Back in the day (well, five years ago), rap was all about having the biggest gun, the biggest dick, and the biggest bank account. While the latter two priorities haven't changed all that much, the guns (and the gangsta rap that spawned them) have slowly gone the way of grunge. There are a few holdovers (just as guitar rock still has to deal with bands like Creed and Days of the New), but after losing two hip-hop giants to a pointless territorial feud, much of the hip-hop nation is laying down its weapons and embracing its coastal brothers with an open-armed hug.
DJ Quik, on his fourth album, Rhythm-al-ism, confronts this shift head-on. On "You'z a Ganxta," the Compton-bred rapper faces and tackles the rumor that he was involved in the shooting death of the Notorious B.I.G. Ultimately adopting a one-nation-under-a-groove stance, Quik not only denies any involvement, but gives props to the fallen Biggie as the song ends.
So, with no war to fight, what's an ex-gangsta to do? Quik settles for love (or sex; to him they're pretty much one and the same). Enlisting El DeBarge to coo Marvin Gaye-like and Snoop Dogg to wax poetic on the pleasures of, um, the vagina, Quik now seemingly spends 24-7 smoking bud and shagging fly girls. Which, I suppose, is better than popping an East Coast rapping rival.
But Quik and crew spend so much of Rhythm-al-ism's time going over and over the same points that it all becomes tedious. Old-school beats and grooves keep the album from slipping into a one-note coma, but the rhymes (still decidedly West Coast, as are those more-bounce-to-the-ounce beats) get stuck once they move past the third or fourth song.
Quik's attempt to keep it simultaneously fresh and real pretty much sums up this album's attitude. Yeah, the peace-and-love feeling is spread, but only a few times (like on "Hand in Hand" and "Speed") does it move beyond misogyny. The senseless violence may have gone the way of Seven Mary Three, but Rhythm-al-ism's Superfly-meets-Larry-Flynt makeup can be just as offending in its own redundant, artless way.
The Civil War: The Nashville Sessions
I loathe musicals. The number of songs I like from big Broadway musicals is roughly the same as the number of politicians I respect.
But I like country music. Eleven artists, plus three others on the outskirts of country, have lent themselves to The Civil War, an album recorded in support of a musical that opened in Houston in September and is scheduled to hit Broadway in March or April. These artists, of course, are not the original cast. Don't expect to see Deana Carter's bare feet strolling across some Broadway stage or Charlie Daniels sawing on a fiddle and playing it hot.
For that reason The Civil War: The Nashville Sessions sounds more like a tribute album: Country music does the Great White Way. There's a broken pickup truck for every light on Broadway. Fans of musicals will probably like this record. Country music lovers will be marching to their local used-record stores to see if they can trade it for a pre-owned copy of the live Garth Brooks CD.
Which of these fifteen songs will become the "Tomorrow" of this musical is anyone's guess. Trace Adkins is convincing as the loyal-to-a-fault Confederate soldier on "Old Gray Coat." Bebe Winans, to no one's surprise, belts out the righteous gospel on "River Jordan." Carter's "Missing You (My Bill)" is sweet enough, but its sequel, "The Honor of Your Name" (sung by Trisha Yearwood), milks sloppy sentimentality for all it's worth.
The Civil War can be tapped for all kinds of subjects for a theatrical production--bravery, foolishness, honor, loyalty, the death of a feudal way of life, and the triumph of capitalism. One gets the impression from this album that the play is way too broad in scope. There doesn't seem to be one central character, or even a group of connected characters.
But this is only speculation. I'll wait until The Civil War comes to Playhouse Square to see if it has the makings, either musically or theatrically, of a box-office smash.
Eric B. & Rakim
Paid in Full: The Platinum Edition
Why mince words? Eric B. & Rakim's Paid in Full is, quite simply, one of the finest hip-hop albums to lower the boom on audiences since, well, ever. Originally released in 1987, Paid in Full continues to stand as one of the most sampled (and thus, influential) R&B LPs of the century. Island's new retrospective includes the original Paid in Full along with a ten-track remix album that, in some instances, actually surpasses the studio album in ass-shaking splendor. Repulsed by the listless hip-hop of today? Paid in Full is your antidote.
Eric B. & Rakim's music stands the test of time because of its creativity and originality. The six-minute-plus, rhythmically barren "My Melody" would fall apart in another group's hands, but Rakim's keen verbiage deflates the competition and sings its own praises simultaneously: "Why waste time on the microphone?/I take this more serious than just a poem," he declares. The message: If you don't have anything to say, then shut the fuck up.
