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Nas
It Was Written
(Columbia)

The reported death of gangsta rap has been greatly exaggerated: It Was Written entered the Billboard sales charts at number one, and three weeks later, it's still there. But although this album contains the usual verbal allotment of niggas, bitches, gats and gunshots (as well as a guest appearance by Dr. Dre), Nas isn't simply the reincarnation of Snoop. Instead, his new one suggests that there is a hip-hop middle ground that few of his peers have chosen to investigate--a place where hardcore cliches can be turned back upon themselves in a way that undermines the very milieu they helped to create in the first place. "I Gave You Power" symbolizes this tack. The concept of the piece--Nas delivers the lyrics from the viewpoint of a gun--sounds relentlessly stupid, but it doesn't wind up that way; by anthropomorphizing a Desert Eagle semi-automatic, the vocalist is able to make direct points ("My creation was for blacks to kill blacks/It's gats like me that accidentally go off/Making niggas memories") without seeming to preach. Elsewhere, "Street Dreams" wittily puts the melody from the Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" at the service of a ghetto snippet that concludes with Nas's claim that he's "a rebel stressing/To pull out of the heat," while "Take It in Blood" takes some linguistic shots at wife-beating and other injustices. Some observers will argue that these fine sentiments are outweighed by the in-character tributes to crime and money lust that fill other tracks ("Affirmative Action" among them), and there's something to that: The lyric sheet here doesn't exactly read like a mailing from the Rainbow Coalition. But just when you're ready to dismiss Nas as another gifted but stereotypical thug, he comes up with something like "If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)," which concludes the album. A fantasy about a world where African-Americans would be free of harassment, imprisonment and inequality, it's as musically alluring and irreproachable as the rest of this material here, but it's infinitely more conscious. It's too soon to tell if Nas, whose relaxed, distinctively scratchy delivery is among the finest in hip-hop, will build on this last example or opt for the lowest common denominator. But the mere fact that he seems torn is a good sign.

--Michael Roberts

Beres Hammond and Derrick Lara
Expression
(Star Trail/Heartbeat)

The Hammond-composed tunes on this duo album are so blah melodically and verbally that even the sharp reggae rhythms can't make them any fun. But the three cuts that let the singers get swell-headed (including "Show Off the Road," a public-domain song transformed into a super-catchy pop track) are worth hearing: Hammond, currently Jamaica's number-one star, is just enough of a big shot to effectively cross down-home soul with up-market smoothness. Lara, former leader of the Tamlins, a reggae harmony group, weighs in with "Can't Trust Nobody," built on an exceedingly unreggae-ish lyric, and a version of Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "A House Is Not a Home" that for once doesn't sound like someone mourning love like a lost accoutrement. To Lara, a chair is not a chair because, as often as not, he can't afford to put one there.

--John Young

Holy Barbarians
Cream
(Reprise)

As a founding member of the Cult (a heavy-handed outfit that featured onetime Morrissey guitarist Billy Duffy and more drummers than Spinal Tap), Ian Astbury somehow managed to parlay his refried psychedelia into some of the most enduring alternative fare of the last decade. He subsequently cleaned up his offstage act; unfortunately, he spends most of Cream punishing characters who haven't done the same--the album contains no fewer than four down-with-dope odes. (There might be more, but I wasn't willing to sit through the disc again to find out.) On the plus side, Astbury's vocals sound less labored than ever--although that's like saying that next to an elephant, John Goodman seems downright svelte. But the only cut with a semblance of rhythmic spunk ("Bodhisattva") is marred by a gratuitous Kerouac reference that would make even a Naropa student laugh in his bong water. Worse, the number seems intended to pay stylistic homage to Lenny Kravitz. When Astbury puts down the hookah, it seems that his ability to write a hook goes up in smoke.

--John Jesitus

Red House Painters
Songs for a Blue Guitar
(Supreme)

Linguistic attempts to capture the delicate moodiness of "Have You Forgotten," the lead track here, are doomed to failure. The ditty's pace is, to put it mildly, deliberate, and the vocals of main Painter Mark Kozelek put one in mind of a comatose Sunny von Bulow. Moreover, the lyrics--"When we were kids/We hated things our parents did/We listened low/To Casey Kasem's radio show/That's when friends were nice/To think of them just makes you feel nice"--seem blandly rudimentary, like a random excerpt from the diary of a high school wallflower. And yet the net result of these elements is over six minutes of tense, moving pop. Perhaps half the efforts here (including a cover of the Cars' "All Mixed Up") are delivered with similar subtlety, but what's most surprising about Blue Guitar is the half that moves into different areas. "Make Like Paper" uses intuitive guitar techniques to push the quartet in an unexpectedly noisy direction; "I Feel the Rain Fall" has a bouncy country feel; and "Long Distance Runaround," a staple of (eeesh) Yes, rocks with something close to a vengeance. But these sonic alterations pale before the reconstruction of "Silly Love Songs," one of Paul McCartney's weakest, most sugary hits. Kozelek waits through five minutes of instrumental jousting worthy of Neil Young and Crazy Horse before opening his mouth--and when he does, he somehow manages to transform McCartney's throwaway words into some of the creepiest emoting this side of Alex Chilton circa Sister Lover. Given achievements like this one, the name of the Painters likely will never roll off the tongue of the aforementioned Kasem. Which is precisely why this album is so, well, nice.

--Roberts

 
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