The lights go down, and the puzzlement begins. Ensemble cast of superstars? Check. Loose remake of amusing curiosity? Check. Built-in, pre-fab sense of cool? Check. A little something for wistful fans of Dino and Sammy? Check. So...wait a minute: Is this The Cannonball Run Redux?

With his ambitious but unnecessary remake of Ocean¹s Eleven, director Steven Soderbergh -- he of rousing crowd-pleasers such as Out of Sight and the self-consciously important Traffic -- takes a peculiar detour through star-studded mediocrity. Scripted by Ted Griffin, the project is most definitely a motion picture about people who team up to steal a lot of money. In that capacity, it's not an unpleasant diversion, but neither is it much of a thrill, summoning, at best, a good-natured shrug.

The movie's hero is Danny Ocean, played in Lewis Milestone's 1960 film by a smarmily charming Frank Sinatra, who's succeeded here by an adequately charismatic George Clooney. Newly paroled, the determined Ocean decides he must return immediately to the life he knows best -- stealing stuff - and he sets about combing America to assemble a posse of criminal specialists. Among them are the slumming Hollywood card sharp and Ocean's right-hand man, Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt), the nimble Windy City pickpocket Linus Caldwell (Matt Damon), plus eight others, comprising the eponymous eleven.

A series of very tidy coincidences allows Ocean the opportunity to redeem his entire life, providing that he properly executes this one big score. It turns out that his ex-wife, Tess (Julia Roberts, reprising Angie Dickinson's role), has run off to play art curator for the nasty megalomaniac Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia), whose iron fist controls three of the biggest casinos in Las Vegas -- the Bellagio, the Mirage and the MGM Grand. Benedict also has angered aging high-roller Reuben Tishkoff (Elliot Gould). Tishkoff would be happy to bankroll a mission against Benedict, to get revenge for being shoved out of his own Vegas hotel business. Unlike the original Ocean's Eleven, in which the masterminds' tools included phosphorescent paint, errant garbage cans and friends' coffins, this operation does not want for the best available resources.

Joining Ocean for the job are a colorful cast of characters, most of whom seem to believe that exaggerated performances will cover their glaring lack of collective chemistry. There are fun moments to be had with retired con man Saul Bloom (a very enjoyable Carl Reiner) and card-dealing "plant" Frank Catton (Bernie Mac, knowingly reversing the original film's stupid, racist jokes), but otherwise it's a clunky ride. The group's munitions expert is played by Soderbergh regular Don Cheadle with an outrageously ill-advised Cockney accent, and newcomer Shaobo Qin is allowed to show off his incredible acrobatics but not to interact much with the other boys. Casey Affleck, Scott Caan and Eddie Jemison round out the gang with manic bemusement.

Once everyone is gathered at Tishkoff's, Ocean unveils his plan, spreading out before them documents apparently downloaded from www.blueprints4robbingcasinos.com. The rotten Benedict stands atop a seemingly impregnable fortress, with all three hotel casinos filtering their cash into a single underground vault, which is protected by complex alarms and armed security. As we see in a series of sarcastic, period-specific flashbacks, casino robberies always end in dismal failure. Even if the crew manages to dupe security, screw around with high-tech electronic doohickeys, descend into the pit and neutralize the guards, it'll be impossible to escape with the loot. Ocean, of course, remains undaunted.

The rest of the movie plays out in a piecemeal but endurable fashion, with each of the experts plying his trade. Employing perfectly timed deceptions and manipulations, the eleven strike when Benedict's coffers are at their fullest. Gone is the original's New Year's Eve scheme (and its amusing Godzilla-esque miniatures of electrical towers toppling). Instead, the crew infiltrates during the middle of a boxing match between two contenders, Lennox Lewis and Wladimir Klitschko, who both hold doctorates. Because the Nevada Gaming Commission requires casinos to cover in cash every chip in play, the vault is estimated to contain around $150 million. If only the NGC also required that stealing it be consistently interesting.

Writer Griffin has streamlined everything about the project, transforming the original's five casinos into three, linking them together and excising almost all character development not related to specific skills. In Milestone's film -- an interesting time capsule but by no means a terrific movie -- we got Peter Lawford working out his mother issues and Sammy and Dean lip-synching their hearts out, occasionally a few frames off. Here, there's the odd groovy scene -- Pitt teaching Damon how to lie convincingly, Cheadle vainly shielding his scrotum from an enormous electromagnetic pulse -- but the characters simply aren't fleshed out enough to maintain interest through all the burglary rigmarole.

What really cripples the film, however, is the languidness of its love triangle. Never for a moment is Benedict revealed to be anything but a greedy, power-mad cad, so Tess's attraction to him makes no sense at all. There is one moment between Tess and Ocean that feels sort of genuine, when he asks if her new man makes her laugh, to which she hastily replies, "He doesn't make me cry." But in the 1960 film, despite a massive sexist undertow, Dickinson and Patrice Wymore, as Adele Ekstrom, showed resolve and resentment, while Griffin and Soderbergh reduce Roberts's role to a boring princess who's locked herself in a sterile castle. To win her back, Ocean is willing to egg on Benedict, but one must wonder why he bothers.

Even though Ocean's Eleven is anchored by supposedly hip turns of phrase like "You do the math," its overall composition just doesn't add up. A suspense-free caper, it really does fit the director's own description of "a two-hour commercial for Las Vegas." Too bad it commits the crime of being so intensely average, because what could have been sensational turns out to be merely this week's heist movie.

The new Martin Lawrence comedy, Black Knight, is yet another twist, albeit an uncredited one, on Mark Twain's protean A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, one of the original fish-out-of-water comedy-fantasies. Was there an outcry for yet another redo? After all, Twain's 1889 novel, about a New England mechanic who wakes up in Olde England, has been plundered for years as film material, almost always with its thematic underpinnings of rationality versus religion stripped away. In relatively straight form, there was a silent in 1921, the 1931 Will Rogers vehicle and the 1949 Bing Crosby musical (not to be confused with the Rodgers and Hart stage version). More recently, we've seen Twain's hero reincarnated as an astronaut (in 1979), a contemporary kid (in 1995) and Bugs Bunny in 1978. Even the notion of an African-American being transported to Camelot is hardly new: Two TV-movie versions, in 1989 and 1998, starred Keshia Knight Pulliam and Whoopi Goldberg, respectively.

But neither of those exploited the obvious potential of a streetwise male urbanite stranded in the Middle Ages. In theory, Lawrence is playing Jamal Walker, who works at the crumbling Medieval World Family Fun Center. In practice, this being a star vehicle, Lawrence more or less plays "Martin Lawrence," the persona he has developed throughout his TV and film work.

