Da Brat (So So Def/Columbia 66164)
There's no arguing with Jermaine Dupri's pop instincts. As the musical mastermind behind Kris Kross, TLC and Xscape, he's the leading authority on how to convert cutting-edge hip hop into commercially accessible kids' stuff. So it's no surprise that Da Brat, Dupri's latest teen discovery, is yet another straight-to-the-top pop success; it is, however, a disappointment note how nasty Da Brat's "Funkdafied" is beneath its radio-friendly surface. Sure, the beats are phat and funky, updating the old-school groove of gangsta rap just enough to make Da Brat's rat-a-tat delivery seem as tough as it pretends to be. Unfortunately, she doesn't use that groove to make a point, just to cop an attitude -- and a bad attitude at that. Whether it's the I'm-so-tough boasts of "Fa All Y'All" or the smoke-dat-chronic enthusiasm of "Fire It Up," Da Brat seems intent on imitating the worst excesses of grown-up gangsta rappers. And the worst is precisely what she gets, ensuring that "Funkdafied" doesn't come across as stupid fresh, just stupid.
Offspring (Epitaph 86432)
By this point, it's hardly worth trying to figure out how much thrash owes to punk and how much to heavy metal; as bands like Offspring make clear, most fans are intimately familiar with both styles. Although the metal content on "Smash" is impossible to ignore -- check out the way Dexter Holland's voice arches up, Bad Company-style, on the blues notes in "Bad Habit," or the sub-Black Sabbath riff at the heart of "Self Esteem" -- the punk influence is equally obvious, particularly in the full-throttle thrash of "Genocide" or "Killboy Powerhead." Let the Offspring lean too far in either direction, and "Smash" seems a crashing bore. But when the quartet remembers to mix things up, as it does on the goofy and engaging surf-rock spoof "Come Out and Play," even listeners who think they've heard it all before will find themselves happily cranking the volume.
DREAMS IN MOTION
Felix Cavaliere (MCA 10622)
Because he hasn't had pop success since the days when the Rascals truly were young, the tendency is to think of singer Felix Cavaliere as strictly an oldies act. But "Dreams in Motion" argues otherwise. It helps, of course, that the backing tracks have all the synth-driven sheen of contemporary R&B;, from the insistent percolation of "Voices Calling" to the sultry, soulful pulse of "Trust Your Heart." But what keeps Cavaliere from coming across like mutton dressed as lamb is the power and resilience of his singing. Cavaliere can shape a phrase as elegantly as Michael McDonald ever could, and uses his upper register more effectively than any singer this side of Daryl Hall. But what makes this album so memorable is that its best moments convey the sort of emotional involvement too rarely found in contemporary pop. And if that isn't reason enough to give "Dreams in Motion" a spin, what is?
CHIEF BOOT KNOCKA
Sir Mix-a-Lot (American/Rhyme Cartel 45540)
Although the attention "Baby Got Back" brought Sir Mix-a-Lot had as much to do with the attitude expressed as with the music made, it would be a mistake to dismiss him as just another rap novelty act. Because the bottom line with Mix-a-Lot isn't, er, bottoms, it's pure, bass-pumping funk -- and "Chief Boot Knocka" has funk to spare, from "Let It Beaounce" to "Monster Mack." Even better, Mix-a-Lot's groove remains potent no matter how it's cut, so "Sleepin' Wit My Fonk," with its Funkadelic- derived horn arrangement and bass line, is every bit as propulsive as the Gap Band-goes-synth groove of "Take My Stash" or the Soul-Sonic Force style pulse of "Don't Call Me Da Da." Granted, the lyrical content isn't likely to win him any admirers on the feminist front (particularly given the general thrust of tunes like "Put 'Em On the Glass"), but his quick wit and genial spirit will leave most listeners forgiving his occasional excesses.