Accepted Eclectic(Project Blowed)
Scorpion (Ruff Ryders)
On paper, Aceyalone and Eve don’t have much in common except that both their names begin and end in vowels. One is a lord of hip-hop’s underground, the other a queen of commercial rap’s kingdom, but break past the borders erected by their core audiences and you’ll find their shared source of talent: sheer charisma. Certainly, both have gotten a big boost from their respective affiliations — Eve with the Ruff Ryders, Aceyalone with the Freestyle Fellowship — but individually, each oozes personality from every pore. In contrast to the merely popular, these are icons who shape hip-hop by the sheer force of their magnetism.
With Acey, he’s the foremost rappers’ rapper, a tireless wordsmith armed with a phalanx of flows. Rather than just chatter on for the sake of style, though, he combines the round-the-way wisdom that your granddad passes down with the youthful exuberance of a 5-year-old nephew. One moment he’s reflecting Zen-like on his life’s blessings in “I Can’t Complain,” the next he’s rattling off on the lesser competitors for “Rappers, Rappers, Rappers,” and the next he’s goofing on the drug-disabled with “Master Your High.” No matter what face he’s wearing, Acey remains confident and compelling — as he boasts on “Microphones,” “This microphone/is my magic wand/to make all of y’all respond.” After two ambitious but uneven albums, All Balls Don’t Bounce and Book of Human Language, Acey finally hits his stride by keeping things simple — minimalist tracks by Fat Jack, Evidence and others anchor each of the 16 songs, while Acey’s verbosity launches him into the stratosphere. It’s an exhilarating, delirious ride to the top with him.
Meanwhile, Eve is single-handedly proving why it makes no sense to compare female rappers only with one another. It’s not just that her wit, vigor and versatility challenge Lauryn Hill, but Jay Z too. Her last album, Ruff Ryders’ First Lady, proved that she could hold her own next to peers like DMX, but Scorpion propels her into pop stardom’s embrace, smartly blending party anthems with thug themes. Like Acey, Eve’s a rapper for all seasons, coming tenacious on “Gangsta Bitches,” slyly playful on “Let Me Blow Your Mind,” and turning a generic sex song, “You Ain’t Gettin’ None,” into a surprisingly mature yet titillating tale of lust and desire. Even her turn at singing (all but a cliché among female MCs) is a revelation, as her rendition of Bob Marley’s “No, No, No” — featuring Marley’s sons Damien and Steve — milks every ounce of sensual soulfulness from the original without bastardizing it. It’s too bad that Eve blocks her own light by inviting on so many cameo guests. Here’s one artist who doesn’t need the help, though Dr. Dre’s musical contributions on “Let Me Blow Ya Mind” and “That’s What It Is” are welcome additions alongside Swizz Beatz’s shimmering studio tracks.
Realistically, Aceyalone and Eve probably won’t drag backpackers and jiggy jockers out of their rigid camps to embrace each other’s heroes. But if hip-hop is desperate to find genuine personalities among the cookie-cut clones, the smarter fans will double-dip into both albums, two of the best so far in this new year. (Oliver Wang)
Girls Can Tell (Merge)
Act 1: Pixies-derived Austinites release two catchy but overpraised records on mid-’90s Matador, then flying high on Pavement and Liz Phair’s clout. Act 2: Band signs to Vapor and channels everything into 1998’s A Series of Sneaks, a fractured document of the three weeks when “lo-fi” had cachet. Act 3: Unloaded by its label immediately after that disc’s release, band whittles itself down to songwriter Britt Daniels and drummer Jim Eno, tests the waters with a couple of 7-inches, and finds itself on Chapel Hill’s Merge Records, which is becoming to indie-rock survivors (Seaweed, Versus) what The Love Boat was to MGM contract players.
Which brings us to Girls Can Tell, Spoon’s fourth full-length overall. (“Fourth and best,” sure, though the competition isn’t that fierce.) Like the title’s Knack tribute, Daniels’ songs plumb the collective pop-unconscious for familiar rhythms and textures while stopping just short of open theft, from the Cars-ish seethe of “Everything Hits at Once” to “Take a Walk,” in which the Yardbirds discover delay pedals — hardly a major innovation, but a nice touch of alternate (not “alternative”) rock history. Perverse as it may seem, this album is more tightly arranged and crisply recorded than anything the group managed on a major label; in fact, it’s a small masterpiece of home production, with Eno’s economical drumming framing stabs of rhythm guitar and precisely placed daubs of vibes and viola.