The Medieval World Family Fun Center is a black-owned community business that doesn't look like much fun and sure isn't doing much business. Worse yet, its survival is about to be challenged by the nearby opening of Castle World, a glossy, corporate-funded franchise. Jamal is considering bailing on his longtime boss (Isabell Monk) and applying for work at the new place when he spots a glowing medallion in Medieval World's fetid, polluted moat. He reaches for it, gets sucked underwater, and, well, big surprise, he emerges in a stream in fourteenth-century England -- which is no more fantastic than the fact that Jamal doesn't seem to wonder why L.A. has been replaced by countryside as far as the eye can see, or that medieval theme parks are such a rage they're overrunning South Central.

Jamal, for no discernible reason and counter to all logic, assumes that the nearby digs of King Leo (Kevin Conway) is actually Castle World, and that its chronically unbathed residents are employees. And he doesn't seem disturbed by the fact that this new ghetto business seems to have only one black employee, Victoria (Marsha Thomason), a dazzlingly beautiful chambermaid (and, it is implied, a concubine).

It takes a beheading (someone else's) to make him realize this is the real thing, but by then he's already become entwined in court intrigue. King Leo, we discover, has slain the rightful king and driven the queen into hiding. He is also marrying off his randy daughter (Jeannette Weegar) to a duke from across the channel.

In what may be the single genuinely funny joke in the film, when Jamal is asked where he's from, he says, "Florence and Normandie" -- the intersection where riots broke out after the Rodney King verdict was handed down in 1992. King Leo merely assumes him to be an emissary from the Duke of Normandy -- though no one seems to wonder how he can be an emissary from both Italy and France, any more than they wonder why he has such a curious accent. It's a gag bound to be far less amusing to non-Angelenos, no matter what great lengths director Gil Junger (10 Things I Hate About You) goes to to set it up.

Victoria is, natch, a leader of the rebels who are trying to assassinate the usurper and restore the proper monarch; Jamal's medallion is, also natch, the group's insignia; and Jamal must eventually teach them his new 21st-century fighting shtick in order to lead them to victory, yadda yadda yadda. It's not clear why Lawrence, Junger and screenwriters Darryl J. Quarles, Peter Gaulke and Gerry Swallow have replaced Camelot and its well-known history with King Leo's court and its intrigues, other than to set up this hackneyed rebellion plot. It's not like the Twain estate is collecting royalties anymore.

Black Knight goes by relatively swiftly and painlessly, despite the completely ragtag nature of its construction, but there is not an inspired moment in it. You don't need the powers of Merlin to see nearly every plot development and joke from miles away. The ending is pretty much the same as in the old Bing Crosby film and several of the other versions. There may be story differences, but all that's really new here stems from dropping Lawrence into the mix, smartass first.

Joel and Ethan Coen's periodic genuflections to classic Hollywood are inevitably accompanied by a knowing wink from one brother and a wry smile from the other. These devoted movie buffs' versions of vintage gangster pictures (Miller's Crossing) or the populist comedies of Capra and Sturges (The Hudsucker Proxy) are not full-blown parodies, by any means, but their slightly surreal tilt sends a message: However deep the Coens' devotion to the past may run, they are also thoroughly postmodern guys who know exactly what year it is and come equipped with just the right touches of absurdist playfulness and ironic detachment.

The Man Who Wasn¹t There, set in sleepy Santa Rita, California, in 1949, is the brothers' second excursion into latter-day film noir --1985's gory Blood Simple was the first -- and on the surface, it's an homage to the hard-boilings of novelist James M. Cain. In the '40s, Cain's sublime pulp fiction inspired such sardonic Hollywood classics as Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. In 2001, he inspires black comedy. For all its long shadows and ominous atmosphere, this is a very funny movie -- as funny as the Coens' masterful Fargo, in which a blackmailer stuffing his partner into a wood chipper became the stuff of belly laughs.

Begin with the requisite anti-hero, a placid small-town barber named Ed Crane. As written by the Coens and played by a perfectly laconic Billy Bob Thornton, gray, anonymous Ed is a reasonable facsimile of the beleaguered workingmen Cain favored as his protagonists: drifters, bank clerks, insurance salesmen. Comically passive but plagued by a gnawing, unnamable hunger, Ed has nothing to say, at least not to others. His brother-in-law, Frankie (Michael Badalucco) does all the yakking in their shop. Ed simply waits for something to happen to him. He's an ideal character for black and white, and the Coens oblige, with some brilliant help from their longtime cinematographer, Roger Deakins. This is gorgeous black and white, textured and nostalgic.

These filmmakers can't keep their tongues out of their cheeks for long, so when Ed Crane gets his shot at success, it has a ludicrous twist. A loudmouth wearing a bad toupee (Coen regular Jon Polito) bursts into the shop, announces that he's an entrepreneur named Creighton Tolliver and adds that he's shopping for a silent partner in his exciting new business. Dry cleaning. Wave of the future. There's no one more silent than Ed, of course, and, for that matter, no one drier. He's the man for the job. Just one problem: In order to get rich quick pressing pants, he needs ten thousand bucks.

The hunger for cash has always fueled the complexities of film noir, and the Coens follow suit. No sooner has the dim bulb lit up behind Ed's hooded eyes than the treacheries and false moves driving the brothers' plot start to multiply. Not only is the shady dry-cleaning man a con artist, but Ed's dissatisfied wife, Doris (Frances McDormand, aka Mrs. Joel Coen) turns out to be wayward, and her affair with the manager of the local department store (what else but "Nirdlinger's") seems to provide Ed with a foolproof opportunity for blackmail. Sopranos cultists may be startled to find beefy James Gandolfini in the role of Big Dave, the blustering and adulterous store manager, but at least the Coens provide an excuse for his bridges-and-tunnels accent: Born in Brooklyn, Big Dave migrated to California in the '30s and married the dry-goods heiress Ann Nirdlinger (Katharine Borowitz), whom we later see to be a spaced-out fantasist who imagines Martians in the back yard.

