LL Cool J began his career as the original badass teenage rapper. His early hits had anger, audacity, wordplay as deft as it was def and monstrously heavy grooves. He's also one of the few rappers to pull off a credible ballad. 14 Shots to the Dome (Def Jam) features big brags, sleek seductions and wordplay that Elvis Costello might envy if he weren't busy making the world's dullest album, The Juliet Letters. While never as draining as Elvis C, Cool J is almost as self-referential, which undermines his virtues. Who cares that he doesn't like to get out of bed in the morning?
Ice-T, on the other hand, offers nothing cutting edge on his tracks and his rhymes rarely rise above serviceable. Yet Home Invasion (Priority) ranks with the most intense rock and raps ever made. It's as if an about-to-be-assassinated pop star wrote his own eulogy. Ice-T retains his great wit, but many of these stories and sermons are frigid like a morgue, and the likelihood of his own murder sounds too credible. Home Invasion, after all, is the album Time Warner dumped when Ice-T wouldn't back down from his attacks on cops and the government. There aren't many ways left to shut him up, though record retailers may not carry the record. So Ice-T raps as if his life depends on it. If he's too vulgar for your taste, you're missing the point.
Fast cuts: Brother Joe May, Thunderbolt of the Middle West (Specialty): The best from one of the great powerhouse voices of gospel's early golden age will clear your head after Ice-T. Further proof that the king of pop and Boy George didn't invent musical androgyny.
Willie Nelson, Across the Borderline (Columbia): Willie's best album in years pairs him with the right songs (mostly contemporary singer-songwriter stuff, if you include Peter Gabriel in that category) and the right collaborators (mostly latter-day folkies, if you include Sinéad O'Connor in that category). The highlight is not the Dylan material.
The idea of Jimmy Page joining forces with Robert Plant wanna-be David (ex-Whitesnake) Coverdale may strike many listeners the same way it would have if George Bush had selected Dana Carvey as his VP. While Coverdale/Page (Geffen) may not be Led Zep redux, neither is it the bloated platinum blimp many had feared. Coverdale's vocal aping of Plant is less an issue here than is his tendency, as a middling songwriter, to restrain Page's adventurous eclecticism. Still, Page hasn't played with this much flair and fire since Physical Graffiti. Ultimately, his ability to blend shadow and light by balancing acoustic Eastern tonalities with misty Celtic mega-riffs ignites the chemistry between the two, particularly on the longer workouts. What could have been a spandex-stretching embarrassment becomes, at the very least, the guilty pleasure of the year.
Fast cuts: Dwight Yoakam, This Time (Reprise): When he wraps his unvarnished scorch-and-twang tenor around a haunting charmer such as A Thousand Miles from Nowhere, or rocks out with true grit on Fast As You, Yoakam is modern Nashville's most authentic link to the heartfelt traditions of the music.
Jazz-rap has been a great idea since Ron Carter played bass with A Tribe Called Quest, since Public Enemy's sonics boomed—hell, since Jack Kerouac burped up spontaneous bop prosody. Well-meaning crews from New York's Gangstarr to L.A.'s Freestyle Fellowship dabble in it. But Digable Planets goes all the way. Not only does the music of Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space) (Pendulum) swing, the lyrics' light-footed seriousness is worthy of the jazzmen sampled—Art Blakey and Sonny Rollins, who infiltrated Billboard singles charts courtesy of Digable's Rebirth of Slick.
The conceptualizer is a black boho with jazz in his blood whose tag is Butterfly. His main man, Doodle Bug, connects to the hip-hop tradition. But the group's secret weapon is a young woman called Lady Bug. The faintly Brazilian lilt and articulation of her vocal attack makes her the first female rapper to split the difference between homegirl and interloper. She's a smart musician who grew up on the stuff, and smart listeners will love her to death.
