Harmony is powerful. Choir singing has been linked to boosting the immune systems of those with cancer and scientists have argued that the human brain is more receptive to harmony. It’s also why a rap group from a forgotten town in the Midwest was able to make cop killing, welfare checks, and unspeakable illegal activity the obsession of millions across America. Twenty-five years ago, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony released their debut full-length, E. 1999 Eternal, a classic album that’s forever human by harmonizing that which is eternally true.
The Cleveland rap quintet – Bizzy Bone, Wish Bone, Layzie Bone, Krayzie Bone, Flesh-N-Bone — were sirens more than rappers, leading listeners joyously through the most nefarious conditions of life using spellbinding harmonies to tap into what’s intrinsic in us all. “Mr. Ouija 2” finds an Ouija board that everyone had been asked existential questions about mortality in the form of a chorus of singing enchanting enough to make constant gun cocking in the background sound almost integral to the harmony. Just as soon as the chorus gets hypnotic enough where you’re instinctively humming “bloody murder mo,” the voices deepen to a demonic bellow and the elegant existentialism gives way to the vivid murder depictions on “Mo Murda.” Sublimely, the enjoyment only intensifies.
That’s E. 1999 Eternal, an engrossingly dark thrill ride through life living on the poverty-stricken Eastside neighborhood of Cleveland on East 99th Street and St. Clair Avenue, where the group grew up and humanity lives in the dark conditions. The rhymes were quicker than most, the violence was more melodic than the best R&B, and they were repping a Midwestern city not known for hip-hop.
The songs always felt grander than the specificity of the lyrics. Even those who weren’t “smokin’, jokin’, rollin’ blunts” or cashing welfare checks could relate to “1st of Tha Month,” a smooth track predicated on a universal feeling of how new payday funded possibilities. You can make the soberest person sound lovestruck with cannabis by wrapping an ode to THC in harmonies that sound as silky as the biggest love ballads at the time like Bone Thugs-N-Harmony did on “Buddah Lovaz.” E. 1999 Eternal was more of a revelation than innovation. It was an album that revealed parts of the human experience millions didn’t know they could relate to through the universality of harmony. No one song exemplified that better than the biggest song of the group’s career: “The Crossroads.”
For a little under four minutes, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony eulogizes their lost loved ones, including Eazy-E, the Ruthless Records founding rapper who discovered the group and passed away three months before E. 1999 Eternal’s release. Bizzy Bone somberly reflects on watching the N.W.A. co-founder wither away from AIDS and Wish Bone eulogized his Uncle Charles, a man many may not have known played an integral part in the group existing.
“He was the uncle who’d come around and take us to the movies; everybody got five dollars. But he was also the one that was really behind us in our music career, because that’s what he wanted to do, too. He used to listen to our little mixtapes we’d bring home, just encourage us. All our talent shows, he’d be in the front row, every one,” Wish Bone said in a 2007 interview.
E. 1999 Eternal is more than one song, but the transformative impact of “The Crossroads” can not be understated. The song was released as the third and final single from the album in April 1996, nine months after the world had thoroughly consumed E. 1999 Eternal. It had the highest-charting debut for a rap song on the Billboard Hot 100 at the time when it debuted at No. 2, and within two months the song would be certified double platinum. Before you knew it, it reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100 and glued itself onto every ear and heart it encountered for decades to come.
By the time the song was released as a single, E. 1999 Eternal was already a double-platinum album; three months after the song’s release, and a full year since the album hit shelves, E. 1999 Eternal was quadruple-platinum. Hypnotic harmonies seducing America into Billboard chart dominance wasn’t rare — “The Crossroads” being a hit in 1996 was. Regardless of what category it was submitted in at the Grammy Awards or what radio stations played it, “The Crossroads” is, at its core, a Christian rap song. There’s more prayer than pistol, more heaven and The Lord than the non-existent vulgarity and violence.
For two months in the summer of 1996, “The Crossroads” reigned supreme atop the Billboard Hot 100 charts. The only other two hip-hop/R&B records to reach that peak in 1996 were Blackstreet’s “No Diggity” collaboration with Dr. Dre and 2 Pac’s double-sided “How Do U Want It” / “California Love” single collaboration with K-CI & Jo-Jo and Dr. Dre. Both of those songs spoke more to what was popular in hip-hop at the time — melodic hypersexuality and machismo — than “The Crossroads.” It didn’t matter. The song spent two more weeks as the biggest song in America than 2 Pac and Blackstreet’s songs combined.
The speed of the raps dazzled. The bite of the bars invigorated. The hits still knock. But E. 1999 Eternal lived up to its name by being forever human with harmonies that carried each and every song to ear and made a home for it in the soul.