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

Next Page »