If you think Murphy's Law overwhelmed a wronged husband's attempts at homicide in Blood Simple, wait until you get a taste of the comic turns that befall poor Ed Crane. Before long, there's a corpse, then two, in the picture. But Ed's problems are only beginning. A hick through and through, he's no better at judging musical talent than he is at choosing business partners, so his growing obsession with a teenage striver named Birdy Abundas (Scarlett Johansson), whose entire repertoire consists of one Beethoven piano sonata, is way off the mark. So are his relationships with the movie's two hilariously drawn lawyers, one a dull-witted, small-town drudge (Richard Jenkins) who each evening takes a nip and falls asleep in his porch swing, the other a flashy operator named Freddie Riedenschneider (Tony Shalhoub). With his two-tone shoes, unchecked appetites and appalling expense account, Freddie is the sharpest criminal defense lawyer Sacramento has to offer --as well as its most overstuffed ego.

"I'm an attorney," he informs Ed. "You're a barber. You don't know anything."

You could fill an encyclopedia with the things Ed doesn't know, but rather than tell us all of them as their hero slips over the edge, the Coens take some of their usual amusing side trips. At an Italian wedding, we find Ed's brother-in-law Frankie astride a lurching pig named Garibaldi. During an ill-considered audition in San Francisco, the no-talent pianist finds herself under the eye of a wonderfully pompous Frenchman named Carcanogues (Adam Alexi-Malle). We get a running seminar on 1940s men's hairstyles, and just for the hell of it, the Coens toss in some half-crazed references to postwar UFO scares and the no-budget movies they inspired.

Like the noir films of Billy Wilder or Abraham Polonsky, The Man Who Wasn't There depends more heavily on menacing atmosphere than coherent plot, but everything is lightened by the Coens' irrepressible urge to wise off. The neo-noir efforts of John Dahl and a few others aside, the genre is as dead as a doornail, and the only useful way to resuscitate the corpse, even for a moment, is with wicked gallows humor. In this, the brothers are relentless -- right down to the final scene in an execution chamber. To call it great fun may be an exaggeration, but there's no reason to stop laughing now at the cruel jokes life plays against the Ed Cranes of the world.

There isn't a foodie in the world who'd deny his appreciation of truffles or foie gras, caviar, Swiss chocolate or triple-cream cheese. But none of those delights begins to approximate the glory of the drippy, cheese-covered, orange-tinted triangle that is The Slice.

Like a bazillion other students, I lived on slices in college. Back then, they were 50 cents each, came with a Coke for another 79 (the tab was often paid in pennies) and were available 24 hours a day at the grimy little Pizza Palace near the dorms. Nothing, absolutely nothing, tasted better than a slice that had been tossed back into the oven so that the cheese re-melted and the bottom became extra-crispy; you washed down this delicacy with a caffeinated beverage so big there was no way you could fall asleep while studying, say, the five Ws of reporting.

The Where of the slice: Italy may have invented pizza, but New Yorkers took it to the next level. (When: The first pizzeria opened in the Big Apple in 1895.) Today in this country, pizza transcends all socioeconomic differences. You're as likely to see an Armani-clad broker bending over at the well-tailored waist to eat his grease-spurting slice as you are a gang member (the Who). Why? There's just something about a real New York slice that's purely bad and good at the same time.

Sure, in Rome I had pizzas that were so delicious they made my heart beat faster, with sweet sauces and real mozzarella held in by a bubbly, crackly crust -- but I never did find a place that would let me get only one glorious slice of pizza. The Italian pies were too important to be savored piecemeal while slurping down some giant raspberry-syrup-infused soda.

There's no such elitism at Papa Keno's Pizzeria, where the granddaddy of all slices is "as big as your face." Or the face of the owner's father, whose caricature serves as the pizza joint's logo: Papa looks just like every T-shirt-wearing New Joisey palooka who eats slices with a cigarette hanging out of the side of his mouth.

Greg Keenan -- the family's nickname is "Keno" -- grew up in Jersey but went to college at the University of Kansas, where he, too, survived on slices. After he graduated, a decade ago, he opened the first Papa Keno's in Lawrence. Not long after, he started a second outlet in Kansas City. When he ventured out of the state a few years later, he chose Hollywood as his first non-Kansas location. That pizzeria was short-lived, however, and a friend convinced him that Denverites would be much more willing to come to Papa.

Since there are about "9,000 or so KU alum in this area," explains Paul Hresko, Papa Keno's manager, "Greg thought this could be a logical choice."

Papa Keno's debuted five months ago in a prime space across from the CU Health Sciences Center, which had previously been occupied by a scary sushi joint. (A second Papa Keno's is scheduled to open around the first of the year in the Golden Triangle.) Keenan had the spot faux-painted a pumpkin color and filled it with funky lighting and black-and-white photos of East Coast activities, including a guy riding an old Schwinn and people walking along the Hudson River. The setup is a little odd, with the soda fountain tucked away in a separate room with the napkins and utensils, but the place works as a sort of yuppified dive. And because of its locale, Papa Keno's gets more than its fair share of med students looking for a quick, cheap meal and some caffeine, as well as longtime Congress Park residents and transient apartment-dwellers who live along Colorado Boulevard. In other words, this eatery attracts exactly the mix you'd expect from a place that specializes in The Slice.

And what a slice it is. At $2.50, this monster is three times as big as a slice that might cost half as much. It's huge, humongous. And its flavor is big, too. Papa Keno's pies emphasize oregano, which gives them more of an Italian -American accent than some pies. The sauce, made on the premises from canned imported Italian tomatoes and plenty of tomato paste, has a dark, thick quality; it's also less sweet than many sauces, since the oregano lends a slightly bitter but pleasing edge. Most important, this pizzeria puts enough cheese on the pie to create a presence -- but not so much that the molten layer can't open up to release tiny geysers of orange-tinted grease.

Papa Keno's crust is on the crispier side -- ideal for straightforward eating, but tough if you want to fold the slice in half and eat it sideways. Still, the crust has a faint, yeasty sweetness that makes those last bites something to look forward to, and it's thick enough that you can load up on toppings without turning it into a Sicilian pie. But Papa Keno's offers that, too, a pizza with a pumped-up crust that starts out so thick that adding just a few toppings turns it into a well-balanced meal, as well as a 26-inch pie that feeds eight and looks like someone ran over an exercise ball with a semi.

Toppings can make or break any kind of pizza, and it's here that Papa knows best. The pizzeria offers two categories of toppings: standard, top-quality versions of such usual suspects as pepperoni, mushrooms, onions and pineapple; and the intriguing premium, including almonds, blue cheese, ricotta, roasted garlic and sunflower seeds. (Topping prices vary according to the size of the pie.) You can mix and match at will or try one of Papa Keno's savvy specialty combinations. We especially liked the Columbo, with roma bits, extra mozz and sauce, romano cheese and roasted garlic, which really pulled the pie together. The Don Ho sounded odd but proved a delicious mess of broccoli, pineapple, spinach, almonds and ricotta; it looked like the pie had been run through a salad bar. Our only disappointment was a too-thick barbecue sauce on the BBQ pie, which drowned out the flavors of the grilled chicken, red onion, mushrooms and provolone.

