I've always had my doubts about the notion of the hip hop "community" or "subculture"— too easy to claim, too hard to verify empirically. But the eight multiartist comps below, only two of them Honorable Mentions, must prove something.

BEATS & RHYMES: HIP HOP OF THE '90S, PART I (Rhino)Between 1990, when old school went emeritus, and 1992, when gangsta stuck daisy age's pistil up its stamen, came a nondescript downtime that Rhino maps without recourse to rap crossovers, which meant less than nothing to the loyalists who were just then insisting that what they loved was called "hip hop." But though all three volumes are pretty subtle for nonloyalists, only here are the high points obvious— hits from key Jungle Brothers and A Tribe Called Quest albums, BDP's "Love's Gonna Get'cha"— and the selections from minor figures like Special Ed, Def Jef, and K-Solo open to challenge from the likes of me (I nominate "Taxin'," "Fa Sho Shot," and "Tales From the Crack Side"). Even so I love the YZ, Poor Righteous Teachers, and D.O.C. tracks, not to mention the BDP radio edit with sound effects where the bleeps should be. I also love Cold Chillin' 's "Erase Racism." B Plus BEATS & RHYMES: HIP HOP OF THE '90S, PART II (Rhino)Meet and greet such subculturally certified rhymesmiths as Leaders of the New School, Organized Konfusion, Main Source, the UMC's, and the oft-odious DJ Quik. Plus, for some reason, three predictably solid Chubb Rock tracks. Plus minor hits from Rakim, Lyte, and Run-D.M.C. Think wordplay not signification. Think beats not hooks. Go with their flows. A Minus BEATS & RHYMES: HIP HOP OF THE '90S, PART III (Rhino)This bumps along for eight tracks distinguished by two new to me— Lord Finesse's "Return of the Funky Man" ("you're softer than baby shit") and Double X Posse's "Not Gonna Be Able To Do It" ("I'm not gonna be able to do")— before vaulting off Naughty by Nature and A Tribe Called Quest into four consecutive guaranteed great, hilarious records: Del Tha Funkee Homosapien's Three Stooges bit, Humpty Hump's nose, the Pharcyde's dozens, and FU-Schnickens' advertisement for Jive Records, which has steadfastly kept their catalogue in print. Then Romy-Dee expands the legend of funky Kingston. A Minus THE CORRUPTOR (Jive)Obsessed with death, declaring 1985 the Golden Age, counterbalancing two pieces of pimp shit with two pieces of ho fuck you, these tough, articulate third-generation voices document a gangsta myth innocent of all hope. Nostalgic credo: "When niggaz keep their weapons concealed it's all real." Guys, that much could happen. Maybe it's already started. B Plus HOUND DOG TAYLOR: A TRIBUTE (Alligator)The natural evolution of chops and technology renders this inauspicious vehicle the best houserocking record by anyone since the honored slidemaster, who died in 1975 leaving his Houserockers to bequeath their name to a boogie blues style never truly replicated. Bigger and faster than the prototype, which is fun, it lets virtuosos-in-spite-of-themselves give free rein to their baser natures: flash-fingered Luther Allison, Sonny Landreth, Dave Hole, and Warren Haynes come on every bit as crude as neoprimitives George Thorogood, Elvin Bishop, and Cub Koda. Respect to Vernon Reid and Alvin Youngblood Hart for powering up acoustic. Shame on Ronnie Earl for showing off. A Minus LIGHTNING OVER THE RIVER (Music Club)Although compiler Christina Roden rightly distinguishes between speed soukous and the old bipartite kind that gives the singer some, the thunderbolts she catches in her bottle are all thrown by guitarists. Admirers of Kanda Bongo Man, Tshala Muana, and especially Syran M'Benza (Symbiose, two tracks) may find a few selections familiar. More likely, however, they'll just own them. Even for Afropop fans, an enjoyable tour of a terrain that tends to blur into itself without a guide. A Minus RANDY NEWMAN: Bad Love (DreamWorks)After an annuity's worth of soundtracks, a box stuffed with marginalia, and Faust, his first true album since 1988 finds him more cynical than ever, about himself above all. Having called one cheap joke "I'm Dead (But I Don't Know It)," he explains the belated tribute to the wife and family he kissed off in the '70s with a simple "I'd sell my soul and your souls for a song," then announces: "But I wanted to write you one/Before I quit/And this one's it." Thing is, cheap jokes and cynicism have always been his gift to the world, and when he's on he can twist the knife. In joke mode, cf. not only "I'm Dead," so anti-Randy it'll have young yahoos saying amen like they just discovered Mahalia Jackson, but two of his cruelest political songs ever: one a history of early imperialism where the punch line is HIV, another