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POP MUSIC REVIEW : A Jubilant Hammer

August 06, 1990|CHRIS WILLMAN

SAN DIEGO — The rap world is full of naysayers who like to--as they say in the trucking trade--put the Hammer down.

The enormously commercial M. C. Hammer, that is.

Rap purists complain about his raspy, friendly bellow of a voice and call him "mush mouth." Rappers who deal more consistently and controversially with social themes in their lyrics have termed his often pointedly egocentric music "candy rap."

No matter what your ultimate assessment of him on those accounts, it's certainly true that he's far from the most articulate, original or relevant rap artist on the market.

So why was Hammer's show on Saturday at the San Diego Sports Arena as furiously entertaining an event as might be seen on any Southern California stage this year?

Easy: Imagine Busby Berkeley doing his stuff at the Sports Connection. As a choreographer, Hammer combines the exuberance of an aerobics class with the scope of a Broadway musical.

And, with more than 30 dancers, singers and musicians on stage, most of them grinning and flailing their arms out in flawless sync at any given time, it would take a killjoy of uncanny proportions not to be overcome by the all-out jubilant physicality.

A business-savvy Oakland native, Hammer hasn't sold more than 5 million copies of his second album and had it stay at No. 1 on the charts for nine weeks (a record run for a rap album) on the strength of what comes out of his mouth alone.

His infectiously fun video for "U Can't Touch This" was easily the album's biggest sales boost, showing off not only his own fancy footwork, but his ability to choreograph an exultant team of dancers around him.

Hammer's choreography may not be as versatile as that seen in the recent Janet Jackson or Madonna concerts, and certainly it's not as ambitious thematically. Yet this show probably sends 'em home happier than either of those vaunted tours.

Jackson operated in an essentially humorless, stark, black-and-white motif, and Madonna vogued her way through a set-shifting, narcissistic tour de force. But Hammer merely aims to please by any means necessary, creating a party atmosphere in which the viewer is made to feel a participant and not just an adulatory witness.

The energy was not completely unflagging. Hammer brought things down in more ways than one with the ballads "Help the Children" (his updating of Marvin Gaye's "Mercy Mercy Me") and "Have You Seen Her" (the Chi-Lites redux), letting his singing posse croon while he rapped; the complaints about his rapping take on more validity when he goes to work, rather unconvincingly, on these dragging, slow songs.

Elsewhere, it was easy to see why Hammer--whose Los Angeles tour dates haven't been announced yet--is the most commercially viable rap artist out there now, though obviously not the most street-credible one. In a genre increasingly infused by social rage and X-rated language, he's evangelical (the gospel rap "Pray" was a crowd favorite), pointedly anti-drugs, pro-community responsibility, et al.

He's obviously at the opposite end of the show-biz spectrum from 2 Live Crew, but he put in a plug for the controversial Miami rap group's right to freedom of expression. Hammer's own best means of expression is clearly body talk.

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