Handsome Boy Modeling School/Quannum Projects

Quannum Projects
Quannum Spectrum

In hip-hop, producers rule, but that doesn't mean they generally receive top billing: Studio chefs such as Timbaland and Dallas Austin tend to use acts like TLC as fronts to deliver their sonic souffles while they hide in the kitchen. But Handsome Boy Modeling School, the creation of rap brainiac Prince Paul and Dr. Octagon survivor Dan the Automator, and Quannum Projects, whipped up in the laboratory of DJ Shadow, reverse the equation, putting the behind-the-scenes types in front of the camera and revealing the ostensible stars for what they are: ingredients. The result is one taste treat and a meal with several fine courses that ultimately fails to satisfy.

So...How's Your Girl? is a genuine rarity -- a compilation held together by smarts, not sound. Variety is the watchword here, with Prince Paul and the Automator mixing textures with aplomb, often within a single track. The anthemic, riff-heavy hook that dominates "Rock n' Roll (Could Never Hip Hop Like This) [232K aiff]" gives way to, among other things, a brass fanfare, sirens, a drum break and bizarre spoken-word samples ("Dear Miss Bowers: Spring is here and we are, as always, ready to serve you"); " Metaphysical [259K aiff]" tosses together operatic snippets, rudimentary keyboard scales and the quizzical babbling of Cibo Matto's Miho Hatori and Beastie Boy Mike D; "The Truth," featuring J-Live and Moloko's Roisin, explores acid jazz, with the accent on acid; and " Sunshine [248K aiff]" radiates trippy pop with the assistance of Sean Lennon, Money Mark, Spain's Josh Hayden, Tarnation's Paula Frazer and (really) Father Guido Sarducci. As the last song proves, every musical mode is fair game for the faculty of Handsome Boy Modeling School. But what seems on the surface like a prescription for anarchy instead turns out to be an argument for cross-pollination. Prince Paul and the Automator erase every border in sight, and their work is the better for it. Who says good fences make good neighbors?

DJ Shadow, who appears on How's Your Girl?'s "Holy Calamity (Bear Witness II)," doesn't fare as well on Quannum Spectrum, because he and his collaborators, including Dan the Automator, take a more traditional approach. The material on the CD pretty much sticks to hip-hop, and when it works, as it does on "Concentration," a merger of the Quannum MCs and the Jurassic 5, Blackalicious's "One of a Kind," the Maroons' flighty "Golden Rule" and, especially, the Divine Styler/DJ Shadow salvo "Divine Intervention," that's a beautiful thing. But the radical reconstructions that marked DJ Shadow's 1996 platter Endtroducing...are back-burnered in order to spotlight longtime Shadow assistants such as Latyrx and Lyrics Born, whose gifts are not nearly as plentiful as his. As a result, Quannum Spectrum never becomes all that it might have been, especially when compared with the overachieving Handsome Boy Modeling School, whose instructors have clearly earned their time in the spotlight. Hope they're ready for their closeup.

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