The group's lean funk doesn't appear until the fourth track, the classic "I Know You Got Soul." With swift lyrics flowing over Bobby Byrd's ditty of the same name, Rakim lays it down with authority: "It's been a long time/I shouldn't have left you without a strong rhyme to step to/Think of how many weak shows you've slept through." The variety of Rakim's rhymes injects intellect and humor into a genre often devoid of same. On the orgasmic title track, listeners are treated to the essence of the DJ/rapper collaboration. Eric B. introduces the "def" beat he's put together and invites Rakim to unleash some "def" rhymes. The next thing you know, Rakim is on fire, only to be interrupted by Eric B. bemoaning his girlfriend's displeasure at the amount of time it has taken the group to finish the album. Solution: They leave the beat going in the background and exit the studio.
Space prevents lauding all of Paid in Full's gems. Suffice to say, this is a record that rewrote the book on hip-hop in 1987 and still sounds just as ahead of its time today. Thoroughly mesmerizing.
By Your Side
It's been a rough few years for the Black Crowes. After watching their nest fall apart in chunks--losing two members, litigation, changing record labels--the Georgia band has not only succeeded in repatching its roost, but has found a cooler full of beer and a disc full of jams. As band member Chris Robinson says in a recent bio: "Our last album was about dealing with your hangover; this one is about the night before the hangover."
We all know that the Black Crowes have lived off the attitude of the early Rolling Stones and Faces: loose rhythms, heavy grooves, howling vocals. But if they didn't have something to offer, they wouldn't have had the chance to record their fifth album, By Your Side. With their backs against the wall, the brothers Robinson may have written their best batch of songs yet. The difference between By Your Side and the previous four is Rich Robinson's fretwork. This is the first time he has handled guitar duties alone, and subtraction here is addition. His playing is full of contradictions: raw yet focused, basic yet subtle, powerful yet brittle.
Built upon a blues/rock foundation, the eleven-song By Your Side regains the same energy and enthusiasm of the Crowes' 1990 debut, Shake Your Moneymaker. The band seems less occupied with exploring its roots and more intent on getting down to business. Their current radio single "Kicking My Heart Around" is indicative of By Your Side's all-out rockers. If you're not impressed with Rich's slide guitar work, Chris's vigorous harmonica playing should do the trick.
By Your Side is the type of disc that should be listened to in its entirety. The only theme is blues-tinged rock and roll--what a concept!
The Complete Recordings
Stephen Sondheim's 1971 musical Follies is nirvana to those who live in a world punctuated by overtures, ballads, charm songs, and dream ballets. It's a potent mixture of spangles and cobwebs, based on two great obsessions: showbiz glamour and physical decay, making it the most effective musical since Gypsy.
The show was inspired by a famous Life magazine photo of former silent star Gloria Swanson posing amongst the ruins of the then-just-demolished Roxy Theater (a gargantuan old New York movie palace known as the "Cathedral of the Motion Picture").
What was originally intended as a backstage murder mystery evolved into a haunted theater reunion where middle-aged ex-Follies girls and their husbands are trailed by the sepia ghosts of their glamorous young selves. It all culminates in a surrealistic Follies, where the musical's two mismatched couples act out their dilemmas in old-time production numbers. Those who saw Hal Prince's lavish original production place it among their most cherished theater memories.
Sondheim's score is a magical evocation of vintage show-business songs, a pastiche ranging from Berlin to Youmans, with songs of modern psychological insight interspersed throughout, all with the eerie patina of tarnishing time and loss.
Up to now, there have been three recordings of the show, each with its own virtues, including the nostalgia of such old-time stars as Dorothy Collins, Alexis Smith, Yvonne DeCarlo, Barbara Cook, Lee Remick, and Fifi Dorsay. This new recording by TVT Records is based on a recent revival from New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse.
Continuing the tradition of reviving half-forgotten stars, we have Kaye Ballard's trademark brass and Ann Miller's insouciant verve, made poignant by the tremors of advanced years. Other recordings have rendered the score more melodiously, with higher-voltage star power, yet this recording is indispensable in its completeness. Most valuable is an addendum composed of every song excised from the show for various reasons or newly written for the London production. Like John McGlinn's fabled three-CD restoration of the complete Show Boat, it makes a fascinating overview of a masterwork, with the cut songs being every bit the equal of those we have known.
Not a luxury, but a must for the library of those who value the art of the American musical.
--Keith A. Joseph