At this point in its development, hip-hop is all about the marketing. Crossing over to the pop side of town is incredibly lucrative, but doing so too overtly puts street cred at risk. That's why acts and their labels are looking for new and creative ways to make the music appear to be all things to all people, even when it's not.
The title of the latest from Styles speaks volumes. The toughest-talking member of the Lox, he isn't exactly Ja Rule cuddly, as he makes clear in the CD's intro when he describes himself as a "badass motherfucker." This boast is characteristic of the disc's overly familiar raps, which are chock-a-block with de rigueur mayhem. Consider "I'm a Ruff Ryder," which features lines like, "Burn the car with the body in it/Bring you the ash" and a chorus in which colleague Jadakiss announces that he's a "weed smokin', gun totin' heroin supplier." But dropped in among the cadavers are less threatening efforts, including the pot tribute "Good Times (I Get High)" and "Black Magic," in which the main man declares, "My heart goes out to the homeless and poor" while soulstress supreme Angie Stone makes lovely noises in the background. If even a proud menace to society like Styles is willing to soften up on occasion, the money for doing so must be huge.
Slum Village has the opposite problem. The combo is most frequently compared with Native Tongues acts such as De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, which are regarded more warmly by brainiacs than by kids who want something slammin' to pump out of their Jeeps. It's no surprise, then, when "Insane," the first real song on Trinity, offers up the couplet, "Niggas be hatin'/Just waitin' to get a fist to the face." But the album's ambitions can't be disguised by a few random gestures. Although the group has lost a key member (Jay Dee, whose participation is limited to production help on a few tracks), Villagers Baatin and T3, joined by new recruit Elzhi, rise to the occasion with subtly insinuating cuts like "Tainted," the lead single, plus the funky "Disco" and "Hoes," a ditty that most definitely isn't about gardening. These tunes still may not garner much airplay, but at least they'll keep hip-hop's intelligentsia happy.
A cannier synthesis of the sacred and the profane is Lord Willin', which brings together the thuggish duo of Pusha T and Malice with Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo of the Neptunes, the hottest producers this side of Timbaland. The Clipse twosome are nasty enough to hold their own alongside (guess who) Styles and Jadakiss, who cameo on "I'm Not You," an all-too-typical tale of dealing and bling-bling. But if their lyrics aren't exactly as fresh as a nymphomaniac at a singles bar, the mixes in which they find themselves are. Williams and Hugo prove to be just as adept with busy soundscapes -- like the rich, dirty-south groove of "Young Boy" -- as spare ones: the irresistible "Grindin'" is positively Cro-Magnon, and all the better for it. The result is a disc that gives everyone in hip-hop's growing constituency something to like. The folks in the marketing department must be thrilled.