addressed with dulcet malice to Mr. Karl Marx. For cynicism, try "My Country," which might just be about his family too, and "Shame," where Newman plays a hateful old hard-on indistinguishable from himself. Twisting his croak a turn further are the most articulate arrangements of his singer-songwriting life: jazzlike, but in a piano-based rock context that shifts at a moment's notice to any voicing (Hollywood-symphonic, country march, pop-schlock) that might reshade a meaning or make the ear believe what the mind can't stand. There are a few ringers. But the last time he was so strong in this mode he was married to the wife he misses. A RAWKUS PRESENTS SOUNDBOMBING II (Rawkus)Whoever's representing— Medina Green eating crosstown beef or Eminem tripping on a minivan or Company Flow dissing AmeriKKKa or Pharoahe Monch toasting the mayor or "hairy fat slob unshaven" R.A. the Rugged Man conjoining his "white trash nation" with "all the starvin' artists"— the Rawkus subculture is always peering over its own edge. The beats aren't invariably propulsive, but they never relent, with timeouts for DJs to scratch themselves minimized. Although the us-against-society mood is far from asexual, nobody macks and nobody flosses. Nobody deals either. Racism is an issue, race isn't. In our present-day dystopia, no wonder so many make this imaginary world their home. A Minus RUFFHOUSE RECORDS GREATEST HITS (Ruffhouse)The Miseducation, Score, and Cypress Hilllifts have their own lives. "Insane in the Brain" is worth hearing twice. "Fuck Compton" is history. Kriss Kross weren't always has-beens. Nas wasn't always nasty. John Forté and Pace Won have their own futures. Few labels have done '90s hip hop so proud. A Minus SLICK RICK: The Art of Storytelling (Def Jam)The music on this unflappably deft comeback is unlayered, highlighting spare beats with simple scratches or vocal sound effects to showcase the feyly effeminate king's- honeydrip singsong that's been identifiable at 50 yards since "La-Di-Da-Di." Mostly he boasts about how pretty he is and how good he raps, proving the latter with cameos from such modern-day flowmasters as Raekwon, Nas, Snoop, and Big Boi. He plays his prison card by trumping the two-line auditions from the wannabes who serenade him as he walks to freedom with "Kill Niggaz," which describes a fictional crime spree far deadlier than the attack he got sent up for. And he writes about fucking with the detailed relish of someone who's read a lot of pornography. A Minus DON WHITE: Brown Eyes Shine (Lumperboy)White gigs every weekend, mostly tiny folk venues and "private shows"— gather some friends in your rec room and he'll make it worth everybody's while. Yet though he lives just 220 miles away, he hasn't hit Manhattan since 1996, because his wife says he has to come home with more money in his pocket than when he left. And come home he does. Thus he stands as the only folkie I can think of who's never footloose or romantically bereft— his subject matter, most of it autobiographical, is domestic, focusing here on parent-teen relationships after a debut about marriage proper. The monologue where his brain explodes after a homework discussion with his 14-year-old can only be understood by someone who's been there, and anyone who's been there will immediately play it again. With or without his band he's a strained singer with an unmediated New England accent and barely a guitarist at all, and when he isn't funny he's corny. But usually he's original enough to turn corny into a virtue. A Minus DWIGHT YOAKAM: Last Chance for a Thousand Years: Dwight Yoakam's Greatest Hits From the 90's (Reprise)Whenever I ponder this multithreat singer- songwriter, honky-tonk ideologue, Hollywood role-player, published author, and hunk-if-you-like-your-meat-lean, I remember what Sharon Stone said about the prospects for their reunion: "I'd rather eat a dirt sandwich." Normally with country music you swallow the male chauvinism and figure guys feeling sorry for themselves is what makes it go; with Yoakam, so talented and so conscious, you expect a little movement within the paradigm, and conclude that he chose neotrad because movement was the last thing on his mind. But even if his most romantic moment is the Waylon cover where he goes back to his old lady because his new lady was playing games, he's sung and written his way into the male chauvinist canon. His best song of the '90s, for its heartbroke melody: 1990's "The Heart That You Own." Latest rock cover: the finale, Queen's "Crazy Little Thing Called Love." He "just can't handle it," "must get 'round to it," etc. Right, Dwight. Or is that just Dirtbag? A Minus

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