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MID YEAR SINGLES SURVEY : In the First Half of '93, It's Tunes With Attitude : Rappers Rule

July 02, 1993|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

Talk about your long shots.

Imagine the odds you could have gotten four years ago if you had bet that someone from N.W.A.--the notorious Los Angeles group that popularized "gangsta rap"--would someday have a record with enough mainstream appeal to be a Top 20 single.

Then picture the odds against two members of the rap quintet--whose themes were considered far too controversial and raw for radio--eventually being in the Top 20 at the same time with solo records.

The bets were won, of course, when Ice Cube and Dr. Dre both soared into the Top 20 in April with records--"It Was a Good Day" and "Nuthin' But a 'G' Thang," respectively--that were played on up to half of the nation's pop radio stations.

Those singles, which were far more radio-friendly than the early N.W.A. records, but still credible to hard-core audiences, were part of a massive rap invasion of the national pop charts during the last six months.

It was a breakthrough that also included wonderfully appealing hits by Los Angeles rappers A Lighter Shade of Brown and Paperboy, as well as New York's Digable Planets and Toronto's Snow. All six singles are on my list of the best singles at the mid-point in 1993.

"It Was a Good Day" and A Lighter Shade of Brown's "Homies," especially, reflect on life in the 'hood in ways that are revealing and affecting.

In a real way, the records are youthful celebrations of the ethnic diversity of today's urban centers--records that invite an update of the old Motown Records slogan: the New Sound of Young America.

The Best Singles

*

1 Ice Cube: "It Was a Good Day" (Priority)--Ice Cube has defined the heartache and anger of alienated inner-city youth better than anyone in rap, but here he steps away from the violence and confrontation. In this wistful tune, he wakes up one morning to find everything going right--from no smog to a police car passing without hassling him.

Along the way, he scores on the basketball court and with his girlfriend. But the real blessing is the absence of violence:

Nobody I know got killed in South-Central L . A .

Today was a good day.

There's a tenderness in the line that's a breakthrough both for Ice Cube and for hard-core rap itself.

*

2 R.E.M.: "Man on the Moon" (Warner Bros.). This great Georgia band makes so many exquisite pop-rock singles--including "Losing My Religion," which topped my list of the best singles of 1991--that it's easy to forget that the group was once the leader of the alternative rock scene.

"Man on the Moon" is a magical expression of the innocence and wonder of life, complete with references to an unlikely cast that ranges from comedian Andy Kaufman and Elvis to wrestler Freddie Blassie.

*

3 Janet Jackson: "That's the Way Love Goes" (Virgin). Summer pop doesn't get any smoother or more seductive. No wonder it's been No. 1 for seven weeks in a row on the Billboard chart.

*

4 A Lighter Shade of Brown: "Homies" (Pump/Quality). Part of the expanding Latino rap scene, Bobby Ramirez and Robert Gutierrez teamed up for this especially infectious look at friendship in the 'hood.

*

5 Dr. Dre: "Nuthin' But a 'G' Thang" (Death Row/Interscope). Don't expect much from the swagger of the lyrics of Dr. Dre's records, but he's the master of production. The beats hit hard and often, and that goofy chorus is hard to shake--the one that goes, It's like that and like this and like that, and huh.

*

6 Digable Planets: "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)" (Pendulum/Elektra). This mix of rap and jazz offers an unbeatable pop combination: It's smart, catchy and fun.

*

7 Snow: "Informer" (East-West). Snow, whose real name is Darren O'Brien, is the first big white star in black, Jamaican-dominated dancehall reggae, but the vitality of this combination of speedy vocals and funky beats shows he's no Vanilla Ice.

*

8 Belly: "Feed the Tree" (Sire/Reprise). From the enchanting debut album by the band led by former Throwing Muses second banana Tanya Donelly, this record--about mortality and spirit--combines the tuneful vitality of R.E.M. with the mystic charm of 10,000 Maniacs.

*

9 Sting: "If I Ever Lose My Faith in You" (A&M). Another regular on these 10-best lists, Sting comes up with another of his effortless melodies to frame this warm expression of personal devotion in an age of disillusionment. Sample line:

You could say I lost my faith in the people on TV

You could say I'd lost my belief in our politicians

They all seemed like game show hosts to me.

*

10 Paperboy: "Ditty" (Next Plateau). This oddball novelty by Jay Johnson, the real name of this 20-year-old former Washington High School student, was such a smash hit in Los Angeles that it knocked Whitney Houston's overblown "I Will Always Love You" out of No. 1. That alone gives this super-fast, stream-of-consciousness rap exercise a spot on today's list.

Another Midyear 10: Colleague Dennis Hunt nominates Digable Planets' "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)" as the top single of the last six months. The rest of his Top 10, in order: Illegal's "Head or Gut," Tony Toni Tone's "If I Had No Loot," Dr. Dre's "Nuthin' But a 'G' Thang," 4 Non Blondes' "What's Up," Boy George's "The Crying Game," Arrested Development's "Mr. Wendal," Clint Black & Wynonna Judd's "A Bad Goodbye," Tag Team's "Whoomp! (There It Is)" and Vanessa Williams & Brian McKnight's "Love Is."

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