An original hip-hop sound

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Eminem

The Slim Shady LP (Aftermath/Interscope 90287)

Ever wonder why the Beastie Boys are treated with such respect within the hip-hop world while other rappers of the Caucasian persuasion are often disdained as white wanna-be's?

Obviously, a lot of it has to do with their skills on the mic and ability to generate dope beats. But from the first, what set the Beasties apart was that they didn't try to sound like anything but the white New Yorkers they were. In other words, they were smart enough simply to be themselves.

Eminem is similarly smart. Even though rap legend Dr. Dre produced several tracks on "The Slim Shady LP" and signed Eminem to his label, Aftermath Records, the young rapper never tries to sound like he's coming straight outta Compton. Instead, he represents himself as what he is -- a white guy from Detroit who happens to know how to rhyme.

Maybe that's why "The Slim Shady LP" is one of the most entertaining and refreshing hip-hop records in ages. Quite simply, the album sounds like nothing else on the market. On the one hand, the rhythm tracks on the album are deeply funky without being openly imitative of other rappers, giving the disc a groove that's as credible as it is original.

At the same time, the raps themselves boast a warped wit and subject matter utterly unlike anything else in hip-hop.

Start with the album-opening "My Name Is." Other rappers are big on self-aggrandizement, boasting about how much money they make, how many women they've had, and how ferocious their crew is. Eminem, by contrast, goes on about how messed up he is, dropping one-liners like a hip-hop Rodney Dangerfield.

Then there's "Role Model," in which Eminem raps about what a bad person he is. "Follow me, and do exactly what the song says," he raps. "Smoke weed, drop out of school, take pills, kill people." It's a very dark joke, but a joke nonetheless, and it's easy to hear the contempt in Eminem's voice as he dares the listener to take him seriously.

"You can try this at home," he says, his voice dripping sarcasm. "You can be just like me."

He's not entirely anti-establishment, however. Just look at "My Fault," a rap about a guy whose date inadvertently eats a whole bag of psychedelic mushrooms. Eminem starts off by playing the situation for laughs, but as it becomes clear the girl is dying, the rap turns into the musical equivalent of being so scared you start laughing. It makes a stronger anti-drug statement than any "Just Say No" ad ever could.

Just don't tell Eminem that. He'd be horrified to know he'd done something so admirable. ***1/2

Country

George Strait

Always Never the Same (MCA 70050)

Nashville songwriters are fond of playing on words in their lyrics, and country singers seem to cherish those twisted phrases almost as much as the fans do. But George Strait goes a bit overboard with groan-inducing gags on "Always Never the Same." Between the seeming conundrum of the title tune, the brokenhearted math of "4 Minus 3 Equals Zero," and the chorus to "That's the Truth" ("I said no one could break my heart. ... That's a lie, and that's the truth"), the album is pure pun-ishment for anyone not interested in wall-to-wall wordplay. Moreover, given the emotional impact he pulls from the beautifully sentimental "Meanwhile," most listeners will likely wish Strait had stuck to being a straight man. **1/2

Pop/rock

B*Witched

B*Witched (Epic 69751)

Who said today's teen pop is strictly a boy-band business? Not B*Witched, that's for sure. Combining the sass of the Spice Girls with the amateurish good humor of Bananarama, these four young Irishwomen are pre-fab pop and proud of it. That's not to say they can't carry a tune, but what makes "B*Witched" so enchanting has less to do with vocal prowess than with the polish that producer Ray "Madman" Hedges applies to each tune. When working with upbeat, hook-heavy fare like the buoyant "C'Est la Vie" or the rap-spiked "Freak Out," Hedges proves himself a master confectioner. But his real genius lies with his use of Irish traditional touches, as when "To You I Belong" takes extra heartbreak from a mournful fiddle solo. ***

Wilco

Summerteeth (Reprise 47282)

As much as critics like to label acts, putting them in this pigeonhole or that, the elements of musical style are actually fairly superficial. Take Wilco's "Summerteeth," for example. In terms of lyric and melodic content, the songs on this album are pretty much of a piece with the band's previous output. But where Wilco's first few albums boasted a lean and rootsy sound, as befit the band's Americana tag, there's an artsy opulence to "Summerteeth." Because the arrangements are often swaddled in layers of keyboards and harmony vocals, the instrumental textures evoke not Guthrie-esque grit but the lush indulgence of "Sgt. Pepper" or the orchestral Moody Blues. Is this still Americana? Who cares? With songs this memorable and evocative, the only label that truly applies is "great." ***1/2

Squarepusher

Squarepusher Presents Budakhan Mindphone (Nothing 90312)

One of the most interesting aspects of the drum 'n' bass boom has been the way the style has brought elements of jazz back into dance music. It was, for instance, easy to hear echoes (if not actual samples) of Weather Report amid the revved-up breakbeats of Squarepusher's early albums. But with his new mini-album "Squarepusher Presents Budakhan Mindphone," Tom Jenkinson (the man behind the 'Pusher) takes a different tack entirely, cooling out the instrumental textures while keeping the beats thrumming madly. That doesn't mean he's moving away from fusion -- there's plenty of that on "Fly Street" and "Two Bass Hit (Dub)" -- just that he's broadening his palette. And with new colors as vivid as the gamelan samples on "Gong Acid," Jenkinson is one step closer to painting his masterpiece. ***

* = poor ** = fair *** = good **** = excellent

Pub Date: 03/18/99

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