PLAYLIST

Genius/GZA
Liquid Swords
(Geffen)

Hip-hop's in a bad place right now. There's still plenty of kick left in the style, but by using up the prevalent imagery before they'd found something to take its place, new rappers and old have painted themselves into a creative corner. This self-proclaimed Genius (a once and future voice from the Wu-Tang Clan) hasn't solved the problem yet: Too many of the songs on this platter deal with ghetto violence, random boasting of microphone prowess, complaints about the music business or a combination thereof. But like Clan members Method Man, Ol' Dirty Bastard and RZA (who handled most of the production duties here), Genius has come up with a sound that compensates for the redundancies of his rhymes. The beats and the instrumentation atop them don't go for the jugular; they're subtler, slyer than that. They sneak up on you. The sound is spare and moody, employing occasional sound effects to evoke a horror-film atmosphere over which Genius and his associates (including Lou Diamond, Rolly Fingers and the aforementioned Bastard) chatter and bark. Genius's ninja cosmology, which comes across like the brooding flip side of George Clinton's sci-fi funk, adds to the proceeding's haunted spirit. A phrase from "Cold World"--"Unprecedented, opium-scented, dark-tinted"--spells out the appeal of the approach just fine. It's like the aggressiveness of glory-days Public Enemy gone to rot. Liquid Swords isn't the breakthrough that will lift hip-hop to the next stage; the lyrics can't rival the strength of the music. But it demonstrates that those who've given up on rap have given up too soon.--Michael Roberts

Eat Static
Epsylon
(Planet Dog/Mammoth Records)

This techno collage is filled with ambient trances and alien dances: Witness the title cut, whose beat recalls a vacuum cleaner trying to digest a rubber band. Elsewhere, "Dionysiac" drapes Middle Eastern swami jive over a hyper backdrop, resulting in music perfect for an Arabian porno flick; "Undulattice (Uforic Remix)" pays vague tribute to Gary Numan via synthesized strings; and "The Brain" provides a home for sparse vocal samples that claim the organ of the same name "is a machine." So is Eat Static, but this invention of former Ozric Tentacles members Merv and Joie is much more unpredictable than the average mechanical device. Given the presence of extraterrestrial themes and spacey sound effects on the album, it's no surprise that these artists believe there's life on other planets. In the meantime, Epsylon has improved existence on this one.--Susan Dunlap

Buju Banton
'Til Shiloh
(Loose Cannon)

Buju Banton first earned attention in the U.S. with the release of 1993's Voice of Jamaica, which showcased both his amazing talent and his unfathomably hateful lyrics that shocked even veterans of the rough dancehall world. The singer's subsequent conversion to Rastafarianism and his new anti-gun stance raised eyebrows, too, but not nearly as many as will 'Til Shiloh. In some ways, the release is a departure from Banton's earlier efforts, but it also reiterates why he has been the undisputed king of dancehall since the dawn of the decade. The album is wide-ranging: It features the raw, computer-generated beats of modern dancehall, the smooth rhythms of hip-hop and several folksy acoustic numbers reminiscent of Bob Marley's work. But Banton's distinctive growl--a voice so deep and gravelly it makes Shabba Ranks sound like Boy George by comparison--holds the album together. Moreover, his embrace of Rastafari can be heard in more than just the lyrics. "Till I'm Laid to Rest," for instance, includes traditional African choral voices that Banton allows to predominate over his own. In the end, however, it's Banton's clever toasting and deejaying skills that make 'Til Shiloh one of the finest, most ambitious dancehall albums to emerge from Jamaica in recent years.--Joshua Green

Tracy Chapman
New Beginning
(Elektra)

The back of this CD bears a photograph of Chapman with a big grin on her face, but I'll bet she wasn't doing much smiling when she recorded these songs. "New Beginning" has a sunny title, but it kicks off with the chipper observation "The whole world's broke and it ain't worth fixing"; later, on "The Rape of the World," Chapman points out that all of us have stood by ineffectually while the planet was being strip-mined, poisoned and otherwise exploited. All of which is true when looked at from a certain point of view. But what Chapman still hasn't figured out after all these years is that until she stops acting like a pinched-face schoolmarm, she won't be preaching to anyone who's not already in the choir. Hell, if I want to feel bad, I won't listen to this; I'll call my mom and ask if she thinks I've lived up to my potential.--Roberts

 
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