Hip Hop Nation
Four New Rap Albums Bring the Diversity

Still no computer, and people just keep dying.

Lately it seems that the universe is trying to remind me that, should I live the normal, expected course of my life, I’ll probably survive long enough to see every artist I admire die. For starters, I know Woody Allen is pretty high up on the list of expected expirations, and so I go see every Allen movie with the thought that it may be his last. Then there are those artists attempting lengthy works, like Dave Sim on Cerebus, which concludes its 300-issue run in March of 2004, unless some untimely death befalls him.

Neither of the most recent artists to shuffle off the mortal coil really affected me in any deep, genuine way, but their passing served to remind me that the same fate will eventually befall everyone I like, love, hate or ignore. I dunno, death has been on my mind lately, so here’s a cheery start to a late column: a pair of brief eulogies.

Ted Demme only made one movie I love, but I really love it. Beautiful Girls was released during the Miramax Renaissance that also gave us Pulp Fiction and Clerks, so I sort of ignored it in favor of the higher-profile stuff. Thank God for my friend Ray Tiberio, who nagged at me for years to see this film. It’s a delight, a sweet and funny examination of men and their tendency to idealize women. It also introduced me to the phrase “retard sandwiches,” which has crept into my vernacular like a tapeworm. Demme died of a heart attack (they think), and he was only 38. His most recent film, Blow, was one of his best as well.

The ’90s lounge culture owes everything to Juan Garcia Esquivel. He invented the very idea of space-age lounge music that groups like Combustible Edison went on to perfect. Like a lot of people, I first heard Esquivel’s work on the soundtrack to Four Rooms, and collected from there. Esquivel was in his 80s, and reportedly he died peacefully. Expect tribute albums to start coming out soon.

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And now, your regularly scheduled silly music column.

Hip-hop really asserted itself as a musical force in the ’90s, gaining a voice, a language and a style all its own. Whatever you think of the musical merits of rap or the cultural necessity of its attendant style, you have to admit that it’s not going anywhere. Thankfully, the music has broken out of its origins and taken the basic concepts of beats and rhymes to new places over the last two decades.

The best analogy is the rock ‘n’ roll of the 1950s, which all relied on the same chords and meters and a similar lyrical structure. Basically, it all sounded the same, much like early rap. Look at how far rock has come as a genre, and in fact as a series of subgenres, all of which have distinctive sounds. Rap made huge strides toward that kind of diversity throughout the ’90s. While the basic structure remains the same (beats and rhymes), an examination of four recent rap records should draw into focus just how imaginative the music has become.

The producer made himself felt throughout the ’90s as the backbone of rap. In its early days, the division of labor was equal between MCs (the rhymers) and DJs (the beat merchants). With the advent of studio technology, however, the producer can now craft oceans of sound around the MCs, changing the entire tone of their lyrics with a few well-placed tones. Repetition is the bread and butter of this music, but a good producer knows how to vary the sound without drawing the focus away from the rapper. In many ways, though the MC gets the most attention, rap as a musical entity now belongs to the knob-twiddlers in a way that very few other musics do.

Most rappers keep their options open by employing many producers for an album. Take Busta Rhymes, for example, whose fifth album, Genesis, utilizes 12 producers on various tracks. This is nothing new for Rhymes, who often puts his cartoony growl in the hands of inexperienced and often inept beatmeisters. His last album, Anarchy, ran about 80 minutes and felt cheaper than the cellophane it was packaged in. Genesis is a step up, but not a big one.

If you go by just his album titles and covers, Rhymes has been crafting a cycle about the end of civilization. You’d expect those apocalyptic overtones to carry over into the music, but you’d be wrong. Every Rhymes album is filled with the same empty hip-hop boasting that you can find on dozens of unimaginative recordings from the likes of Jay-Z, and it’s almost an impressive feat that not an ounce of cleverness sneaks in. Add to that the Casio-quality beats and synth tones he seems to think are propulsive, and you have very little to recommend his work beyond the voice of Rhymes himself.

And what a cool voice it is. He snarls, he growls, he spits and above all, he injects his pitiful productions with the bile and character of which they’re otherwise bereft. Most often, Rhymes can’t overcome the plastic cheapness of the music blipping behind him, but on a few tracks on Genesis, he does it. It’s just too bad that those standout tracks are buried under an avalanche of posturing and pre-’80s production values.

The funniest thing about Rhymes is the posture he’s adopted. It calls for unwavering belligerence and attitude, which often forces Rhymes to sound like he’s willfully ignoring the awfulness of the tracks he’s rapping over. It’s like he’s daring you to point them out. Hell, it makes me laugh.

While Busta Rhymes gets the magazine covers and the notoriety, many other rappers languish in relative obscurity, producing superior product. (Sound familiar?) Nas is one of those, although thanks to a public feud with Jay-Z, that obscurity is slowly going away. Nas’ first disc was called Illmatic, and was an examination of his life in Queensbridge, New York. Since then, he’s put out a series of better-than-average releases detailing his alter-ego’s rise in popularity and social conscience.

To cap all this off, Nas has returned to his old stomping grounds and made a fully New York album called Stillmatic. This is quite a decent disc, and a smart pullback from the drama of I Am and Nastradamus, his pair of 1999 albums. Even though he opens with “Ether,” the next salvo in the Jay-Z brouhaha, he sticks pretty close to home throughout, discussing childhood, his neighborhood and the state of the state of New York.

