Escape Claus

Given hip hop's belief in Santa Claus, a/k/a the Christmas market, figure the many rap records below (don't stop till you get to Duds, now) constitute a first installment. Haven't even gotten some yet. People who believe in Santa Claus often think it's more blessed to receive than give.


BADLY DRAWN BOY
Have You Fed the Fish?
(Artist Direct
Damon Gough was never the sad sack speedsters mistook him for, but who would have pegged him as a song-and-dance man—metaphorically, of course, which doesn't mean somebody shouldn't send him tap shoes? "How can I give you the answers you need/When all I possess is a melody?" he implores, and for once said melody is the answer. It's the rare guitar geek who acts like strings and horns are where he's always belonged rather than where he hopes he'll fit in. The rare bedroom genius who's cheered by success, too. A MINUS

BUCK 65
Square
(WEA import)
Where DJ Shadow decorates beats with words, Buck 65 underpins words with beats. That's why "the echoing voice of the old ones" includes substantial passages by Lord Buckley, Bill Cosby, Alfred Hitchcock, and William Burroughs. The music flows in its quietly sampled way, as it had better on CDs the artist refuses to divide into song-length tracks, but Richard Terfry's alt-rap wouldn't have much point if he wasn't at least as wise as, say, his compatriot Joni Mitchell—the young one, I mean. No question he's a nicer person. So here's predicting he'll be able to continue "The girls are desperate/But the boys are even hornier/The rose is sweet/But the stem is even thornier" into the productive adult life on which he's embarked. And that a decade from now he'll rewrite "Food" to accommodate the Malaysian, Uzbek, Senegalese, and haute French cuisines. A MINUS

MS. JADE
Girl Interrupted
(Beatclub/Interscope)
Decent rapper turns bling bling into ching ching until it stops making a noise, then gets sisterly on your ass, which is an improvement. Street, gangsta, 2-1-5, blah blah blah, she claims "Different," but the differentest thing about her is she's Timbaland's front of the year. With Missy, commercial priorities aren't all Timbo keeps straight. Here he twists and sprawls, coaxing wisdom from Nelly Furtado and Nate Dogg, rapping death metal, layering like Tunisian pastry, and extracting a beat from a Charli Baltimore boy toy. Hey you, blow your whistle. See, doesn't work when I do it. B PLUS

YOUSSOU NDOUR & LE SUPER ETOILE
Rewmi
(Jololi import)
For the Senegalese market and what it is: six new songs straightfowardly presented, hyperactive tamas leading stripped band, with occasional keyb washes and a single femme chorus discernible. No cameos, concepts, or fancy solos. The songs dim as they go on—only the first two seem certain to surface in export versions. But every one has its own special shift or lift. And the finale swoops upward again. A MINUS

NORTHERN STATE
Dying in Stereo
(Northern State)
The whitegirl hip hop trio's second Web-and-gig EP in under a year was diverted from indie retail by label-deal dreams; three of its eight tracks remake songs that surfaced on the four-track collector's item Hip Hop You've Never Heard, which I prefer for no better reason than that I heard it first. So don't worry—you won't regret this flyer even if it's subsumed by that label deal. Hesta Prynne is angular, self-made, just-don't-give-a-fuck yet caring too; Guinea Love's Long Island grit has earth-mother in it; DJ Sprout projects rounded, earnest, well-bred. The three form an essential unity—call it "The Trinity," since they do. And though their beats beat Stetsasonic's, their commitment to their well-bred side will dog them for as long as they strive. "Don't blame me 'cause I voted for Gore" is a great line because it's straight in the sense of candid and a revealing one because it's straight in the sense of normal. I bet Hesta actually did work for the president's wife—licking envelopes, probably. How many rappers can make that claim? And how many rockers? A

THE ROOTS
Phrenology
(MCA)
The Bad Brains homage "!!!" ends in the nick of 25 seconds, "Quills" is sadistic in an arty way—two more sinful episodes in a cheating-song cycle where new blood Ben Kenney's guitar takes hip hop from behind and calls the baby rock and roll. This isn't some critical metaphor. It's the plot of the tale of betrayal and recompense told by 2002's freshest roots rock track and jammingest avant rap track—the album's centerpiece, "The Seed (2.0)." The backstory, if there is one, you can get from the gossip industry. I'll just note that on this record Kamal's keyb hooks could pass for piano. And believe that after years of racial mythology, they've found it in their talent to put black music's long tradition of tune and structure into practice. A MINUS

THE STREETS
Original Pirate Material
(Vice)
This succès d'estime—"cult classic, not bestseller," he says it himself—ventures closer than you'd hope to the ignoramus whine that hip hop isn't music. More even than in our underground, it settles for rhymes-with-accompaniment. In England, where the garage Mike Skinner claims to "push forward" is techno's last big thing, he may be the answer to "Who Got the Funk?" By the parochial standards of the Neptunes and Timbaland, however, his beats perk up mostly when he skanks them. As for his realism, I took it more seriously once he claimed he'd be in museums 500 years from now. All I know about his education is that he name-checks Carl Jung, but the streets he represents are a literary creation. Sometimes they rock, definitely. But sometimes words fail him. There's plenty of detail, and feeling too—not just anger, tenderness. By my parochial standards, however, his one cult classic thus far is "Too Late," where he loses the girl because he doesn't know how to keep an appointment. A MINUS

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