Riding High 

With his duo's next album delayed, 8Ball fills the gap with an indie solo album.

Two decades ago, it was impossible to predict, but the friendship between two high school students, Premro Smith and Marlon Jermaine Goodwin, eventually spawned more than a half-dozen gold-record awards for albums such as Comin' Out Hard, On the Outside Looking In, and On Top of the World, which were replete with the keyboard loops, live instrumentation, and on-point samples that put Memphis on the national rap map.

"We both grew up in Orange Mound, just dealing with regular inner-city life," Smith, aka 8Ball, says of his relationship with his creative partner, MJG. "It was the '80s, when busing was going on, and we both got sent out to Ridgeway Junior High, then we attended Middle College High School together. We met in 7th grade, and after kicking it in the classroom, we found out that we lived around the block from each other, so we started hanging out from that point on."

After a stint in Houston, 8Ball & MJG landed a deal with P Diddy's Bad Boy label ("a lot of people wanted to sign us -- we actually signed him," boasts 8Ball), releasing the Living Legends album in 2004 and recording a bevy of street hits such as "Don't Make," "Buck Bounce," and "You Don't Want Drama."

Early next year, Ridin' High, the duo's long-awaited follow-up to Living Legends, is scheduled to drop.

In the meantime, fans can sate their appetites with Light Up the Bomb, 8Ball's third legitimate solo effort (augmented with mix tapes, remixes, and a mish-mash of recycled material, his solo count goes up to 10), which was released on his own label, 8 Ways Entertainment, earlier this month.

While 1997's 26-song epic Lost -- the cover of which features the space-obsessed MC leaning on his Chevy, surrounded by a flock of dodo birds, the space shuttle crashing into the pyramids behind him -- was a funky party album, and 2001's Almost Famous was a stripped-down autobiographical work. Light Up the Bomb effortlessly melds the two, blending thugged-out good-time grooves ("Swervin'," "Time2hitdaclub") and an appreciation for the ladies ("Sitback," "Yo Bitch") with slow jams such as "This Ain't That," the hallucinogenic-influenced "Purple Stuff," and amped-up, testosterone-raising gangsta tunes such as "Clear It Out" and "Da Fight."

"Anotha Level" and "The Greatest," which features New Orleans king Juvenile on a verse, and "Light Up the Bomb" present the more introspective side of the loquacious 8Ball, who namechecks everyone from John Lennon to local Cadillac dealer Bud Davis, using the lyrics to explore his feelings about his newfound financial stability, his relationship with his hometown, and his future in the rap biz.

"Barney Phife" is a hilarious skit that turns into unexpected social commentary: "You look like one of them rappers. You got on all this jewelry. You're ridin' [in] this nice car. You boys are known to have that shit on you," notes a redneck cop, insinuating that because he's a black man, 8Ball must be packing guns and drugs. "Alright, boy, everything seems to be alright with you. You'd better watch yourself out here though, boy -- I'm gonna keep an eye on you," the cop warns, as the track fades out.

Montana Trax, who released his own album, The Boy Somethin' Great on 8 Ways earlier this year, produced the majority of tracks on Light Up the Bomb. Cutting songs at Ball-N-G Studios here in Memphis, at Atlanta's Hit City Studios, and on the fly on Juvenile's tour bus, 8Ball and Trax showcase the same diversity employed on the upcoming Ridin' High, which was recorded in Miami, Atlanta, and Memphis.

As an already established MC, 8Ball can also afford to give verses to up-and-comers like Mac E, Loco, Dirt Bag, Devius, and Big Gipp. And, although this is a solo record, his partner MJG shows up on a few songs, including the jubilant opener "M Gang," a celebratory South Memphis anthem.

"We just work good together," says MJG. "We were friends first, and the friendship has outweighed everything. We've known each other for so long that our collaborations come naturally. We come up with a title and a concept, then we start writing, but we don't sit down and compare things line-to-line. We're just so much alike that as long as we've got the subject down, it sounds as if we're writing together."

"Music is my life," says 8Ball. "I want to take it to the next level and do all I can."

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