Curtis Mayfield
New World Order
(Warner Bros.)

Mayfield, who was paralyzed from the neck down in an onstage accident, discovered a year or so ago that he could sing as long as his body was in a reclining position. But doing so remains an exhausting struggle for him--and the sheer effort it takes Mayfield to make it through the songs on New World Order adds a decided poignance to the proceedings. Fortunately, he was never a shouter; his high-pitched, idiosyncratic voice emerged in soulful yelps and yips even when he was fronting the Impressions, a harmony group that was capable of gorgeous vocal synergy. In addition, his preferred tempo was generally unhurried and deliberate--fans knew that, to Mayfield, filigree was as important as the bones on which it hung. Now, however, his lung power is so limited that he must communicate almost entirely via gentle cooing and small, intricate gestures. But he's gained so much skill and experience over his long career that, more often than not, these tools are all he needs. The title cut, in which he practically prays for society to complete the unfinished work of the civil rights movement, is so sincere and deeply felt that it almost hurts to hear it; a remake of 1970's "We People Who Are Darker Than Blue" offers bright-eyed hope in the face of bleakness; and "Here but I'm Gone" is a character sketch about a crack addict that can nonetheless be read as a symbol of the singer's own struggle. Attempts to present more of a party mood fall flat ("The Got Dang Song" demands more energy than Mayfield has to expend, while "Just a Little Bit of Love" suffers from the too-kinetic contributions of two guest rappers), and some of the guest performers nearly overwhelm the star of the show--most notably Mavis Staples, whose awesome instrument busts through "Ms. Martha" like a wrecking ball. (Aretha Franklin's turn on "Back to Living Again" is a bit more restrained.) But in general, New World Order is stately, optimistic and brave. Just like the man whose name is on the cover.

--Michael Roberts

Digital Underground
Future Rhythms
(Critique/Radikal Records)

Circa 1990's "Sex Packets," Humpty Hump and the other members of Digital Underground were swinish sex comedians. Over subsequent albums, however, they've evolved into a kinder, gentler pack of pigs--one that, with "Want It All," proves capable of producing the loveliest rap/acid-jazz track yet. Just as good is their AIDS song, "Fool Get a Clue" (i.e., Fool Get a Rubber), which stubbornly infuses utter lechery with a depth of humanity that they achieve simply by realizing how easily they could die--and take someone else down with them. Musically, DU's mellow and jazzy P-Funk variations fit the mood nicely. But the food fighting and sex joking on display elsewhere aren't getting any younger. So here's an idea: Have Digital Underground switch lyrics with A Tribe Called Quest, whose hip-hoppers lately have been equating maturity with being down in the mouth. After all, Humpty couldn't sound all that solemn even if he rapped Being and Nothingness.

--John Young

Tappa Zukie
Deep Roots
(RAS Records)

Zukie first came to prominence during what's become known as Jamaica's classic DJ period--a time when future luminaries such as U Roy and Dennis Alcapone were toasting with traveling sound systems. His gruff, rootsy delivery distinguished him as one of the early Seventies' top performers, but he gained even more acclaim for the production skills he exhibited throughout recordings issued on his label, Stars. Eventually, Zukie's success behind the mixing board (noted by the likes of Prince Alla and Horace Andy) convinced him to give up performing entirely--which is why Deep Roots, his first disc in two decades, comes as such a welcome surprise. On his return to the microphone, Zukie teams with a stellar supporting cast (including Sly & Robbie and Chinna Smith) that provides him with the support he deserves. The first track--"Cool Down Your Temperature," featuring traditional instrumentation and a guest appearance by Rasta crooner Linval Thompson--demonstrates that Zukie hasn't lost his touch for hardcore roots sounds. On subsequent tracks, he takes a route rarely explored in reggae: He heavily dubs the music but keeps the vocal tracks intact. "My Gun," a bouncy tribute to a favorite firearm that's marked by wildly dubbed-out horns and plenty of echo and reverb, is an example of this approach, and it's Deep Roots' best track by far. That doesn't mean, however, that the rest of the platter is second-rate: A cover of the Abyssinians' 1969 chant "Sata Mass Gona" (which translates to "Give Thanks") and "Yagga Yagga," a playful romp that's every bit as sweet and lighthearted as Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds," are impressive outings, too. In fact, the consistency of this outstanding album may leave some fans wishing that Zukie had experienced a few more failures as a producer--then he might have had to make more recordings like this one.

--Joshua Green

Shaquille O'Neal
You Can't Stop the Reign

The towering lameness of this recording (highlighted by "It Was All a Dream," in which Shaq boasts about the size of his Pepsi endorsement check before telling his caddy to "rock on") got me wondering what sports-celebrity CDs might be even worse. I came up with Dennis Rodman Sings the Songs of Barbra Streisand; No Pain, No Rogaine, by Terry Bradshaw; The Mellow Moods of Albert Belle; Soul on Ice, by Wayne Gretsky; and John Elway's Greatest Car Dealership Commercials. But then I realized that I'd rather hear these make-believe discs than the one that actually exists. My therapist says that admitting this means I'm making progress.



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