The first song that Beanie Sigel wrote after getting out of jail in August 2005 was "Return of the Bad Guy."
Philadelphia's foremost gangsta rapper had served 10 months in the Federal Correctional Institution at Fairton, in South Jersey. That time behind bars on gun and drug charges stemmed from a 2003 Philadelphia traffic stop during which he threw a stolen .45-caliber pistol out of his Cadillac Escalade.
In prison, he hadn't written a word.
"I wasn't in that state of mind," said Sigel, who's as well-respected a lyricist within rap as he is notorious outside it for his run-ins with the law, which include a 2003 attempted-murder charge. (He was acquitted.)
"I wasn't Beanie Sigel then," he says. "I was 57613-066."
When he came up with "Return of the Bad Guy," Sigel thought it would be the title track of his next album. But "Bad Guy" did not even make it onto his fourth album, which comes out Tuesday. It's called
"I want to get off that bad-guy thing," says Sigel, 33, sitting for an interview in the control room of Studio 609, the North Philadelphia headquarters of Andre Harris and Vidal Davis, the hit-making duo whose platinum records, produced for Jill Scott, Usher and Musiq Soulchild, hang by the pool table.
Harris and Davis helmed the lion's share of the 14-song CD
(Roc-A-Fella ***). That includes "The Day" and "Dear Self," soul-searching cuts that try to position the 5-foot-10, 260-pound Sigel as more than just the scowling capo on Jay-Z's Roc-A-Fella Records crew. And they do it by successfully pairing Sigel with the voices of bat-eating rocker Ozzy Osbourne and fluttery-voiced sensitive man James Blunt.
Both songs are compelling because Sigel, as always, rhymes with conviction. In "What Your Life Like," from his 2000 debut album
, he painted a frightening portrait of life behind bars that was all the more impressive because, at that point, the South Philly native had never done time.
In "The Day," he takes stock and concludes, "I'm a man, and I ain't perfect, but that's no excuse," over a sample of Black Sabbath's "War Pigs." And on the even more effective "Dear Self," good Beanie lectures bad Beanie about the perils of false bravado, over Blunt's "No Bravery." "Open your ears, eyes and heart, cause the hour shall cometh / Ishmael blows his trumpet."
In an interview Monday, just before a scheduled meeting with his probation officer - last year he received two years' probation for an assault conviction, for breaking a man's eye socket in 2003 - Sigel shows no signs of the snarly menace he so skillfully conveys on his CDs.
Sigel, born Dwight Grant and nicknamed Beanie by his grandmother, Margaret Grant, grew up on Sigel Street near the South Philadelphia neighborhood known as Drug Row. Today, his associates call him Beans.
Sigel says his time in prison made him a different man, a point Davis agrees with. "You can sense the change in him," the producer says. "He's gotten older, and more wise."
Going to jail "was a good thing for me at the time," Sigel says. "Just to be away. Ever since I got signed [to Roc-A-Fella] in 1998, I was just always going, going, going. I never had the chance to be normal, even for a second."
Soft-spoken and serious-minded, wearing jeans and an orange checked shirt, the only sign of stardom in the room is Sigel's one highly visible bit of bling: a diamond-encrusted Franck Muller gold watch for which the MC, who splits his time between Philadelphia and a brick Colonial house in Lansdale that he shares with his mother, plunked down $52,000. For that price, he jokes, it had better not only tell time, but also "cook, clean and everything else."
But don't get the impression that Sigel has suddenly transformed into a kindler, gentler teddy bear.
He says the songs "people need to listen to" are "The Day," "No Bravery," and other thought-provoking numbers like "Prayer" and the anti-Iraq war "Children Are the Future," which borrows from Marvin Gaye.
is also full up with unexpurgated, often ultra-violent gangsta rap.
Its first single makes a bid for pop success with an R. Kelly hook as the self-proclaimed "Broad Street Bully" reintroduces himself as "a hoodlum, a monster, a bad boy, a goodfella, a gangsta and a thug."
