Public Enemy
He Got Game Soundtrack

Various Artists
Bulworth Soundtrack

Rap is dead. It's tired. It's wack. It's no longer phat. The glory years are dead, thanks to the ungraceful aging of early superstars (Run-D.M.C., Eric B. and Rakim, and KRS-One) and the untimely deaths of many of the men who looked as though they might become perennials (Eazy-E, Tupac, the Notorious B.I.G.). The alternative rap of Digable Planets and Arrested Development didn't fly for long, and even the boomlet of Dr. Dre-powered G-Funksters that stormed onto radio in the mid-Nineties, most notably Warren G and Snoop Doggy Dogg, failed to make its mark.

This is completely true, except for one minor problem: It's completely false. The rap artists who brought legitimacy to the genre are still making mayhem with the mic, and occasionally they're bridging the gap between their own styles and the market's newer flavors. But all of the action these days is happening on movie soundtracks. It's been a year filled with them, and while some (The Player's Club, I Got the Hook-up) are subpar soundtracks to subpar movies, at least two -- Public Enemy's soundtrack to Spike Lee's He Got Game and the eclectic, often electric soundtrack to Warren Beatty's Bulworth -- demonstrate what can happen when sound and vision harmonize.

Public Enemy, of course, was the hardest, smartest, and usually the best rap combo of the late Eighties. Between Chuck D's stentorian commentary and Flavor Flav's surreal jestering, they produced a dozen unforgettable songs ("Megablast," "Bring the Noise," "Don't Believe the Hype," "Fight the Power," and "Can't Truss It," among them). In PE's hands Black Muslim rhetoric met political reality, but the group was too sonically sophisticated and lyrically agile to be simply a throwback to the Seventies militance of the Last Poets. As gangsta funk emerged, though, PE fell off, and 1994's Muse Sick-n-Hour Mess Age was a dispiriting affair. In its return via He Got Game, PE has stripped down its sound to a close approximation of G-Funk, with drowsy beats, back-up vocals, and a strong R&B spine. Since the album is a movie soundtrack, and since the movie is a cautionary tale about the temptations of pro basketball, Chuck and Flav have opted for a thematically linked set of songs about black celebrity, black image, and black greed, and for the most part they've pulled it off. The title song, which borrows Stephen Stills's hook from Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth," and then borrows Stills himself for guitar and vocals, is a beautiful pop-rap hybrid that stretches PE's range. "Unstoppable," meanwhile, features a slinky guest spot from KRS-One. And then there's the unbridled silliness of Flav's requisite party track. In the past it's been "Can't Do Nuttin' for Ya Man" or "Cold Lampin' with Flavor"; here it's "Shake Your Booty." Ultimately this is a contemplative collection that has a bit of resignation and, it seems, some artistic rebirth -- "Let It Be" rather than "Revolution."

The Bulworth soundtrack has some superficial similarities to He Got Game; it returns rap to its noblest roots, as a form of protest music. But Bulworth is a big studio film by one of America's premier white movie stars, and its politics are somewhat more complicated than those of Lee's movie. Fittingly, then, this is a record of polyphony, one with many voices and many perspectives. B-Real, from Cypress Hill, is on the record, as is his long-time nemesis Ice Cube. Old-school stars such as KRS-One and Public Enemy show up, as well as new ones, including Canibus and a trio of Wu-Tangers -- Method Man, Cappadonna, and Ol' Dirty Bastard (who has, for now anyway, inexplicably changed his name to Big Baby Jesus).

The result is far less diffuse and torn than it might be, a soundtrack that keeps its rap political without forgetting its pop obligations. The first two songs are perfect examples. "Zoom," the hypnotic opener, teams Dr. Dre and L.L. Cool J; "Ghetto Supastar," by Pras Michel with O.D.B. and Mya, uses a rolling bass line and a melody lifted from the Kenny Rogers/Dolly Parton duet "Islands in the Stream" to create the most infectious song of the summer. The rest of the record is a slight step down, but only slight -- Canibus consolidates his reputation as one of today's bright young rappers, and only Ice Cube (on "Maniac in the Braniac," a limp duet with Mack 10) disappoints.

Bulworth and He Got Game are perhaps only the beginning of a full-scale rap revival. Public Enemy has another album, There's a Poison Goin' On, set for fall release. The Beastie Boys' Hello Nasty, reportedly their most hip-hop-inflected in years, will be out in July, and there are also new albums due from Ice Cube, De La Soul, and others.

-- Ben Greenman

Mass Nerder

Hooks abound on All's Mass Nerder, the ninth album by the group formed ten years ago out of the ashes of the Descendents. That seminal outfit's landmark '82 longplayer Milo Goes to College remains one of the few hardcore albums to successfully balance college-dork humor with boho-punk passion and breakneck rhythms with riffs any old-school Replacements fan could appreciate. The trouble with All, however, is that, despite its voluminous output, every damn album has sounded pretty much the same, from Stephen Egerton's assaultive chunks of distorto-guitar to drummer-songwriter Bill Stevenson's incisive rumination on geekdom (he's for it), heartbreak (he's against it), drug abuse (ditto), and sex (he's, um, all for it). Worthy topics, to be sure, and Stevenson's stand is equally admirable, as is the gusto and intensity of vocalist Chad Price.

