Underground hip-hop is so much more interesting than its mainstream counterpart. While the DMX and Master P crews churn out the same repetitive beats and rhymes month after month (and line their pockets with gold excavated from crass exploitation of the streets), an entire movement of dedicated rappers thrives somewhere below the Top 10 (or Top 100, for that matter). Last year's best hip-hop album, for instance, Mos Def's Black on Both Sides, barely registered among the platinum efforts of Juvenile and Nas that crowded the charts. And no streetz-worthy mainstream rapper would ever dare make the move underground hip-hop heroes the Jungle Brothers do on their latest album, V.I.P. They simply don't have the balls.
Enlisting producer/DJ Alex Gifford of British electronic unit the Propellerheads, the Jungle Brothers wrap their fifth album in electro-club sounds, balancing the furious spy rhythms of Gifford with their own knowledge of overseas hip-hop. The result, while not always on target, is the duo's most satisfying album since 1989's Done by the Forces of Nature. And the two albums couldn't be further apart in execution. While their 11-year-old tour de force is soaked in jazzy, Afrocentric R&B, V.I.P. is a U.K.-bred tour of the synthetic underground. The messages are similar -- Jungle Brothers come from the same old school that graduated such positive thinkers as De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest.
The title track ping-pongs across itself like Fatboy Slim taking it to the streets. Gifford slaps a frenetic beat on top of a toy piano melody and a busy arrangement for hip-hop unlike any being generated stateside. Native New Yorkers/Jungle Brothers Afrika and Mike G merely throw some rhymes on top, allowing themselves to be as magnificently manipulated by Gifford as Shirley Bassey was on the Propellerheads' beyond-Bond-worthy "History Repeating." Even when the Brothers play it close to home -- like on the sprawling, nine-minute "Strictly Dedicated" -- Gifford's influence subtly nudges the action along. There are bumps along the way (Gifford's palette is a limited one, and the MCs themselves haven't really developed their skills much since their debut 12 years ago). Still, when modern hip-hop's idea of tweaking the knobs essentially amounts to Master P pushing out the same boring robotic bounce, Gifford and the Jungle Brothers' V.I.P. lounge is a delectably fresh take on a stale theme.