Unrestricted (So So Def 69772)
Dirty Harriet (Elektra 23862)
In the beginning, rap was -- to paraphrase James Brown -- a man's man's man's man's world.
Never mind that one of the first rap singles, way back in 1980, was recorded by a girl group called the Sequence; forget early hits by such distaff rappers as M. C. Lyte, Queen Latifah and Salt-n-Pepa. Although these women certainly made their mark, the impact of their hits was dwarfed by the enormous success enjoyed by such male acts as Run-D.M.C., L. L. Cool J, the Beastie Boys and others. Clearly, female rappers were the exception, male rappers the rule.
Things seem a little more equal these days, as the number of high-profile women in rap has increased with the rise of such stars as Missy Elliott, Li'l Kim, Foxy Brown, Eve and others. Even so, women in rap still tend to take a secondary role to men.
Few rap women, after all, have managed to establish independent careers, owing their breaks and much of their clout to male rappers. Li'l Kim rode to prominence on the back of Sean "Puffy" Combs and the Notorious B.I.G.; Eve got her shot courtesy of DMX and the Rough Ryders Crew; and on the new albums by Da Brat and Rah Digga, both take care to acknowledge the men behind them -- Jermaine Dupri's So So Def crew in the case of Da Brat, and Busta Rhymes' Flip Mode Squad for Rah Digga.
Da Brat, in fact, pledges her allegiance on the second track of her new album, "Unrestricted." "We Ready" is practically a commercial for Dupri (who makes a cameo) and his record company, essentially arguing that with So So Def behind her, there's no way Da Brat can lose.
It's a reasonable boast, in part because the album's 17 tracks are beautifully produced, packed with sly hooks and slamming beats. As a rapper, Da Brat is pretty much a one-trick pony, being amazingly adept at rapid-fire rat-a-tat rhymes but almost useless at other kinds of cadences, but "Unrestricted" is so well-produced that her weaknesses are almost completely camouflaged. So the jagged flow of "Pink Lemonade" is glossed over by a slinky, reggae-influenced groove and smooth backing vocals by Debra Killings, while the artless trash talk of "What's on Ya Mind" is mitigated by the infectious, tropical pulse Dupri throws behind the rap.
Trash talk, by the way, is what makes Da Brat so so bratty. Not only does she cuss with the best of them, she offers the sort of sex talk that makes Foxy Brown seem demure. Granted, it's all part of her desire to come on hard, but it's hard to find much admirable or uplifting in her approach.
Rah Digga also comes on hard, but with a different set of role models. Not only is the title of her debut, "Dirty Harriet," a nod to the famous Clint Eastwood cop character, but she lays out her goals in a rap called "Harriet Thugman," suggesting that her thug-lite approach to hip hop will provide a sort of underground railroad to a better world.
It's an ambitious goal, but one Digga mostly delivers on. True, her album deserves its Parental Advisory sticker just as much as Da Brat's does, but in Digga's case, the problem is simple profanity, not flat-out sex talk. Instead, Digga's raps talk about pride, about hip-hop tradition, and maintaining values -- not just having sex and getting high, Da Brat's two favorite topics.
And when she gets to "Do the Ladies Run This...," it's hard not to answer in the affirmative -- especially given the incendiary cameos by Eve and Sonja Blade. Hearing these three throw down, it's possible to believe that rap's women will someday be just as major as its men.
Da Brat: **1/2
Rah Digga: ***
Garage D'Or (Virgin 49005)
No matter how serious they might have seemed on the surface, there was always the hint of a prank in anything Cracker did. Between singer-songwriter David Lowery's disingenuous drawl and the band's self-deprecating name, Cracker made a joke of acting dumb despite its smarts, and the greatest-hits package, "Garage D'Or," is ample testament to the band's genius. From droll rockers like "Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)" and "Eurotrash Girl" to such catchy should-have-been-hits as "Get Off This" and "Low," the collection boasts enough great moments to leave listeners wondering why this band wasn't bigger. Even better, the initial run includes a second disc of live tracks and rarities, including the band's deadpan Carpenters tribute, "Rainy Days and Mondays."
Who Needs Guitars Anyway? (Republic 012 157 672)
On the cover of Alice Deejay's debut album, "Who Needs Guitars Anyway?" there's an attractive woman in a cowboy hat; she's not Alice Deejay. Inside the CD booklet, there's a photo of a different, equally attractive woman; she's not Alice either, though she pretends to be. In truth, Alice Deejay is the DJ collective (in Dutch, "Alice Deejay" sounds like "all DJ") that compiled this 14-song dance-floor romp, and in a weird way, the fact that this is a group effort makes the album that much stronger. Alice Deejay's sound is synth-driven and slightly retro, owing more to the fun of '80s electropop than to the relentless thump of modern techno, and the songwriting is tuneful and hook-driven, lending an engaging charm to the likes of "Better Off Alone."
Showbiz (Maverick 47382)
In Britain of late, there has been serious debate over how, exactly, to keep the old-fashioned guitar/bass/drums instrumentation from sounding, well, old. While some rock groups (such as Primal Scream and Oasis) have tried to beef up that standard set-up with synths and club-style beats, others (such as Radiohead and Gomez) have opted to play with texture, wrapping the older instruments in an electronic soundscape. And as "Showbiz" makes plain, Muse is a master of that approach. There's so much sonic detail in buried tracks like "Sunburn," "Overdue" and the title tune that it takes a few listenings to sort out just what the group has packed into its arrangements. Yet as impressive as the sounds are, they never overwhelm the songs -- thanks in large part to the beautiful, impassioned singing of Matthew Bellamy. Well worth exploring.