Like any self-respecting East Coast pizzeria, Papa Keno's also sells sandwiches, all served warm on housemade bread. The original is an oily, sub-style roll the thickness of shoe leather but oh, so much tastier, almost reminiscent of a torta shell; order that same bread studded with rosemary and you get an upscale standard Italian hoagie stuffed with salami, pepperoni, cappacola, mozzarella, pepperoncini and all the trimmings, wet down with a strong dousing of vinegar and oil. There's also a credible grinder, that East Coast shrine to meataballs, filled with spicy beef, a thick coating of red sauce, and the ideal amount of mozzarella to glue it all together.

Papa Keno's occasionally gets a little fancy. The pesto turkey sandwich is quite tasty, but even as you take that first delicious bite, you imagine the real Papa Keno spitting his ciggy butt across a parking lot. "Pineapple and basil," you can hear him saying in a falsetto voice. "Oh, that's so sweet."

Still, any way you slice it, Papa Keno's makes the cut.

When the world changed on September 11, so did Boots Riley's career. About a week after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the leader of the Oakland-based rap group the Coup found himself folded into the news of the day, amid images of debris-covered firefighters and ruined buildings. Why on earth, people wanted to know, had Riley chosen an image of the World Trade Centers burning -- in which he stands with a wand and a detonator in his hand while his partner, DJ Pam the Funkstress, looks on with a smile -- for the cover of his new album, Party Music?

"We did the cover in May, finished it in June," he says of the album, which was released on September 4. "It was supposed to symbolize or be a metaphor for destroying capitalism. It was more metaphorical than realistic. It wasn't something that was saying, 'Oh, this would be cool if this happened.' It was supposed to be that the music was making the World Trade Center blow up." In the doctored photo, he says, "Pam has two conductor wands and I have a guitar tuner, which also doubles as a detonator. The fact that it is a guitar tuner may go over people's heads if they aren't involved in music."

Riley's explanation is similar to statements he issued two months ago, when the cover -- which now seems like an eerie artistic premonition -- began circulating in the e-mail realm, eventually winding up in publications ranging from Spin to the New York Times. Riley sought to explain the artwork rather than apologize for it. Along the way, he dropped a few verbal bombs that didn't sit too well with a panicked, grieving and passionately patriotic nation: "While the television media works the public into a venomous pro-war frenzy...it should be noted that a great number of atrocities have been committed by the U.S. government and its corporate backers over the last few decades -- many of which have caused a far greater loss of life than the recent bombings of New York and Washington, D.C."

While Riley says he understands why the public reacted so strongly to Party Music's cover and is sympathetic to the victims of the terrorist attacks, his overtly critical attitude toward the role of the United States in foreign affairs hasn't softened as a result of what happened. In fact, he says he now lives under a heightened concern about the diminishment of civil liberties and artistic freedoms in this country -- something he says he personally encountered during the Party Music debacle. Considering all the questions that were lobbed his way following the terrorist attacks, he is angry that no one ever asked him how he wanted to handle the album's artwork from September 11 forward. That decision was made for him by his record label, 75 Ark, the imprint co-founded by noted producer Dan "The Automator" Nakamura.

"The first call I got was from them just saying that, no matter what I thought, they weren't going to run it," he says. "I thought that it was wrong that they didn't give me a choice on it at all. So we say that what people are fighting for is freedom of speech. I would have liked it more if they would have said, 'What do you think? What do you want to do? It's up to you.' Not only did they not want to run the cover -- they thought they could hide the fact that the cover already existed. What they had forgotten is that the publicist had already sent it out to magazines. So they were going to try to hide it and keep it hush-hush."

Conspiracy is a theme in Riley's life. In the days following the first wave of media coverage focusing on the album cover, he began paying closer attention to simultaneous coverage of current events. He felt that he and his art had been misrepresented; surely other facts had, too.

"I was looking at the way the media was running this thing, how they were hiding the fact that this is the modus operandi of the United States -- which is to commit terrorist acts all around the world," he says. "For instance, the U.S. was found guilty by the World Court of killing 30,000 innocent civilians in Nicaragua in order to overthrow a democratically elected government. They were ordered by the World Court to pay $19 billion in reparations, to which the United States just said, 'We're not adhering to the findings of the World Court.' If that's not terrorism, I don't know what is."

These kinds of rabble-rousing statements are what Riley was most associated with before, well, it. Party Music -- which earned a nine-star rating from Spin -- is the Coup's fourth full-length release, following 1993's Kill My Landlord, 1994's Genocide and Juice and 1999's Steal This Album. (Many people took the last disc's title literally: "I think it was one of the most stolen albums of '99," Riley says proudly.) Yet while it's no less political than previous efforts, Party Music finds Warren and Riley displaying a new desire to make listeners bounce and have fun, even as they contemplate the state of the world. The songs activate the booty as well as the mind by combining the slinky street-swagger funk of Too Short with the pragmatism of social-activist groups like the Black Panthers. It's music for players in Cadillacs as well as the Angela Davises of the neighborhood. DJ Pam the Funkstress provides tasteful scratches that complement the live instrumentation, proving that when the Coup comes to party, it smashes any notion of a glass ceiling. [page]

Riley says the record's title has a double-edged meaning.

"Yeah, it's party music -- or it's Party music, in the sense of political party," he says. "But I also made this album because a lot of times when people talk about what's going on in the world and trying to fight the system and change it, there's doom and gloom involved in so much of what is called political rap. What I wanted to do is put forth, musically, the idea that there's hope that we can change the system."

Words like "system" and "movement" pop up so frequently in Riley's conversation that it would be easy to dismiss him as a '60s throwback. He proudly declares himself a Communist in an era in which most people think that that ideology is as dead as Marx. But he is serious and articulate when discussing his point of view.

"'Redistributing the wealth' -- that phrase gets used so much that you almost get numb to it," he says. "We're talking about people getting paid more worldwide. If all the wealth that was hoarded by a few big families was spread out, people would have a middle-class lifestyle.

"There are a lot of leaders that talk about ending things like oppression -- whether it's discrimination or getting a job -- but the reason for all of this stuff is somebody's making a profit off our backs," he continues. "That's the reason why black people were brought here in the first place. It was a profit motive. It's not people liking or not liking people. [We need to] stop exploiting people, and if people aren't talking about that, then they're trying to create a situation in which everything seems like it's good but there is still thievery going on."

