Playlist

Gang Starr
Moment of Truth
(Noo Trybe Records)

For the past several years, a considerable number of citizens from the hip-hop nation have been waiting for the gangsta movement to jump into the grave. Well, they're still waiting. Whereas the charts are no longer dominated by members of the Bitch-Slap-My-Ho brigade (they've been replaced by purveyors of innocuous R&B, Brandy style), the mega-sales enjoyed by Master P and others suggests that there are still a lot of folks out there who feel that a song's no good unless it's about drive-bys or downing forties. But at long last, rap that's as smart as it is street-smart seems to be making a modest comeback. For instance, Still Standing, by the Goodie Mob, has moved loads of units despite the burden of glowing reviews, and Moment of Truth recently went gold even though it's intelligent from start to finish. Guru, Gang Starr's frontman, has been among hip-hop's under-praised heroes since the late Eighties, and he still refuses to capitulate to changing fashion or descend into it's-all-good platitudes. On the title cut, he delivers a scorching critique aimed at those peers who feel justified in aiming for the lowest common denominator ("A lot of MCs act stupid to me/We have yet to see if they can match our longevity"), and at the conclusion of "Royalty," featuring K-Ci and JoJo, he's even more direct. "While y'all keep on fakin' the funk, we're gonna keep on walkin' through the darkness carryin' our torches," he says. "The underground will live forever, baby. We're just like roaches--never die, always livin'." Such convictions, however worthy, would mean little without beats, of course, and DJ Premier, Guru's longtime partner, provides some excellent ones. The backing track in "Robbin Hood Theory" finds a middle ground between the doominess of the Wu-Tang Clan and the swing of A Tribe Called Quest; "Work" uses brassy horn flourishes to unexpected effect; "Itz a Set Up," replete with a cameo by Hannibal, sports suspenseful, almost noirish rhythms; "B.I. vs. Friendship," which pairs Guru and M.O.P., is an infectious throwdown; and "Make 'em Pay" whips up a string section that updates the Philadelphia International vibe for the late twentieth century. At times, even Premier's inventive sonics can't prevent Guru from seeming didactic; "My Advice to You" is an example. But after listening to so many knuckleheads talking smack for so long, a little didacticism doesn't seem like such a bad thing. Mature without seeming stodgy, earnest but not prudish, Moment of Truth delivers as advertised. This is one Gang whose time has come...again.

--Michael Roberts

Girls Against Boys
Freakonica
(DGC)

When they were on Touch and Go, these guys made music that was sweaty, dark, compelling and not terribly mainstream, which made their signing by Geffen seem more than a bit curious. But what's even stranger is Freakonica, in which onetime Denver-dweller Scott McCloud and his crew transform themselves into the Psychedelic Furs circa "Into You Like a Train." "Pleasurized" has a smidgen of electronic flavoring, but far more prominent are grinding guitars, a thumping bass line and McCloud's Richard Butler-esque moaning. ("Get ya by the skull/Pleasure's everything," he bellows, making the quest for romance seem like ovulation day in the primate cage.) The disc can seem a bit silly at times, but this affliction doesn't prove fatal, because McCloud is in on the joke; his weary-singles-bar-lothario routine in the pointedly titled "Roxy" is so uncanny that you can practically smell his chest hair. Listeners will probably feel a bit embarrassed about liking this, which I'll bet is just the way McCloud wants it.

--Roberts

Nick Lowe
Dig My Mood
(Upstart)

Lately, Lowe has come across like the schoolyard basketball whiz who has every flash move down cold but whose game lacks heart and heft. Sure, he's a certified master of the tuneful confection, but his past few discs are more noteworthy for their sweetness and sparkle than for the presence of anything more substantial. That's not the case with Mood, on which Lowe trades cutesy cleverness for a grown-up, sometimes grim take on the real world. "Faithless Lover," the stark stalker's lament that opens the disc, sets the stage for what follows; instead of honing pure pop for now people, Lowe hammers down the song with hard pain that leaves bones bloodied. Elsewhere on this surprisingly under-produced platter, his deep compositions brim with a palpable sense of emotion, in a range as broad as it is deep. He ably slips from the bittersweet optimism of "What Lack of Love Has Done" and "High on a Hilltop" to the gloomy truth of "Failed Christian" and "Man That I've Become," the best number Johnny Cash never penned. And while these tunes brim with Lowe's trademark Brit wit, he never lets his craftmanship get in the way. True, fans of Lowe's meaty little masterpieces may not swoon over his forays into cocktail jazz and close-to-cloying flatterers ("Freezing" and "You Inspire Me"), but even these desserts seem to feature rawer-than-usual ingredients. When Lowe wraps things up with the sunny sentiments of "I Must Be Getting Over You" and the blue country of Ivory Joe Hunter's "Cold Grey Light of Dawn," it's clear that the Basher is back in business. Which leads to one question: What's so funny 'bout peace, love and understatement?

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