And in "Go Low," Sigel serves up the genre at its most brutal. "Fresh over the barbed wire, it's the live wire . . . " he raps, threatening to violate his enemies with a broomstick and other violence with a barrage of profanity. "Death can be your destiny child, just say my name . . . "
"I have to make those songs," says Sigel, who has three children, and was jailed for an hour in November 2005 for owing $27,000 in child support. "That's what people want to hear."
"It's just like Hollywood," says the rapper, who played a gangster named Beans with plans to "take over the streets, like John Street" in the 2002 movie
. Those are the movies that's glorified. So why when I make a song they don't look at it in the same light?"
He called the album
, he says, because "it's the solution to a lot of the problems in hip-hop. . . . I think hip-hop right now lacks character. You get these artists with one big song, and you listen to the album and it's just that one single."
Sigel wants hip-hop heads to dig for songs like "Children," which he wrote after seeing a neighborhood teenager pregnant twice in two years. It's "a record that I believe is really important given the state that Philadelphia is in right now. With not just the homicide rate, but poverty, too. And there's children out there that's being forced to be adults."
was largely recorded using live musicians at Studio 609. "It's not digging through a bunch of records for a sample," he says. "It's natural." He says he needed to put hard-core "reality" songs on the album, like "Gutted," featuring Jay-Z, because "I give you both sides. In order to find the solution you have to find what the problem is first."
Given the violence that has been part of his music and life - during his "humbling" jail term, his time was extended by a month after he assaulted an inmate, and he was shot twice in the arm while being robbed last year - many will find the idea of Beanie Sigel's being part of the solution hard to swallow.
But it makes sense to him: "The whole thing that's going on in the city, with these kids killing each other? I can be part of the solution to that problem," says the rapper, who plans to meet with kids at the Youth Study Center in Philadelphia to encourage them to stay out of trouble.
"These young kids, they don't want to hear 'Put the guns down, stop selling the drugs' from a suit and tie that's going back to their suburban house and their kids in their Ivy League school," Sigel says. "You got to be of the people, to get to the people. 'Cause the first thing they going to ask you is, 'What you know about being down here in South Philly?' "
Back when he was listening to CDs by Kool G. Rap, the Geto Boys, and the Notorious B.I.G. (a role he has auditioned to play in the biopic
), he still had it better than many. "My mom was around, but she worked," he remembers.
But the picture he paints of the 'hood is grim: "The father is either dead or in jail, and the mother is either on drugs . . . or on drugs. So that young man, he's searching for that father figure. . . . The first person he sees drive a nice car, he wants to pursue that."
Sigel, who drives a Maserati, is now that person. And to his critics, he's the rapper who has kept it too "real," who can't leave the street behind.
"He's always straddled the line between good and evil," then-Philadelphia Police Lt. Michael Chitwood told The Inquirer in 2003. "God gives you tremendous talent, and he gives you problems, and tells you to work it out." Talking about Sigel around the same time, Jay-Z told MTV, "Whenever you're trying to transition and make everything right, it gets harder. It's like God's test."
Sigel says he has learned that lesson. "When you come from where I come from, from the neighborhood, and you successful, you almost feel obligated to help those people out who you were once struggling with, because you can relate to them. . . . and a lot of times, in doing that, their problems become your problems."
Still, Sigel doesn't spend all his time far from the 'hood in Lansdale. "But I think that's normal. Why can't I go have a drink at the club? Or go to the Chinese store and get some chicken wings and fried rice? If I can't do that, who am I then?"
With Beanie Sigel, that's always the question. He answers by saying what he is not.
"The misconception abut Beanie Sigel is they think I'm the
character 24/7. They see that movie, and they think that's me. But that's a movie."
So who, then, is the real Beanie Sigel?
"You talking to him," he says.
For video of Beanie Sigel's interview and audio from his CD "The Solution," go to