Riley hopes others see the connection between activism and music when they listen to his records.

"The thing that I think I can help in is that the music that I'm doing is to inspire people to get involved -- just on the level of community organization -- and telling them to be open to being involved in these organizations," he says.

Riley doesn't approach his politics like some wide-eyed college student who buys into radical ideas for a semester or two. Born to Walter Riley, a lawyer for the Black Panther Party, and Anitra Patterson, an activist in the Bay Area in the '60s, he grew up in a family steeped in progressive politics. As a teenager, he helped organize farm workers in Delano, California. While working with residents in a public housing project in San Francisco in 1989, Riley saw the ways in which rap music and social organization could commingle for social change: One evening, after the police aggressively beat a woman and her twin nine-year-old sons, the projects' residents rioted and chased back the police while chanting the chorus of Public Enemy's "Fight the Power."

Soon after that incident, Riley hooked up with Pam Warren -- who was steeped in the DJ culture that had begun to flourish in the area in the late '80s. She ran with a crew called the Imperial Sounds and learned techniques from soon-to-be legends such as Q-Bert of the Invisibl Skratch Piklz. One night, Riley caught Warren tearing up the turntables and asked her to join a group he was forming with his friend E-Roc. The group released Kill My Landlord and Genocide and Juice with this lineup. But after enduring some record-label shenanigans -- EMI bought out Genocide and Juice from New York's Wild Pitch and did nothing to promote it -- the group went on hiatus. At the time, Riley thought about retiring from rap. He formed the Young Comrades, an Oakland organization devoted to political action. The group's activities varied, though Riley says he is most proud of its challenge of an "anti-cruising" ordinance targeting black youths. The group's demonstrations eventually caused the city council to overturn the measure. [page]

"What's basically happening in Oakland," Riley says, "is they're trying to make black people not visible in any spot so that developers will see it as a place where white people can live -- gentrification, basically."

Sentiments like these will likely strike a chord with urban folk -- frightening some while empowering others. It's more difficult to predict how listeners will respond to the explosive sentiments that pepper Party Music -- especially in a time when Americans might feel strange about listening to messages of violence and aggression. Whether one takes it literally or not, the album's first single, "5 Million Ways to Kill a CEO," works as an indictment against "the ruling class" through its use of clever vignettes. Instead of the humorless diatribes that we've come to expect from politically minded acts like Rage Against the Machine, Riley spits scenarios like these: "Tell 'em boogers sell like crack/He gonna put the little baggies in his nose and suffocate like that" and "Toss a dollar in the river and when he jump in/If you can find he can swim/Put lead boots on him/And do it again, you and a friend." Musically, Riley echoes P-Funk's "Bop Gun" in the song's finale. It's a fitting tribute coming from a man who calls himself "a proletarian funkadelic parliamentarian."

Likewise, "Ghetto Manifesto" blends good-timey music with get-serious words, starting off with a vibe -- a din of revelers is heard in the background -- that recalls the beginning of Marvin Gaye's "Got to Give It Up." Boots then boasts of writing his lyrics on parking tickets and, as his first order of business, declares: "This is my resumé-slash-resignation/A ransom note with proposed legislation." But it isn't all agit-prop with the Coup. One of the better tracks on the record is Riley's missive to his daughter, "Clean Draws," which he penned for her birthday: "This is for you and the woman you fittin' to be/Tell that boy he's wrong, girls are strong/Next time at Show-and-Tell, play him our song."

Still, it's the more controversial tunes that have made the Coup a favorite of socially aware hip-hop heads -- and a thorn in the side of the mainstream. In the current climate, when even John Lennon's "Imagine" faces problems at the radio level, Riley isn't expecting to get much airplay.

"The censorship that I'm facing now is about the same as ever," he says. "We've been censored all the time. When I try to go to the media, we've been blacklisted. We were censored with 'Takin' These' [an early single from Genocide and Juice]. The Box would not play 'Takin' These' because we had a scene where we were taking furniture out of Rockefeller's mansion and giving the stuff out on the street for free."

Led by a Communist and more interested in pursuing ideals than money, the Coup may never crack the mainstream. But the group does want you to free your mind so that your ass -- and a revolution -- will follow. Astute members of the hip-hop nation, pay attention and get ready for takeover.

For the past few years, Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art has simply closed its doors on "A Day Without Art," a global observance of World AIDS Day, December 1, that was first introduced in 1989. But this year, the museum staff wanted to do something more high-profile while still preserving the solemn spirit of the annual event (or non-event, depending on how you look at it) that commemorates the astonishing number of artists who have died of AIDS or are now living with HIV.

While the museum itself won't be open on December 1, the Peephole Memorial Project will be. Set up in three blacked-out front windows, the project features tiny peepholes through which viewers can see the names of thousands of artists lost to the illness over the years. The official list that museum staffers worked off is sixteen pages long, according to program director Patty Ortiz, with each page bearing several columns of eight-point type. "There must be at least 5,000 names, but we found that a lot of Colorado artists who'd died of AIDS were not even on the list," she says. For people wanting to know more, the Colorado AIDS Project will man an information table in the museum's foyer.

The Denver Art Museum will observe the day in its own way. As it has every year since 1996, when the work was given to the museum by Yoko Ono, Altar Piece, a bronze triptych with white gold-leaf patina by Keith Haring (his last major work before he died), will be placed in the lobby for a week's viewing.

Why display actual art on A Day Without Art? "I think it's better to try to celebrate what an artist like Haring contributed to the dialogue about combating AIDS," says DAM modern-art curator Dianne Vanderlip. "The museum used to stage a more formal observance, but it ended up that nobody came. It was like we were just doing it for ourselves. Instead, it seemed better to put up something so spectacularly beautiful and to put it in the main hall, where it's sure to be noticed."

To each his own.

It's not your old-fashioned chinoiserie, jade Buddhas and the like: In the European and Asian art markets, cutting-edge contemporary art from mainland China is the hottest thing on wheels -- or oxcart. From the galleries of Beijing and Shanghai to the hallowed halls of Sotheby's, this art -- which may include traditional elements yet is anything but traditional -- has shot up in value in the last ten or so years and is slowly finding its way into America's art hubs.

Denver, says local art collector Michael Micketti, hasn't quite caught on, but he's doing his part by occasionally showing work out of his home under the shingle of Soaring Dragon Gallery. Now he'll put up a portion of his private collection for sale in a show opening Friday at Indigos, a local venue specializing in art from Asia.

