Bark is worse than the bite Review: Tha Dogg Pound's new release was expected by some to be the nastiest gangsta rap album ever. But it's surprisingly well done.


Civilization as we know it will not be ending today.

Not that many people were expecting its imminent demise, particularly at the hands of something as trivial as "Dogg Food" (Death Row/Interscope 50546), the debut album by Tha Dogg Pound. But as those have followed the fight over hangsta rap -- specifically, the war against Interscope Records launched by William Bennett and C. Delores Tucker earlier this year -- are aware, Tha Dogg Pound album was what ultimately precipitated Time Warner's break with Interscope.

Why? Because to hear Bennett and Tucker tell it, Tha Dogg Pound album would be the most violent and demeaning gangsta rap album yet. Giving it the sort of advance press the Goths and Vandals got in Imperial Rome, these self-appointed guardians of American culture denounced the album sight-unseen and sound-unheard, as if its mere connection with Death Row's Snoop Doggy Dogg (who has a couple cameos on the album) and Dr. Dre (executive producer of the disc) were evidence enough of its evil nature.

But guess what? Not only isn't "Dogg Food" the vilest album ever made, it's not even the nastiest number in the gangsta genre. True, Tha Pound -- Dat Nigga Daz and Kurupt the Kingpin -- boast loud and long about how hard they are. From "Dogg Pound Gangstaz" to the album-closing "Sooo Much Style," the ** duo pledges allegiance to the gangsta aesthetic by busting rhyme after rhyme about the enemies they've bested and the women they've had.

But this is hardly the greatest gross-out on wax. There's little gun glorification, no odes to cop-killing, and nothing as nastily misogynous as N.W.A.'s notorious "To Kill a Hooker."

It's not family entertainment, either. There are two sex raps on the album (neither title is printable) that are sure to end up in Bennett and Tucker's repertoire of offensive lyrics, and enough rough talk in the other raps to ensure that the album earns its Parental Advisory sticker.

Verbal violence isn't really what the album is about, though. The prime ingredient in "Dogg Food" is music -- phat, bass-driven rhythm tracks that evoke the classic P-Funk sound without actively imitating it -- and that, not the wordplay, is what will ultimately push "Dogg Food" up the charts.

For one thing, nobody lifts a groove on this album, preferring self-generated beats to the old- school, sample-and-loop approach. As a result, the music here sounds wonderfully fresh, from the growling synth-bass of "Smooth" to the dreamy, slightly tropical pulse of "Big Pimpin' 2." Granted, the approach isn't that far from what Dr. Dre and Warren G have been doing in recent years, but Daz and his crew offer more than a few twists of their own.

Though the bass line behind "Let's Play House" clearly owes something to Funkadelic's "One Nation Under a Groove," it's more like a second cousin than a direct offspring, thanks to the way Priest "Superfly" Brooks layers the various synth tracks. Even better, the multi-tracked backing vocals by Nate Dogg and Michel'le bring enough soul to the tune that it would stand up even without the powerfully percussive rapping of Daz and Kurupt.

Or take "A Dogg'z Day Afternoon," where the dark, ominous rhythm track creates an aura of menace more vivid than anything Daz, Kurupt or Snoop have to say. Even "Do What I Feel," which finds the Doggs going on at length about how tough they are, is most memorable for its bass-pumping pulse and ear-tickling blend of blues and kalimba. That groovesmanship is what ultimately powers the Pound's polysyllabic wordplay and what makes most rap fans want to crank this stuff up.

Unfortunately, nobody ever talks about the music when addressing the gangsta rap issue, as if that had nothing to do with the genre's popularity. Nor does anyone ever give much though to what lies behind these raps, blithely assuming that gangsta rap is simply the product of thugs and deviants.

But gangsta rap acts don't often invite deeper inquiry, either. Most seem happy to present their profanity-packed work with a poker face and cartoonish grimace, as if everything they know about life they learned from watching "America's Most Wanted."

Tha Dogg Pound doesn't want to play it like that. Even though the duo strikes all the usual poses, from the hammer-cocking sound effects of the album's intro to the gangsta lean it affects on the inside photo, there's always some sign of life beneath that surface.

Not only do the two admit to having grown up in the church, but they put God at the top of their thank-yous list. Some may wonder what such allegedly God-fearing folk are doing making gangsta rap records, but Daz and Kurupt offer some surprisingly honest answers. "Reality" describes gang-style street life not as something to be admired, but as an unavoidable fact of life, reminding us that "there's no place to hide from reality."

Perhaps the most revealing rap, though, is "I Don't Like to Dream About Getting Paid," which eloquently describes the duo's determination to make it. And if it's ultimately more profitable for the two to play the Big, Tough Black Man -- the gangsta, the pimp, the sexual outlaw -- it's also worth wondering what that says about our society.

Because, after all, some of us must be entertained by that stuff.

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