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Our Gangstas

Is gangsta rap getting more profound? Well...no.

The gangstas had declared their independence, all right, but few of them had any idea what to do with it. Worse, too many rappers who emulated the behavior they championed in song fell back on self-pity when swatted down by the long arm of the law. Shakur was particularly guilty of this sin: The title of 1995's Me Against the World, issued while he was in the midst of a typical legal crisis, would have seemed more appropriate on a long-player by, say, Helen Reddy--and its banality was only compounded by a mopey, poor-me cover photo that seemed torn from a high school yearbook.

The cover art for The 7 Day Theory (a painting of Tupac nailed to a cross) is, if anything, even worse--and the claim, printed on the jacket and ascribed to Shakur, that the portrait is in no way "an expression of disrespect for Jesus Christ" weakens it further. Nonetheless, the blatant pitches for unearned martyrdom emanating from Death Row Records (run by unrepentant goon Suge Knight) have done their job. Reviewers are already dabbling in critical revisionism; in a gushy essay published in a recent issue of Rolling Stone, for instance, journalist Mikal Gilmore comes across like exactly what he is--an aging, out-of-touch white guy pathetically desperate to seem hip.

In the meantime, legions of Shakur fans are busy plumbing The 7 Day Theory's lyrics to find clues that Shakur, who was gunned down in Las Vegas this past September, is still alive. According to the easily suggestible, evidence to support this hypothesis abounds. After all, didn't the real Machiavelli (who penned the political allegory The Prince during the sixteenth century) state that simulating your demise was a good way to gain the upper hand against those who oppose you? Isn't it suspicious that the album is larded with references to the number seven, which is said to symbolize perfection? And didn't the disc's liner notes include the tantalizing phrase "Exit--2Pac: Enter--Makaveli"?

Such speculation, as those of us with a fairly firm grasp on reality know, is nonsense: Shakur is no more likely to pop into a neighborhood Burger King than is Elvis Presley. Moreover, the only thing that The 7 Day Theory proves is that Tupac was never that intriguing a performer in the first place. The CD begins with the usual self-aggrandizing introduction, complete with boneheaded threats and gunshots, but the subsequent blend of jive-laden boasts ("Bomb First"), Bible-influenced noodling ("Hail Mary") and flaccid throwaways ("To Live and Die in L.A.") serve primarily as reminders that Shakur was, first and foremost, an actor--a performer who was better at striking various poses than he was at convincingly revealing much of himself. His delivery is sloppy, his rhymes are frequently ham-fisted and his dalliances with metaphors generally laughable. An example of the last flaw is "Me and My Girlfriend"; a love song from Tupac to his gun, the ditty is a ridiculous exercise in juvenilia that pales in comparison to "I Gave You Power," a track on the recent Nas album It Was Written that anthropomorphizes a weapon to much better effect. As for the references to The Prince, which Tupac read (according to his record-company biography) "more than once," they display all the depth of a second-grader's book report. In "Against All Odds," the concluding number here, Tupac insists that the recording is filled with "the truest shit I ever spoke." If that's the case, it's as damning an indictment as anyone could deliver.

On Tha Doggfather, Snoop Doggy Dogg (recently cleared of an accessory-to-murder beef) shows that he's a slicker talent than Tupac was, but he doesn't rate much higher on the honesty-and-credibility scale. The CD is kicked off by an intro that's a near clone of the one on The 7 Day Theory; following a series of faux news reports intended to establish Snoop's cojones, the man himself says, "This is dedicated to the niggas that said gangsta rap was dead: Fuck y'all." But what comes after this bit of bravado is schizophrenia: Half the tracks bubble with the brand of pimp rolling that exemplified his debut disc, 1993's Doggystyle, while the rest seem intended to show that Snoop's become a wiser, deeper, more responsible thinker. The contradictions between these opposite poles often result in unintended grins. A case in point is the juxtaposition of "Freestyle Conversation," in which Snoop boasts about his cash flow, his Rolls-Royce and the women who throw themselves at him (he gladly takes on two groupies at the same time, but warns them that he's not the kind of guy who'll pay child support), and "When I Grow Up," in which he advises a kid who worships him to work toward becoming a doctor or a lawyer and then sends him off to school. "Thanks, Snoop," the tot replies gratefully.

Fortunately, sops to William Bennett like the aforementioned snippet don't dominate Tha Doggfather. The disc is filled primarily with laconic funk grooves put together by DJ Pooh, an Ice Cube associate brought in to fill the vacuum left by the departure of Dr. Dre. Quite a few of his mixes--"Doggfather," "Up Jump Tha Boogie" and "Gold Rush" among them--are pleasing, and the presence of Teena Marie and Charlie Wilson (leader of the Gap Band, whose "Oops Up Side Your Head" is reimagined as "Snoop's Upside Ya Head") results in an idiosyncratic lineup that brings back memories of Parliament-Funkadelic circa the late Seventies. In addition, Snoop's vocal approach--a uniquely lazy purr--is as sly and successful as ever. But too many of the cuts are flabby (Tha Doggfather runs for 74 minutes but should be half that long), and the raps as a whole are both overly familiar and relentlessly vapid. When Snoop's not kissing his own behind, he's dropping played-out references from The Godfather and numerous Martin Scorsese movies onto his own ghetto fables. The nadir comes on "Downtown Assassins," which features Joe Pesci-in-Goodfellas dialogue delivered in the manner of a Cheech & Chong record.

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