Micketti fell into collecting the Chinese art by proximity: He worked in the hotel industry in Hong Kong in the late '80s, where one contact led to another. He traveled to Shanghai, where he met a handful of struggling artists; through networking, his contacts mushroomed. "In 1989, you could still buy nice pieces from relatively unknown artists," he says. "When I first started collecting, some of these artists were really poor. I thought, 'I'm gonna help these guys out. And if I make my plane fare home, that's okay, too.'"

The self-taught Micketti began amassing the reasonably priced works of then-unknown artists: large oils and acrylics picked up for a song, and a mixed bag of pieces combining distinctly Chinese elements with western trends. "Most of the artists I bought then I can't buy now," says Micketti, whose collecting bug is strictly a luxurious sideline. Though he's based in Denver, he continues to search out the up-and-coming, affordable Chinese artists, traveling to the mainland in pursuit of discoveries.

And while he's loath to part with most of his collection, Micketti will offer up a cross-section at Indigos: works that range from abstract to figurative, from pop imagery to modern calligraphy. Perhaps he wants to make room for more. But mostly, he notes, "I do it for the adventure."

The Smut Peddlers have chosen an odd place to call home. New York City, formerly the sin capitol of the world, has been virtually transformed into a porn-free zone thanks to a woefully energetic mayor. For a group that traffics in the very trash the city has so swiftly swept to the curb and whose goal is to become the Larry Flynt of the rap world, a Manhattan zip code seems almost like a death wish. So far, however, the Smut Peddlers have managed to prove that they have more staying power than Bob Dole after his evening Viagra.

The Smut Peddlers were originally conceived as a one-off side project of the High and Mighty, the duo composed of Philly natives Mr. Eon (Erik Meltzer) and Mighty Mi (Milo Berger). With New York rapper Cage, the group released its first effort under the Smut Peddlers name, the twelve-inch "One by One," in 1998. But the Peddlers have experienced a rebirth with the release of a new full-length album, Porn Again -- a nasty, grimy, offensive effort that is nothing short of irresistible. Will the most politically incorrect rap artists please stand up?

On Porn Again, the sick and twisted Peddlers bake up some XXX-rated rhymes accompanied by plenty of beats and weed by the pound. Berger's production sounds like a downtown- Saturday-night hybrid of DJ Premier spliced with the soundtrack to a '70s skin flick. The cover of the album features Beetlejuice -- the diminutive bug-eyed master of swank from the Howard Stern show -- surrounded by a bevy of "New York ho's" (as Berger describes them). Beetlejuice also raps on the disc ("Pimpology"), sounding like some pimp barker from a hip-hop/porn cable access show set in the outer limits. (According to Berger, Beetlejuice fit in perfectly: "We thought he really embodies the perfect Smut Peddler. Now he is an honorary member.") This isn't progressive, enlightening or political music. It's down-and-dirty stuff about getting down.

"The type of hip-hop we make is smut -- unadulterated, no-prophylactics type shit," says Berger.

"It's the side that people try to repress," adds Meltzer. "Governments try to repress it all over the world, but [we need] a freedom to explore. We've got to keep the smut in there, or people are going to get more repressed, and there is going to be more rape. Like if you go to Europe: They've got their red-light districts, and it's very open. It seems like they're talking about it. But here, it's like the old puritans in us."

It's doubtful that Meltzer's argument will persuade the opinions of people like C. DeLores Tucker or Andrea Dworkin. The porn-laden content of the record has certainly invited the criticism that the Peddlers are misogynistic -- a tough charge to beat when one considers the group's own words. Lyrically, the Peddlers put the magnifying glass to all things sleazy, dirty and funky -- a thematic trifecta that's best summarized in the track "That's Smut": "Money shots and porno plots/Politicians in limousines sniffing double Ds trapped in baby tees."

With Porn Again, Meltzer and Berger find themselves in a position that many hip-hop artists know all too well: that is, defending the musical merits of their work, even when the message might be objectionable to some.

"I think some people might think it is misogynistic, but that's just on the surface," Meltzer says. "The whole layer of porn is just there to attract you. Once you put the CD in the player, we just hope you like that shit for what it is: dope lyrics and dope beats."

The lyrics, he notes, are usually born more of humor than ideology, though it's a matter of taste (or lack thereof) as to whether a listener is likely to find certain lines funny. The track "Talk Like Sex Part II," in which Cage waxes on Mary-Kate and Ashley, those lovable twins from TV land, is a particularly salient example: "Exactly four years [from] today/The Olsen twins will be doing their first three-way." Later in the track, the legendary Kool G. Rap spits this jewel: "Get a nigga freaky enough/It'll make him want to fuck his armpit."

Without Meltzer and Cage's talents on the mike -- and Berger's production and deejaying skills -- it would be easy to deride these guys as exploiting a rap gimmick that's as old as Luke Skywalker. But each Peddler has established himself as a viable player in the hip-hop game. Meltzer and Berger's cachet within the scene was cemented with the High and Mighty's successful debut Home Field Advantage in 1999; their single "B-Boy Document '99" (with Mos Def and Mad Skillz) blasted radio airwaves while the accompanying video saw steady rotation on BET. Cage has been making noise for some time now, for both his personal travails and his music: After spending three years in a mental institution, he inked a deal with Columbia (which eventually went south), blazed a cut by Pete Nice and began releasing twelve-inch singles (including "Agent Orange/Radio Head") on Bobbito Garcia's Fondle 'Em Records. He probably is most notoriously known for his ongoing beefs with Eminem, whom he refers to as his "bitch lady" and accuses of biting his style. (The two have been dissing each other on wax for the past year: In his track "Drastic Measures," Eminem raps, "I'm picking up Cage's sister early.../Went on stage and sprayed Cage with Agent Orange." On his cut "Illest Four Letter Word," Cage raps, "I heard some blond bitch walking through New York looking for Cage/I'll stab you in the face, ten times in the same place.") [page]

Though Porn Again abounds with rhymes about breasts, booty and bitches, the Peddlers juggle more topics than those suggested by the album's title. One of their favorite targets is the wack state of hip-hop today, which Meltzer addresses on "Diseases." He takes on frostbitten MCs who have delusions of grandeur: "Hip-hop diseases, too much ice will catch a shorty sneezing." Meltzer, who comes from a battle-rap background, also reserves plenty of venom for all those Internet backpacker "expert" rap heads: "I'm stompin' all these chatroom fakes/Whose hip-hop birth coincides with the cheesy remakes/You little kids playing the critics cards/Go back to your other hobby, Pokémon cards," he chides on "Medicated Minutes."