A few standout tracks halfway through carry the day, along with Daniels’ unaffected rasp. “Lines in the Suit” may or may not be about unemployment (“The human resource clerk/has two cigarettes and back to work”), but its minor-key harmonies render lyrical content moot. “The Fitted Shirt” is even better, sketching the narrator’s nostalgia, sartorial (“I still got Dad’s clothes”) and otherwise (“I long for the days they used to say ‘ma’am’ and ‘yes, sir’”) to the tune of first-Camaro metal and, brilliantly, harpsichord. It’s great, but also worrisome: Along with the album’s length (under 40 minutes, just like the classics) and cover image (spinning vinyl), this song may reveal more than Daniels intended about the essential conservatism lurking behind his historical and formal pop-mastery. (Franklin Bruno)
I Need Drugs (Psycho+Logical)
As the self-styled pioneer of death rap, Crooklyn-based Necro is on a mission to outshock all the Ghetto Boys and Luke Skywalkers that came before him. On his debut, I Need Drugs, he relates his sexual conquests (“Hoe Blow,” “Fuck You to the Track,” “Get on Your Knees”), eightball-fiending (“I Need Drugs”), flosser hatred (“I’m Sick of You”), even Christ bashing (“WNYU 89.1 Xmas Freestyle 12/23/99”). It’s a riot of four-letter words, body fluids, ill will and everything short of a snuff track. But Necro’s metrical dexterity, catchy vocabulary and arcing narratives are potent for that very reason. Take the conceit of “STD” (gonorrhea as paramour), which commences all sappy, then 180s into a slasher-flick revenge tale. A good MC can alter cadences, but not many can turn the whole mood upside down in a single cut.
This 24-year-old meshuga man’s got even more surprises. If tight delivery and synapse-poppin’ spontaneity stick out in the context of kindergarten-level maturity, even more salient are the sparkly synths, rubbery bass lines and Dionne Warwick samples buttressing the rhyme schemes — not the obvious backdrop for one man’s spiritual malaise, but whatever works (and it does). On the jester tip, Necro does a version of Joe’s Apartment, talking about how some of his best friends — and occasional meals (!) — were household vermin in “Cockroaches.”
Forget all the parental-advisory stickers for a moment: What makes Necro scary is the sense that under all the puerile boasts and empty threats, he’s not always kidding, as on the autobiographical “Underground”: “You wanna know why I’m like an icicle, when I was 6 I was a hit and run/I looked in the mirror and saw my own brain.” Or how about the last line of the title track’s rock-smoking caper, addressing his dealer: “I’ll beep you in an hour/I hate you.” It’s telling when a radio-show host comments during a guest appearance (“WNYU 89.1 Freestyle 5/10/2000”), “Damn, Necro, you have a lot of anger, you get worse every time you’re back.” Necro, thinking this over, wearily concurs, “Lot of anger.” (Andrew Lentz)
Take It or Squeeze It (Loud)
Don’t try to take the Beatnuts too seriously. For all their colorful gangsta ’n’ playa posturing, it’s all flash with no fire. And hey, that’s okay — they’re here to entertain, not offer testimony, so when Juju and Psycho Les chatter off about sex, drugs and violence, expect Ridley Scott, not Ken Burns. Their rhymes are little more than window-dressing for the real attraction, their namesake: the beats.
For the past decade, the Beatnuts have built their reputation on their quirky, savory bits of ear candy — memorable musical macramés that weave together infectiously funky loops and hammer-headed drum tracks. But with each new album — this is their fourth — the ’Nuts feel like artistic fossils, mired in a tar pit of torpidity. Partly it’s because they haven’t reinvented themselves in years, and their sex boasts and gun toasts have gotten more vapid with each recycling. But it’s also that hip-hop’s musical tastes have changed. Ten years back, scores of rappers knocked on their door for a track — these days, producers like Timbaland and the Neptunes have nailed down rap’s “now sound,” and the ’Nuts have fallen out of fashion.
It’s a shame, too, since their beats are still as tasty as ever, examples of a masterful minimalism that’s been drowned out by today’s sonic storms of studio effects. “It’s Da Nuts” bumps on little more than just a staccato bass line and rolling breakbeat, while “Prendelo” is a classic party anthem built from a simple Afro-Cuban piano melody and Greg Nice’s energetic cameo. The ’Nuts seem to challenge themselves to find the most obscure and exotic samples possible, whether it’s the trilling flute loop that darts through “Mayonnaise” or the spinning disco vocals underneath “Contact.”
Unfortunately, these enjoyable musical hooks aren’t enough to keep Take It or Squeeze It afloat. Odd as it sounds, while their music is still fun to listen to, Juju and Psycho Les aren’t — not with their tired, juvenile misogyny and empty bravado. In the past, they’ve been able to count on their style being the substance, but as they’ve even worn that into a dull nub, their irreverence has spelled out their irrelevance. (Oliver Wang)