirely beside the point. In fact, if you play ‘Favor For a Favor’ for someone and that’s what they focus on, you can safely assume their rap intake is limited to crossover pop hits, or possibly Weird Al Yankovic parodies. ‘Favor For a Favor’ is actually about using gangsta rap tropes to show off lyrical skill, something that went over the heads of backpack purists gnashing their teeth at Nas’s late-90s crime bars. As for who won the contest, it pretty much comes down to whether you prefer Scarface’s machine gun bursts or Nas’s smoother, shifting style. Let’s call it a draw.

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Scarface
‘Sorry For What?’
(From The Last of a Dying Breed, Rap-A-Lot, 2000)

If you ever see a Scarface album with bargain bin cover art, skip it: this is one case where you can judge a book by its cover. By the late 90s, Rap-A-Lot Records and Scarface were beefing over money, and the fact that the label was putting out sub-par, thrown-together compilations like My Homies and the Geto Boys’ Da Good Da Bad and Da Ugly didn’t help. Scarface wanted off the label, but he owed Rap-A-Lot one more real album, and the resulting Last of a Dying Breed was his darkest, most paranoid work yet. ‘Sorry For What?’ is Scarface’s painful magnum opus, the darkest version of a story he’s spent his entire career telling. Every detail of his life is laid bare: drug abuse, suicidal thoughts, an unhappy childhood, regrets, and a small sliver of hope through his faith in God. This time there’s no funk beat to groove to and no hook to sing along – if you want Scarface at his rawest, this is it.

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Scarface
‘Look Me In My Eyes’
(From The Last of a Dying Breed, Rap-A-Lot, 2000)

Scarface is paranoid, and he’ll be the first to admit it. But just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they aren’t after you. In the late 90s, Scarface’s anti-police lyrics and shady history caught up with him when DEA agent Jack Schumacher planted informant Ronnie Carbone in his crew and launched an unfounded, politically motivated investigation to bust the rapper for drug dealing. Of course, Scarface hadn’t moved weight in years and a search of his home turned up nothing, but the harassment dragged on until a (rumored) Rap-A-Lot donation to Al Gore’s presidential campaign made the investigation go away. ‘Look Me In My Eyes’ deals with the situation in no uncertain terms: “Fuck Ronnie Carbone and fuck the DEA” might be the gutsiest line a rapper ever committed to record. Sadly, few people heeded Face’s warnings and law enforcement continue to harass musicians across the country to this day.

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Jay-Z ft Beanie Sigel & Scarface
‘This Can’t Be Life’
(From The Dynasty: Roc La Familia, 2000)

Jay-Z, Scarface and Beanie Sigel spent the first three years of the decade dropping knowledge and reminiscing about the crime life over laidback instrumentals, usually produced by an up and coming producer named Kanye West. They had so much chemistry that there were rumors of an album, though that possibility vanished when Jay started releasing Linkin Park mash-up albums. ‘This Can’t Be Life’ is the first and best of their collaborations, with Scarface recording his verse just moments after finding out a friend’s young son died in an accident. As the rapper aged into his 30s, this kind of reflective, naked emotion would become increasingly foregrounded in his rhymes.

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Scarface
‘In Cold Blood’
(From The Fix, Def Jam South, 2002)

After signing Ludacris as president of Def Jam South, Scarface was coaxed back to record “one last album” for the legendary label. The Fix is a late-period masterpiece, an NYC counterpart to LA’s Untouchable that brings us back full circle. The Geto Boys had based their original sound off New York’s aggro-funk, only to slow things down and emphasize Southern music’s groove. Now, he’d record an album for New York’s biggest rap label just as East Coast producers were sampling the kind of deep soul cut you might find in a Houston thrift shop. The result is a song that’s equal parts self referential and modern, updating the drum patterns and mixing but bringing Scarface back to his tales of drug dealing. Few victory laps were as well deserved or as thrilling to hear.

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Scarface
‘What Can I Do’
(From The Fix, Def Jam South, 2002)

It’s a shame that Scarface’s Def Jam tenure didn’t last longer, since the label finally provided the budget necessary to complement his more introspective material with the kind of lush, R&B production it needed to make an impact beyond his core audience. Delivered in a measured tone not a million miles away from ‘I Seen a Man Die’, with its grim reaper crawl, ‘What Can I Do’ is gospel rap for listeners who’d never think of turning to God.

Lamenting pain and suffering in the world, Scarface implores a higher power to show him a path to heal the world – we’re a long way from the gruesome murders of ‘Diary of a Madman’. Kelly Price’s outstanding hook and background vocals are the perfect counterpoint to Scarface’s growl, ramping up the drama without pushing the song into self-parody. Between ‘What Can I Do’, ‘Someday’ with Faith Evans, and ‘Heaven’, a second Price collaboration, Scarface proved that 2002 R&B/rap collaborations need not be lightweight Ja Rule ballads. Too bad most rappers didn’t listen.

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Scarface ft Nas
‘In Between Us’
(From The Fix, Def Jam South, 2002)

‘In Between Us’ isn’t close to being Scarface’s biggest hit. In fact, a quick Google search turns up practically nothing on this album cut outside the obligatory lyrics and faulty credits that mistakenly attribute the hook to T-Boz instead of Tanya Herron. That’s a shame, because it’s one of the best rap songs ever written about betrayal, and had Scarface’s original plan to get Stevie Nicks on the hook happened, it might have gotten the attention it deserved.

The sole Mike Dean/Scarface production on The Fix, ‘In Between Us’ is a stately, gothic affair complete with synth solos and guitar runs. Nas and Scarface trade bars for the second and last time, but this time the goal isn’t friendly competition, it’s airing rivals and describing the bitterness than remains when friends become foes. It’s a song that captures everything that makes Scarface’s music so powerful: universal emotion, photographic specificity, Southern darkness, hip-hop bump, and a sense of musicianship that remains unmatched among his peers. It’s a song he hasn’t topped since, but frankly, there’s no shame in that.

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