The Major and the Minor

A roundup of big-name recordings that live up (or down) to expectations.

To put it another way, Dulli feels absolutely no shame over his obsessions, sexual or otherwise; at times, 1965 suggests a remake of Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song with Matt Damon in the title role. But if his lack of subtlety frequently makes him seem a bit ridiculous, his band is pretty irresistible anyway. While other acts that came to prominence during the fly-the-flannel revolution have either folded up their tents or are currently struggling to find a new identity that will prevent them from seeming like anachronisms with guitars, Dulli and the Whigs have come up with a brand of honky jive that's wholly their own. So don't scoff at Dulli when he sings, "I wanna feel everything aboutcha, girl" in "Somethin' Hot," and don't jeer at him when, in "66," he tells some babe, "I'll be down on my knees/Screamin' take me, take me, take me, take me." Just lie back and enjoy it. Because you're in the hands of an expert.

Jay-Z
Vol. 2...Hard Knock Life
(Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam)
Ice Cube
War & Peace, Vol. 1 (The War Disc)
(Priority)

Prognosticators who figured that the assassinations of Tupac Shakur and the aforementioned Mr. Smalls spelled the end of the I'm-the-Baddest-Motherfucker-on-the-Block school of hip-hop were sadly mistaken. The term "gangsta rap" may now be in mothballs, but there are still plenty of emcees around who know how to make murder, misogyny and moola sound mighty attractive, and millions of music-buyers willing to pay them handsomely for doing so. Witness Jay-Z, whose latest was the nation's top-selling joint for a month, and earned a double-platinum certification in just its seventh week of availability.

This accomplishment is far from inexplicable. Jay-Z is a daunting presence--his voice is brawny, his intonation is crisp and confident and his delivery stings like a bee--and the raft of producers who assist him on Hard Knock Life serve him very well. "Hand It Down," overseen by Premier, rests upon choppy keyboards and a bottomless hook that makes the introductory phrase "bring the drama" ring true; Timbaland puts a lethal riff at the service of "Nigga What, Nigga Who (Originator 99)" and keeps the funk coming on "Paper Chase," with Foxy Brown; and Erick Sermon lays down a bed borrowed from Isaac Hayes's "Theme From Shaft" on "Reservoir Dogs." The canniest display, though, is the title track, which makes bizarre use of a sample from, of all things, "It's the Hard Knock Life," a song from the Broadway production of Annie. As a children's chorus chirps for the blue hairs in the balcony, Jay-Z snaps off couplets such as, "Where are my niggas with the rubber grips?/Four shots/And if you're with me, mama, I'll rub on your tits/And what not." That's funny stuff, but because such street cliches are the rule here ("How many y'all wanna ride tonight?/How many y'all gonna die tonight," from "Ride or Die," is typical), they eventually become as wearying as they were during the last hardcore wave. Vol. 2 is that all-too-common contradiction--a rap album that can best be enjoyed by turning a deaf ear to the words.

Ice Cube, who practically founded this game back in his N.W.A. days, has been coasting on his rep for quite a while now, and on The War Disc (the first half of a proposed opus that will be completed next year with the arrival of--you guessed it--The Peace Disc), he doesn't always rise to the occasion: I dare you to listen to him bark, "I'd rather eat piranha from Benihana/Smokin' marijuana in my sauna" (from "Ask About Me") without guffawing. Bluntly stated, there are simply too many moments when his attempts at steeliness seem just plain dumb--like the monster-movie noises that decorate "Dr. Frankenstein" and the opening passage of "Fuck Dying," in which Cube threatens to kick the crap out of the Angel of Death ("I ain't goin' nowhere with your ass, and if you put your hands on me, we're gettin' down right here," he says). The CD isn't a total washout: "3 Strikes You In" is a righteous attack on current sentencing practices, and "Ghetto Vet," in which Cube portrays a paralyzed Vietnam survivor fallen on tough times, finds him at his most incisive. But in an effort to give his songs a cinematic feel, Cube falls prey to overproduction that makes him sound as if he's trying too hard. When War was over, I can't say I was looking forward to giving Peace a chance.

R.E.M.
Up
(Warner Bros.)

Longtime R.E.M. drummer Bill Berry doesn't play on Up; he bowed out in the wake of a brain aneurysm, causing the first personnel shift in the band's eighteen years of life. But Up is so down that it makes most funerals seem like a rave full of ecstasy-heads by comparison. By the middle of the disc, I wanted to take Michael Stipe by the shoulders and shout, "Bill's not dead! He's doing just fine!"

Things don't start off badly. The opener, "Airportman," is a bit of a trial, what with its mopey atmosphere, overt drum machine and failed poesy ("Labored breathing and sallow skin/Recycled air"), but it's followed by "Lotus," an off-the-cuff quasi-glam workout probably inspired by Stipe's role as producer of the film Velvet Goldmine. Then the good times pretty much end. When heard outside the context of the disc, a few of the tracks are passable: "Suspicion," "Hope" and "At My Most Beautiful" (which sports Stipe's most treacly lyrics ever) are mournful but fairly effective pop, and "Parakeet," which sounds like the Beach Boys as portrayed by Procul Harum, doesn't wear out its welcome. But the decent ventures are bogged down by scads of draggy patience-testers. Stipe may see "The Apologist" as ironic, but that doesn't make his repetitions of "I'm sorry" any less irritating. Even more annoying is "Sad Professor," in which the all-knowing Michael takes on the sins of the world, and "Why Not Smile," a fake ode to cheerfulness that might well cause the residents at the terminal ward to contact Jack Kevorkian.

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