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.
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.
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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.