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The Wide World of Rap

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

Missy Elliott is intriguing as well, but for very different reasons. She's a large-hearted type--the inset tray of her new disc, Da Real World (The Gold Mind/Eastwest), contains a dedication to "Columbine High School and the whole town of Littleton, Colorado"--but verbal skills aren't her forte; hence the presence of guest linguists Lil Kim, Aaliyah, Da Brat, Redman, Juvenile & B.G., Nicole, OutKast's Big Boi and token paleface Eminem, among others. Her utterances, however, are secondary to her sassy persona and a production style that's as innovative as any other that's emerged during the second half of the Nineties. With the assistance of Tim Mosley, better known as Timbaland, who also worked with Elliott on her 1997 breakthrough, Supa Dupa Fly, she's developed a deep, deliberate sound accented by quirky noises that serve as supplementary hooks. Elliott's tunes grab at a listener from a dozen directions at once, and when they latch on, they don't let go.

Da Real World brims with sneaky delights, like the frog-croak background exhortations in "Beat Biters," the mock-classicism and orgasmic sighs of "All N My Grill," the witty R&B eroticism of "Hot Boyz," and so on. But the prototype this time around is "She's a Bitch." The ditty isn't exactly unique from a conceptual standpoint (women in rap have attempted to turn the title slur into a mark of pride for years now), and Elliott's snaps can be clumsy; her threat to "give your ass a black eye" conjures up an image straight out of a David Cronenberg film. But the construction of the track is astoundingly multi-faceted: The closer you look, the brighter it shines. Following a Missy unngh, a percussive, keyboard-like groove enters, towing along with it a skittering rhythm interspersed with ah-ah-ahs from Timbaland--and that's just the first fourteen seconds. Next, Elliott raps the first verse, and when she hits the chorus, her voice is double-tracked over the moan of a synthetic cello. A minute later, the song breaks down, interrupted by an industrial pounding, interspersed with quasi-comical vocal whats, that becomes an incongruous but strangely effective bridge to its next section, during which sonic elements (a guitar figure, a sax fillip) snake in and out of the mix. The momentum builds and builds for nearly four minutes, and when its last note fades out, there's only one thing to do: start the song again.

Keith Thornton, the man behind Dr. Doom's First Come, First Served (on Funky Ass Records), isn't nearly as concerned about production precision as is Elliott. His music can be catchy, but it's utterly straightforward; he chooses a destination and heads there by as direct a path as he can. More important to him, then, is the role he's playing at any given time--and with Dr. Doom, he's conjured up one of his wildest. Thornton, who answers most often to Kool Keith, was a co-founder of the Ultramagnetic MC's, a major influence on the hip-hop underground during the Eighties and early Nineties, but young rap fans are most familiar with him through Dr. Octagon, an act whose 1997 bow, Octagonecologyst, appeared on Dreamworks Records. That seems to gripe Thornton, who views the entire Octagon matter as a fiasco--which it most assuredly was. (After Keith failed to appear at numerous Lollapalooza festival dates, the group fell apart.) So he hatched Dr. Doom, a scatalogical psychopath whose first victim on the new disc is Keith's last project: "Who Killed Dr. Octagon?" wasn't named at random. Later, in "Apartment 223," the good doctor boasts about having body parts under his bed before promising to "open your face and pour milk in your forehead" and advising a cadaver-to-be to "look behind your fucking back/with the drill bit in your ass crack."

These moments and others don't skimp on gore, but Thornton is more concerned with lunacy than bloodletting. Like George Clinton during his Seventies prime with Parliament-Funkadelic, he's an acid-addled surrealist whose stream-of-consciousness babbling has virtually nothing to do with everyday reality--and just when his Hannibal Lecter shtick is starting to grow old, he throws a non sequitur or ten into the hopper and freshens it up again. He insults highfalutin women by telling them, "You live at home with your mom," and in "Body Bag," his evil ministrations include "dragging dead elephants in department stores while people shop." First Come, First Served isn't Keith's finest recording, but it may be his nuttiest. And that's meant as a compliment.

Paul Huston, aka Prince Paul, shares at least one trait with Thornton: He loves to write in character. But the Prince is much more ambitious, as he demonstrates on his new Tommy Boy Records release A Prince Among Thieves. He's called the album "a movie on wax," and that's not hyperbole: The disc has a running narrative peopled with fictional concoctions that Huston cast using rap stars (RZA, Chubb Rock, the members of De La Soul and even Kool Keith, playing a fellow called "Crazy Lou") and folks such as comedian Chris Rock (whose latest CD, Bigger and Blacker, he oversaw). And while the story of Tariq, a rapper who is done wrong by his so-called friend True, isn't the most timeless allegory to come down the pike, it's consistently funny and funky. The scenes penned by Huston, who set an early standard for hip-hop albums with De La Soul's vivid 3 Feet High & Rising, from 1989, show up the skits that clog too many discs for the lame filler they are, blending seamlessly into songs that are more than capable of standing alone. Breeze's "Steady Slobbin'," the Big Daddy Kane comeback "Macula's Theory," and "Handle Your Time," which brings together Sadat X, Xzibit and Kid Creole, are first-rate parts that help make the whole even greater.

Unlike most rock operas, A Prince Among Thieves doesn't crumble under the weight of pretense; it's loose, slangy and self-aware. But at the same time, the album is evidence of how far hip-hop has come during the Nineties. These days, one size definitely doesn't fit all.

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