The Wide World of Rap

Exploring the endless variety of today's hip-hop.

A quarter-century or so after its genesis, hip-hop has finally been acknowledged by the mainstream--but that doesn't mean that all of the misconceptions about it have been exploded. Generations of Americans continue to think of the genre not as an art form, but as a sociological symptom of the big-city violence that is regularly recapped on the evening news. And because of the segregated nature of too many radio and video outlets, a substantial portion of the youth demographic is just as clueless about what the music is--and what it isn't--as are their parents and grandparents. Some think the style can be easily described and quantified, when, in fact, it's more diverse than ever before. The latest albums by Nas, Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott, Dr. Doom and Prince Paul are all rap in the same way that Little Richard, Metallica, the Eagles and Ministry are all rock: They may all fit under the same umbrella, but they certainly don't do the same things while they're there.

Some confusion about the increasingly eclectic hip-hop universe is understandable, given the plethora of artists still pumping out the gats-and-gams banalities that frighten Tipper Gore and cause Charlton Heston to reach for the nearest handgun. Take Section 8 by MC Eiht, a long-timer on the SoCal gangsta scene. Issued by Profile Records and produced by Ice Cube associate Mack 10, the recently released disc kicks off with an especially hoary cliche--a spoken intro decorated with shotgun blasts, automatic-weapon fire, squealing tires and the sounds of screaming--before rolling into "Living N' Tha Streetz," in which Eiht declares, "Seventeen shots/Make it seventeen niggas drop/Now thirteen ambulances headed to the spot." (Dunno how that adds up. Must be that new math I keep hearing about.) Subsequent efforts are as imaginative as their monikers, which include "Murder at Night," "Me & My Bitch" and "III Tha Hood Way." If you're looking for tired raps and moronic posturing, Section 8 is the place to find them. Every stereotype of the style is present and accounted for.

Fortunately, not every thug-life chronicler is similarly artless. The son of trumpeter Olu Dara, Nasir Jones, who goes by Nas, tackles many of the same subjects that turn up on Eiht's platter over the course of his latest, I Am... (Columbia), and sometimes they fail to bring out the best in him; although he's gifted with a supremely powerful voice--a sandpapery instrument that's as deft as it is authentic--some of his rhymes are little more than macho chest-thumping. But just when you're ready to dismiss him as another promising performer selling himself short, he reveals a thoughtfulness that, given the context, is positively subversive. "Money Is My Bitch," for instance, is larded with lines that have a tedious greed-is-good ring to them: "She kept me jig, glorifying medallions/Got me in clothes made by Italians/Feed me lobster and scallions," and so on. But the "ho" around which the song is built isn't a woman, but cold, hard cash--and rather than simply crowing about how much of it he's got, Nas chooses to explore the ramifications of being in thrall to the things that greenbacks can buy. He openly confesses his lust for wealth ("Before I got to know you/My life I'd say was mediocre/Breaking day, slamming all night long/Fiending to stroke you") and admits that he feels incomplete minus some lettuce in hand ("Embarrassed when I'm not with you/I'm off guard"). He's hit the jackpot, but he worries that the need for more, more, more has left him vulnerable ("Love her 'cause she keep a nigga rich/But I think she got me pussy-whipped").

Nas has pulled off metaphorical tricks like this one in the past: "I Gave You Power," from his strong 1996 CD It Was Written, is a tale told from the perspective of a semi-automatic ("My creation was for blacks to kill blacks/It's gats like me that accidentally go off/Making niggas memories"). Yet I Am... achieves a new level of sophistication that allows Nas to appeal to bangers--even as he subtly comments on the dead-end nature of their lives. "Small World" can be read as a standard-issue revenge fantasy, but lines such as "You'll get away with it now/Soon enough it catches up to you" take on another flavor when he notes, "I see death/Seen thugs cry/It's bugged why we let the slugs fly." Likewise, "Ghetto Prisoners" deals with the urban despair ("Habitats to tall building/Rats crawl in filthy hallways") that Nas believes those mired in such circumstances are capable of transcending: "Ghetto prisoners, rise, rise, rise," he urges them. Not everything here is similarly thoughtful--"Hate Me Now," featuring Puff Daddy, is musically irresistible but its words are mere bluster. But even "We Will Survive," the millionth tribute to Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur, sports some surprising tangents, including a lament that hip-hop is one of the few routes out of poverty ("Nothin' left for us but hoop dreams.../It's either that or rap/We want the fast way outta this trap"). That Nas would consider, even for a moment, biting the hand that feeds him makes him one interesting dog.

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