Professional sports also weigh heavily in Porn Again's mix, an element that harks back to Meltzer's and Berger's youth and the allure of teams like the Philadelphia '76ers -- who had an in-your-face style and flair embodied in players such as Julius Erving (especially when Doc sported an Afro and goatee). The Sixers, as writers like Nelson George have noted, had all the elements of what would become the hip-hop attitude. This influence was definitely apparent on the High and Mighty's debut: The sleeve insert on Home Field Advantage features a picture of a bedroom that probably resembles that of any kid who lived in Philly during that time, with its posters and jerseys of the city's sports and rap icons. On Porn Again, the Peddlers give props to Sixers players like Henry Bibby, an underrated player during Erving's reign who now coaches the USC Trojans. They also reference the future head of the Texas Tech basketball department during a battle segment of "That Smut": "I'll have you more shook than Marathon Man/Make an MC use our fetus and clone us/Coming out looking like Arvydas Sabonis.../I'll wipe my ass and shove it in your face like Bobby Knight."

Yet references to sports figures aren't the only instances in which you feel traces of a Philly background. The City of Brotherly Love was one of the epicenters of the initial hip-hop earthquake in the '80s, a movement characterized by tours like the Fresh Fest (featuring the likes of Run DMC, LL Cool J, Whodini and Public Enemy), which spread the gospel of hip-hop from the Big Apple down through other urban tributaries. Like so many future heads, Berger caught that bill as a youngster; soon after, he and Meltzer saw the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy in their hometown.

"That was one of the first big hip-hop shows I went to," Meltzer says. "We were there to see the Beastie Boys, but Public Enemy really blew our minds. That shit just set it off in terms of us becoming artists. The next month we had this talent show at our high school. We answered that shit; it was very influential in getting us to do hip-hop."

The pair dubbed their initial group the Freshman 3. Meltzer and another cat rocked the mike over an instrumental version of PE's "Public Enemy #1," with Berger at the turntable. Eventually Berger graduated to better DJ equipment and learned to cut and scratch over KRS-One records. (A blunted update of Kris Parker's "Beef" -- renamed "Weed" -- appears on Home Field Advantage.)

Over time, Meltzer and Berger refined their skills, whittled the crew down to two and renamed themselves the High and Mighty, a change partially motivated by a love of ganja. They made demos from 1987 to 1993 and were eventually asked to appear on New York's "Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Show," one of the primary radio vehicles to break new hip-hop artists. Still, it took four years for them to produce an EP: In 1997, a three-song recording from High and Mighty was released on the group's own Eastern Conference Records. The mini-EP consisted of three songs, including "Hands On Experience"(with Bobbito and El P), an amusing assessment of the joys of masturbation (which the group later revamped, with the help of the notorious rapper/alleged porn star Kool Keith). A string of successful singles followed, leading the fellas to ink a three-record deal with Rawkus and release Home Field Advantage. Porn Again is the first effort to appear under the Smut Peddlers moniker and to feature Cage. [page]

After touring to support the Peddlers release, Berger and Meltzer plan on devoting a lot of their energy to positioning their label, Eastern Conference Records, as the next Rawkus. Their goal, they say, is to become the Bernard King and Donovan McNabbs of the rap world.

"We've got a lot of stuff coming up, like the Eastern Conference All-Stars Part II," says Meltzer. "We have a lot of guest appearances [on that album], people like Royce the 5-9. It's sort of what Lyricist Lounge 2 should have been like. We're going to have Cage do an album, another High and Mighty joint, we have a Copywright album ready to go, a J-Zone album, so it's all really good."

As for downtime, since Mayor Giuliani has essentially declared smut illegal in New York City, it's a safe bet that you'll find these guys in their Manhattan crib enjoying other means of inspiration.

"I have a couple of channels on my DirecTV that is real porn: Syndee Steel, Sky, Chloe, Tiabella," says Berger.

Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, you have been warned.

Denver painter and newspaper illustrator Herndon Davis is best remembered in these parts for his "Face on the Barroom Floor," a dreamy portrait based on a poem by Hugh Antoine D'Arcy that still graces the floorboards at the Teller House in Central City. Davis is said to have painted the image -- purportedly inspired by the lovely visage of his own wife, although she vehemently denied the connection -- on a drunken dare. In truth, however, the renowned "Face" is actually a mere bit of fluff decorating the top of a solid mountain of work.

Now Davis, whose illustrations were once featured in earlier eras in both Denver dailies, is the subject of the Herndon Davis Watercolor Exhibit, a small display in the Denver Central Library's fifth-floor gallery that pays tribute to his artistic bread and butter: renderings of time and place that are nostalgic, evocative, and as powerful as any photograph. Featuring 25 watercolor images originally published in the Rocky Mountain News in the early '40s as part of a "Survivors of Yesteryear" series accompanied by articles written by one Joseph Emerson Smith, the exhibit is a sweet tribute to old Denver-area landmarks, some -- such as the Navarre and the Richthofen Castle -- that are still standing, and others -- the old City Hall and the Windsor Hotel -- that are gone forever.

Curator Kay Wisnia, who oversees the library's Western art collection, chose the Davis watercolors because of their appealing feel for a different Denver era, heightened by the presence of colorful awnings and signs, period cars and the open sense of a city caught between its gold-rush roots and the shiny metropolis of the future. It's a fascinating look backward to the days when such forgotten figures as Judge Ernest Colburn trotted his thoroughbreds from a stable on Broadway across the prairie to the Overland Park racetrack and Dr. John Elsner, an early medical mover and shaker in Denver, held salons in his living room with Lillian Russell and Oscar Wilde.

For the few minutes it takes to walk the gallery, you'll swear the sky gets bluer, the autos bulkier and the wheeler-dealers of Denver a little more old-fashioned. Don't blame us if you never want to come back.

Oscar-nominated Alfre Woodard chooses to call herself an actor rather than an actress, because "actresses worry about eyelashes and cellulite, and women who are actors worry about the characters we are playing." Adapting that comparison for a discussion of female musicians, let's say that a pop diva is more concerned with her looks and image, while a serious artist focuses on the quality of the music she's creating.

Which makes funky soul sister Nikka Costa problematic. She's a hottie and she works it, but she's also got chops -- thereby defying the human need to slap on a label and get going. And though Costa, who is in her late twenties, is married, it's clear she has minimal potential for becoming a minivan-driving soccer mom: She's got a luscious booty that's almost always swathed in low-slung hot pants, along with a wild mane of red curls and a voice the size of Longs Peak.

