Give Nas credit: For a 22-year-old, he's got chutzpah. Witness the disc's opening track, a swell of maudlin strings -- a la Gone with the Wind -- over which we hear Nas the Slave rebelling against his master and getting lynched. On the heels of this interlude comes "The Message" (not the Grandmaster Flash classic from rap's early Eighties infancy), a chronicle of street life that is distinguished by minor-key Spanish guitar plucks and Nas's knack for running the lyric flow. (He rhymes "Jesus" with "Kathie Lee and Regis," an act of blasphemy that earns him permanent lyrical respect in my book.)

Like most of the album, "The Message" adheres to the standard paradox of today's hip-hop -- the simultaneous celebration and condemnation of violence and drug sales. But to his credit, Nas proves capable of subverting the formula in spots. "I Gave You the Power" is a gripping saga told in the voice of a gun that rebels against its drug-running master. "Watch Dem Niggas" is an equally chilling cautionary tale that undercuts the glamour of the drug trade by focusing on its rampant paranoia. Borrowing the familiar riff from Eurythmics' hit of the same name, Nas narrates "Street Dreams" to the sounds of a chaotic drug shootout. Not surprisingly, the single that has propelled the album into the MTV stratosphere is "If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)," a swaggering, airhead ode to wish fulfillment that features Fugee and reigning hip-hop It girl Lauryn Hill.

Perhaps the most revealing tune on the fourteen-song collection is "Nas Is Coming," in which producer/self-appointed mentor Dr. Dre urges young Nas (over a blunt) to forget coastal rivalries for the sake of the almighty buck. "Hey, let's get this money," Dr. Dre rasps. "Let's get paid."

It's this sort of glib materialism that winds up shooting the album in the foot. For all his verbal skills and insight, Nas can't quite bring himself to forsake the gangsta mentality he's critiquing. This may explain why he continually invokes the memory of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. In the end, it's not quite clear whether Nas realizes that, for all his financial achievements, Escobar is both a murderer and a dead man.

-- Steven Almond

Phillip Johnston's Big Trouble
Flood at the Ant Farm
(Black Saint)

Saxophonist Phillip Johnston's Big Trouble octet gets negligible recognition when compared to the attention bestowed on the well-groomed young lions in Wynton Marsalis's den. On its third album, though, Big Trouble explodes the myth that adventurous jazz is claustrophobic, solemn, pedantic, and inaccessible. Rather, these New York-based mavericks show that fun is a valuable component of their music, through the refreshing lilt in their playing and the giddy gracefulness of their writing.

The Johnston composition "Mr. Crocodile" has a sublime melody over an attractive samba beat, but it still steers clear of mainstream respectability thanks to quirky instrumental digressions and textures. "Pontius Pilate Polka," penned by Johnston for a project featuring accordionist Guy Klucevsek, sounds like dance music for couples drunk on port; "Willie's Room," written for the Philip Haas film The Music of Chance, manages to balance delicacy with a peculiar kind of understated tension. Keyboardist-saxophonist Joe Ruddick's "Heaven, Hell or Hoboken" tears it up start to finish with a rockabilly string-bass figure underlining bursts of "Try a Little Tenderness" and the timeless curio "There's No Place Like Home," among other pointedly zany references. Eclectic woodwind player Bob DeBellis and percussionist Kevin Norton pitch in with the curiously compelling tunes "Don't Fret, Sweat" and "The Enduring Heart," respectively, letting the immediacy of their composed sections dictate shape and form to the soloists.

Such imaginative writing would matter not at all without capable and clever players. The Big Trouble guys are that and more, with a special nod to Johnston for his inspired contributions on alto and soprano. Sizing up Steve Lacy's "Hemline," he uses the higher-pitched straight horn to evidence the influence of Lacy (the premier soprano player of our time), offering fluid lines that carry a dignified calmness and that counter a gruff, urgent solo statement from the aptly surnamed trombone player Steve Swell.

-- Frank-John Hadley

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