After Further Review

Putting the season's major releases to the test.

Phish
Slip Stich and Pass
(Elektra)

To get a handle on the aesthetic of choice on Phish's latest recording, cut live in Germany earlier this year, you need only listen to the first track, a cover of the Talking Heads' "Cities." As David Byrne boosters know, the song is among the jitteriest and most intense in the Heads' oeuvre, but guitarist Trey Anastasio, bassist Mike Gordon, drummer Jon Fishman and keyboardist Page McConnell slow it down until it becomes positively relaxed, then ride it for more than five minutes. "Jesus Just Left Chicago," from the ZZ Top library, gets the same treatment--gutbucket blues it ain't--and "Mike's Song," in spite of the slightly distorted Anastasio lick that leads it off, ambles along at a casual gait that probably didn't require anyone dancing to it to break a sweat. But just when you're ready to repudiate the last ditty as filler, Anastasio offers a brief parody of Jim Morrison's "The End" ("Father," he says, "I want the keys to the car") that reminds you that these guys are smart, witty and knowledgeable about their rock history. (So, too, does "Weekapaug Groove," an energetic jam that concludes with some riffing that references the Rolling Stones circa Sticky Fingers.) No new ground is broken here, and the package is so laid-back that the demanding among you may find yourself wishing that a few more curveballs had been thrown. Slip is meant not as a bold artistic statement, but as a memento aimed at true believers. And on the latter count, it succeeds.

Mase
Harlem World
(Bad Boy)

You've got to wonder: Can Sean "Puffy" Combs make anyone a star? That's the way it seems right now. Most people who listen to Puff Daddy's recordings for more than a couple of minutes come away with two discoveries--that Combs is among the weakest rappers of all time, and that his production acumen begins and ends with his willingness to sample more blatantly than any of his peers. And yet Mase, a Combs protege whose flow is only moderately more convincing than that of his mentor, is the latest member of the Bad Boy stable to break out big. (Harlem World entered the Billboard charts at No. 1 a few weeks back.) It makes sense on some level: "Feel So Good," the most popular rap single in the land at press time, is certainly engaging, thanks to the extremely liberal use of "Hollywood Swinging," an old Kool & the Gang song. But time and again, artists in cameo roles (Lil' Kim, Billy Lawrence, Eightball & MJG, Busta Rhymes, Lil' Cease & Jay-Z) make stronger impressions than the man whose name is on the marquee. Virtually the only guest Mase out-rhymes on a consistent basis is Combs, and that's not much of a challenge: If he were still among the breathing, I'll bet Lou Costello could have taken Puffy, too. Mase's best performance is on "Niggaz Wanna Act," because he seems to connect to it more than to, for instance, "Wanna Hurt Mase?" which is inspired by that hip-hop exemplar, Culture Club's "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me." On "Act," about those jealous of his success, Mase concedes, "Niggaz say they love me/They don't love me/I know deep down they want to slug me." That knowledge will serve him well, because when Combs's ride ends, he'll be left high and dry. So sock those profits away while you can, Mase. You're going to have to make them last a long time.

Rakim
The 18th Letter/The Book of Life
(Universal)

Everything that Mase is not as a rapper, Rakim is. It's not hyperbole to say that he is one of the five finest vocal presences ever in hip-hop, and in conjunction with Eric B., he made several great albums that still stand up: If you don't already own Paid in Full and Don't Sweat the Technique, do yourself a favor and pick them up, pronto. But Rakim's return, delivered several years after his split from Eric B., is not the bold salvo for which a lot of us have been hoping. Part of the problem is that Rakim's words are so overly concerned with reintroducing himself ("It's Been a Long Time" and "Guess Who's Back" aren't titles chosen at random) that he doesn't get a chance to display the full range of his prowess. Given his verbal facility, this isn't a fatal flaw: He sounds so strong flipping a boast like "They said I changed the times/From the rhymes that I thought of" that you can't do anything more than agree. But more damaging is the inability of the assembled producers to key into Rakim musically with the ease that Eric B. exhibited. I liked "The Saga Begins," helmed by Pete Rock, "Stay Awhile," put together in conjunction with DJ Clark Kent, and the DJ Premier-directed "New York (Ya' Out There)," but these high points border too much filler, including a couple of alternate mixes that are only present to make the album seem more generous than it is. But if The 18th Letter is spotty, The Book of Life, a companion disc, is a beauty--fifteen Eric B. & Rakim gems, including "Eric B. Is President," "Casualties of War" and "Lyrics of Fury." Rakim may not be all the way back yet, but if his past victories are any indication, he'll get there before long. And when he does, watch out.

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