While I used to find sampling abhorrent, tantamount to pure thievery, I now see it for what it is: the technological next step in what artists have been doing all along. As Todd Rundgren once said, “Louie Louie” is “More Than a Feeling” is “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” forever and ever amen. A rap producer sampling is akin to a jazz artist making an entirely new song out of a John Coltrane progression, for example.

I mention that because there are two well-used and recognizable samples on Stillmatic that work quite well. The first is from Alabama 3’s “Woke Up This Morning,” better known as the theme to the Sopranos, on “Got Ur Self A…,” a propulsive tale of inner city violence. Another great theme song (for Dennis Miller Live), Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” is put to good use on “Rule.” Musically, Stillmatic is a winner, re-infusing the stylistic life that seemed to bleed out of Nastradamus.

Lyrically, Nas has come home, and though his concerns remain the same, they’re couched in smaller and more intimate settings. It’s like he went out to see the world and brought back those experiences to his old neighborhood, which in a nutshell is Stillmatic‘s message. It unifies his catalog in a way that Busta Rhymes’ depictions of apocalypse never could.

Even though his album sounds like a whole work, he employs the same number of disparate producers as Rhymes. There are some hip-hop acts who see this as heresy, however, preferring to stick to one producer and one sound. The most obvious example is the Wu-Tang Clan, brainchild of the RZA, one of the most gifted producers in rap. Despite his clan’s strength-in-numbers credo and artful boasting, RZA’s work possesses a hushed intimacy that some mistake for laziness. In truth, his productions are finely crafted works of minimalism that strike just the right off-kilter notes.

No rap outfit makes records quite like Wu-Tang, and they’ve made another good one with Iron Flag, their fourth. The quality has dropped slightly from last year’s wonder, The W, but not significantly. If anything, Iron Flag is fuller and more beat-oriented, which ought to please some of the group’s critics. In polishing some of the rough edges, though, RZA has lowered the quirkiness quotient that has marked Wu-Tang’s finest efforts.

Still, though, Iron Flag holds up. I don’t know where RZA finds some of his samples, but in some cases he sounds like he’s raiding Fatboy Slim’s record collection. He’s one of the few producers that can integrate several samples into fresh new wholes. He even makes interesting use of “Jingle Bells” (really) on the album closer, “Dashing (Reasons).”

For all his sonic splash, Iron Flag ends up being about not much of anything, unfortunately. Even a first-verse mention of the World Trade Center in the amazing “Rules” peters out into a standard hip-hop throwdown. How many more rap songs do we need titled “Y’all Been Warned”? If you look past the sometimes clever, often useless rhymes of his cohorts, though, Iron Flag stands as another decent disc from a great producer. Hopefully next time, he’ll deliver something as haunting and memorable as The W.

While it’s true that no one’s making records quite like the Wu-Tang Clan, it’s also true that no one will ever make hip-hop albums like the first three De La Soul discs. Under the guidance of producer Prince Paul, De La made a slapdash trilogy that stands as the quirkiest and most original run in the music’s short history. The high point, 1993’s Buhloone Mindstate, is the most successful melding of jazz and rap ever made, and listening to it, you just know that they will never make another one like it.

De La have definitely moved on from there, but after severing ties to Prince Paul, they unfortunately settled into a fairly typical groove. Last year they announced their intention to release a triple album called Art Official Intelligence in three installments, a truly ambitious undertaking. Sadly, they began with Mosaic Thump, the saddest, most boring album the trio has ever produced. It was crowded with guest stars, honed to a showroom sheen and indistinguishable from the hordes of MTV-ready crap clogging the airwaves.

But wait, all is forgiven. The second installment of AOI, called Bionix, is quite simply De La Soul’s first great album since the original trilogy. It’s a laid-back, quirk-filled affair that doesn’t quite ascend the heights of their heyday, but at least makes the attempt. Tracks like “Simply,” “Watch Out” and “Am I Worth You” announce themselves quietly and effectively. Produced almost entirely by De La and Dave West, Bionix holds together as an album instead of a collection of disconnected songs like Mosaic Thump.

De La brings their quirky social conscience back to the fore on this one, as well. “Baby Phat,” the swell first single, is a diatribe against the pop culture image of beauty that manages to be uplifting without being mawkish. The same trick is pulled off on “Trying People,” which features the first effective use of a children’s chorus I’ve ever heard. Best of all, however, is the epic “Held Down,” which is sent into the stratosphere by an ethereal gospel choir. That song is worth the whole disc by itself. De La seems poised to reclaim their former glory, and if installment three of AOI is as good as installment two, they just might do it.

Rap as a genre makes room for all of these different styles, and many more. There’s the live instrumentation of the Roots, the clear social unrest of Dead Prez, the mish-mash melding of Black Eyed Peas, and the spiritual yearning of P.M. Dawn. We’re right now in the early ’70s of rap’s evolution, when the innovations have been laid out for anyone to grab hold of and ride. If commercialization didn’t ruin rock, then it won’t ruin rap. Like any other form of music, the good stuff is out there.

Next week, new stuff. The week after that, Dream Theater makes an early bid for the Top 10 list.

See you in line Tuesday morning.