Too bad it's all been heard before: the well-meaning creep in the selfishly romantic "Until I Say So"; the clean-and-sober grumblings in "World's On Heroin"; the "Romantic Junkie" who always gets the chicks but treats 'em like shit; the hypersensitive loser who's really "Good as My Word"; the pathetic loner who's sulking in "Silence." Though it's hard to argue with lines as sharp as "I feel like a dope for thinking she's so fine" (from "Perfection"), it's also hard to believe that after a decade these guys haven't found something new to bitch about.

-- John Floyd

Natalie Merchant

Natalie Merchant's big, brassy pop success as the singer and songwriter for 10,000 Maniacs came at the expense of her more poetic aspirations. After seven albums with the group she decided to hop off the cash cow and quietly pursue a solo career. Her 1995 debut, Tigerlily, proved Merchant could make hits on her own terms; the organic, hand-carved sound exemplified by the moody singles "Carnival" and "Jealousy" caught the public ear, to the tune of triple-platinum album sales. But with the release of her second CD, Ophelia, Merchant comes across as something of a porcelain figure, cool and unreal, with a less cogent, more remote sound. We hear a more spiritual, subdued Merchant singing, "I've been treated so long as if I'm becoming untouchable," and proving that she is. The fragile, muted tone of Ophelia creates a sense that these songs are best kept under glass, ever beautiful to look at and free of the mess that warm-blooded emotions bring.

Whether Merchant's affected vocals are artistic or pretentious will always be a matter for debate, but when an American makes "class" sound like "closs," as she does here, it's just plain irritating. Her singing is also lethargic, as she drops and oozes the lyrics to the point that it's often difficult to understand what she's saying. But if you can get past the mannered veneer there are a few interesting things going on. The title track, a hymn to womankind, features snatches of stories about people as different as a suffragette and a human cannonball. And "Thick as Thieves" starts off stepping lightly through the Garden of Eden but ends in a sensual, ecstatic dance as rude electric guitar interrupts the tune's tranquil flow, summoning vibrant noises and squeals.

"Break Your Heart" is an admirable attempt at a soul ballad, but Merchant is quickly out of her depth in the company of former Brand New Heavies singer Dea Davenport and jazz trumpeter Chris Botti. Paired with Tibetan devotional singer Yunchen Llamo, she fares better on "Effigy" with its short, graceful mantra, "I'm an effigy, a parody of who I appear to be."

Lovely, stark piano and vibrating Hammond Leslie organ illuminate the record, but the majority of the cuts still follow a bland, bloodless formula that makes them almost interchangeable. "Life Is Sweet," "King of May," "Kind & Generous," and "The Living" are not the same song in structure, but all share the common melodic elements and phrasing that have given Merchant's work a certain nagging sameness over the years. Merchant used more than 30 musicians on Ophelia, chasing a new diversity of sound that, to a certain degree, she achieves. If she had only given herself a similar makeover and dropped the arty pretense (as she was beginning to with Tigerlily), Ophelia could have been vivid and real.

-- Robin Myrick

Smashing Pumpkins

Radio programmers in the Nineties, searching desperately for heroes on whom to bestow their favors, have to thank the gods every time Great Pumpkin Billy Corgan wraps a record. Adore, the followup to the band's 1995 double set Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (eight times platinum in the United States alone), gives them exactly what they're praying for in the lead single "Ava Adore." The song is classic Top 40 Smashing Pumpkins: raucous yet soothing, breathy yet forceful, a model of Corgan's lavish, overdub-laden production.

Alas, it is but a fleeting aural apparition. Adore delivers not the deliciously angry and reliably excitable Pumpkins of old. Instead the disc crawls from a morass of sensitivity right from the first laser scan with the maudlin "To Sheila," a "Landslide" on Xanax. "Perfect" and "Daphne Descends" are less depressing, but only slightly more up-tempo; both are dreamy, full of want and heartache. Swirling guitars drip with tremolo, relaxed human-powered drumming struggles against precisely programmed percussion, and synthesizers and single-note guitar riffs float far above Corgan's reedy whine.

Except for the instrumentation (and the drum chair: alternately warmed by Beck's Joey Waronker, ex-Filter and former Pumpkins touring drummer Matt Walker, and, on "For Martha," Matt Cameron, ex of Soundgarden), nothing changes much. On all sixteen tracks Corgan is thoroughly introspective, deeply moody, and sadly, completely boring. If "the world is a vampire," as he proclaimed on the Grammy-winning "Bullet with Butterfly Wings," then surely it has sucked all the life out of Billy Corgan.

-- Adam St. James


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