Fast cuts: Soundtracks are often the best rap overviews these days, but not all of them get as much play as Juice or Boomerang.Trespass (Sire/Warner) is state-of-the-art hard-core—gritty, violent, misogynistic, convincing as both music and rhetoric. South Central (Hollywood Basic) links the dancers of the post-Chic era (six great Good Times permutations) to the B-boys of today. And CB4 (MCA), compiled by the film's co-producer (and my colleague) Nelson George, is a complete tour, from the race war of MC Ren's May Day on the Front Line to the pop mysticism of P.M. Dawn's The Nocturnal Is in the House to the parody of CB4's Straight Out of Locash.
Charles M. Young
Even if you agree with the battle cry of Primus fans—"Primus sucks"—there's no denying the musical skill of Les Claypool, who was everybody's bassist of the year in 1992. The rest of his band—Tim Alexander on drums, Larry Lalonde on guitar—weren't slouches, either. Nonetheless, Primus' previous album, Sailing the Seas of Cheese, annoyed me. Both the weirdness and the funk seemed forced and precious. And I didn't want to think about cheese that much. I like Pork Soda (Interscope) more. The weirdness feels less annoying, the funk is largely absent and Claypool's six-string bass riffs reveal a spectacular musical imagination. He uses all six strings, sometimes all over the neck with dizzying speed, sometimes in a highly accessible—if strange—groove. Lyrically, Claypool aspires to Captain Beefheart-style surrealism seasoned with a dash of Butthole Surfers, but the imagery doesn't knock me out like his command of sound does. Fortunately, his voice is low in the otherwise clear mix, so I don't have to listen much to him "sittin' around the house swillin' down them cans of swine."
Fast cuts: David Bowie, Black Tie White Noise (Savage Records): Having failed to capture the public's imagination with Tin Machine, Bowie reprises Let's Dance, his greatest hit. Given his reputation for being on top of trends, it's surprising he didn't go techno instead of disco, and who will care in this age of grunge? Nile Rogers' production is, however, hard to fault, and it will make you dance.
Lisa Germano, Happiness (Capitol): Her fiddle solos in John Mellencamp's road band stopped the show, and here Germano again steps out on her own. Her breathy, sexy voice creates a powerful sense of intimacy with her personal-pronouns-from-an-alternate-universe lyrics. The music is sort of folk-alternative, an original blend of influences halfway between Enya and Mellencamp. She can hypnotize you and make you think. The fiddle still knocks you out.
As a comedian, Eddie Murphy has overcome the homage to his mentor, Richard Pryor, and crafted his own telegenic, wiseass persona. On TV, in movies and in concert, Murphy has been his own man, replacing Pryor as the reigning king of black comedy.
As a recording artist, however, Murphy is still struggling to develop his own voice. On his third musical effort, Love's Alright (Motown), Murphy remains trapped by his fascination with his forebears—the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and, especially, Prince. Songs such as the title track and Cuteness owe a deep debt to the Minneapolis master, and they aren't the only tracks that suggest an overkill of Princely delirium. Covers of the Beatles' Good Day Sunshine and Hendrix' version of Hey Joe, while ably executed by a band that includes guitarist Ernie Isley and bassist Larry Graham, only serve to highlight Murphy's old school ties.
Murphy actually displays quite a bit of musicality, but more as a songwriter-arranger than as a performer. The all-star cut Yeah deftly blends the voices of superstars Garth Brooks, Luther Vandross, Michael Jackson, et al., saying the same word, into a surprisingly entertaining novelty. One, a percolating house-music track, and the clever story song Desdamona suggest there's more to Murphy's musical interest than vanity and admiration. The key to his long-term success is to break free and inform his records with the same wit, irreverence and insight that distinguish his humor.
Fast cuts: Joi, Tonya and Di are Jade, a female vocal trio from California whose debut LP, Jade to the Max (Giant), is quite promising. This effort includes one great single, Don't Walk Away, a real good dance song, I Wanna Love You, and a fine cover of an Emotions classic, Don't Ask My Neighbor. These girls aren't En Vogue, but they have serious potential.
New stories and sermons from Ice-T, brags from LL Cool J and Digable Planets' secret weapon.