Costa has said that her record label, Cheeba/Virgin, would rather she didn't mention that she's married, because "if you're married, guys won't want to fuck you, and then they won't buy your record." Which raises the question: Would they have said that to Costa if she were a man? "Oh, yeah!" she exclaims. "I think that Hollywood and the record industry think that they can sell a single artist a lot more easily if the fans think that they have a little chance. They always try to hide that shit. They try to hide it if you're homosexual. There are many artists that are homosexuals who take their best friends to premieres to make it look like they have a date. So they cover all that shit up to make you more marketable."

Judging from Costa's publicity photo and some other media snaps, that's about all Virgin is concerned with covering. If you hadn't heard Costa's record, you might suspect that she is trying to compete with Shakira and Lil' Kim and Britney in a contest over who can bare the most flesh. A quick cruise through a recent issue of Rolling Stone (the one with you-know-who and her bodacious ta-tas on the cover) yields these results: Britney in bra and panties, barely covered by a diaphanous baby-doll dress; Paul McCartney fully clothed; all the men of U2 and Linkin Park fully clothed; Staind's Aaron Lewis fully clothed; J. Lo in a skintight half-shirt and microshorts. Anyone else detect a trend here?

Costa gets a bit defensive when asked whether she feels pressured to look a certain way.

"I feel sexy when I sing; I feel sexy on stage; I like dressing up. I'm not really conservative about my body; I don't think it's a big deal. Americans are so conservative. And I'm secure enough with my music that I don't feel like it detracts from it. I'm confident enough with it that I don't feel like I need to prove a point by not showing anything. It's fun. I'm a girl; I like being sexy."

Fortunately for Costa, the music is what separates the women from the girls. "Britney Spears is trying to say, 'I'm growing up, I'm becoming a woman,'" Costa explains. "She's not trying to say, 'I'm growing up, I'm becoming a serious artist.' She has a great body, but that is her main thing. It's not like her music is her main thing. There are definitely artists who are more music-driven, and there are artists who are more image-driven. There are songwriting-driven artists, and there are interpreters. You know, they don't write their own songs, but they sing other people's songs great."

One listen to Costa's most recent release, Everybody Got Their Something, should make it clear which camp she belongs to. While Britney was molesting reptiles on stage and thrusting her rear end at the world, Nikka Costa was busy writing and recording a funktacular, Janis Joplin-flavored record that doesn't need any T&A to boost sales. On Everybody, Costa and producer/hubby Justin Stanley manage to blend rock, funk, hip-hop, blues and R&B influences without sounding overly busy.

"I definitely wanted to make a record that had a lot of different moods on it, a lot of different styles, because I don't know anybody who listens to only one kind of music, and I get really bored when I put on a record and the first four songs sound exactly the same," says Costa. Mission accomplished: The first three tracks are a whirlwind tour through funky R&B ("Like a Feather"), sensitive modern rock à la Fiona Apple ("So Have I for You") and earthy soul that screams with near-metal freakouts (the aptly titled "Tug of War").

It's Costa's use of her early funk influences that results in the most exciting aspect of her music, though. Those in the know contend that funk is a dead, grievously overlooked genre. No one is making true funk anymore; even funk stalwarts George Clinton and the P-Funk All Stars have become the next jam band for politically correct noodlers. "I've listened to a lot of soul music -- Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan and that kind of stuff," says Costa of the state of the funk. "It probably didn't get its full run. It hasn't lasted like rock has, but I think it's morphed into other areas, like hip-hop uses funk a lot -- everyone's sampling James Brown -- so it's kind of living through another genre now. I don't think it's dead; I just think it's living through other things."

While Costa isn't trying to resurrect the '70s funk sound, she is certainly paying homage on cuts like the title track, as well as on "Hope It Felt Good" and "Some Kind of Beautiful." After all, this is the woman who, in her girlhood, came home one afternoon to find Sly Stone (who guests in her record's horn section) sitting at the family piano.

Stone isn't the only musical celebrity Nikka hung around with as a child. Her father was Rat Pack composer Don Costa, who worked with Frank Sinatra, Quincy Jones and Sammy Davis Jr. He remained Sinatra's producer into the '70s, and when Nikka was born in New York in 1972, Ol' Blue Eyes himself was named her godfather. While Sinatra never made Ms. Costa a professional offer (although it would certainly have been interesting to hear her on one of Sinatra's Duets records), he and his peers probably gave her a solid foundation in show business. Costa's career was launched when she was five and paired up with Don Ho for one of her father's Christmas releases. By twelve, she was retired. In between, she made a few albums overseas and opened for the Police in Chile at age eight. Her father passed away when she was ten, and she gave up performing soon afterward. The early-retirement strategy -- along with the fact that her fame didn't spread to American shores -- is what Costa reckons kept her from living up to the stereotype of Child Star As Fucked-Up Washout.

"When I was famous as a kid, I was only famous in Europe and South America," she says. "So when I came back to America to go to school, I was like a totally normal kid. I would go to school and be like everyone else, and then I'd go on tour and have this other weird kind of life. And I also took a lot of breaks. I stopped for a few years, then went back into it, stopped again. I kept making sure that I was digging the situation, and any time I wasn't, I left it, and I think that kept me sane."

When, as an adult, Costa decided to give it another go, she took the unorthodox route of honing her talent in Australia (husband Stanley is Australian). There she lived and gigged relentlessly for about five years, facing picky punters night after night and earning success the hard way. It culminated in an ARIA (Australian Recording Industry Awards) nomination for best new artist; then she scrapped it all and came back to the States.

"If you spend four or five years being the most successful thing in Australia, when you come to America, nobody cares. You have to start all over again. So, I was at a starting-from-scratch point, so I figured I'd start from scratch in America." Fortunately for her marriage, Stanley was ready to start over again in the States, too.

Which brings us back to the conception and release of Everybody Got Their Something, which, in its half-year of life (it came out on May 22), has had tracks featured in a Tommy Hilfiger commercial and Jonathan Demme's Blow and has earned Costa tours with the Black Eyed Peas and a spot on the Coachella Music Festival roster. Now she's headlining a tour -- supported by another charming newcomer, Miranda Lee Richards -- which would seem to indicate that Virgin is impressed and has a lot of faith in her as a performer. (Costa comes to town this week as part of a show that includes Jewel and the Barenaked Ladies.) Everybody is a strong American debut from an equally strong rising star. Still, one wonders if we'd be hearing so much about Nikka Costa if we weren't seeing so much of her.

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