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Here's to the Good Life--and the Jerks

July 21, 1996|Cheo Hodari Coker | Cheo Hodari Coker is a Times staff writer

Many critics justifiably believe that the continuing flood of songs celebrating the materialistic lifestyle--from designer threads to Cristal champagne--is ruining rap.

One of the chief offenders is Nas, the New York rapper whose latest single, "If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)," once again toasts the good life. But Nas--whose new "It Was Written" album entered the nation's charts at No. 1 last week--does it with such style that even his critics must acknowledge his considerable skills.

Another East Coast rapper, Chino XL, drew cheers from critics early this year by denouncing this emphasis with his "No Complex" single. Now he's back with "Kreep," which takes a fatalistic look at a love affair gone seriously wrong.

Whatever their differences, Nas and Chino XL are among the best lyricists ever in hip-hop--and both do well in our latest survey of recent singles, which are rated on a scale of 0 (poor) to 100 (excellent).

Chino XL, "Kreep" (American Recordings). As this single demonstrates, the 24-year-old rapper is able to cast the same sarcastic, scathing light on himself that he does on the rest of the world. With a chorus that melds Radiohead and Beck ("I'm a creep, I'm a loser, I wish I was special"), he spends his misogynistic verses blaming his woman for all the problems in his life, and in the hook he loathes himself for being such a confused, sexist jerk. 92

Mista, "Blackberry Molasses" (EastWest). This beautiful ballad's effortless harmonies and sensitive textures tend to mask the fact that it is actually a poignant look at life through the eyes of a black teenager who is trying to figure out the meaning of manhood in a ghetto hell-bent on his destruction. "I know I got to be strong, got to hold on, sometimes I'd rather give up instead," Bobby Wilson croons. "Seems like I'm better off dead." The "Family Affair"-like groove floats by as slow and thick as the title image. 86

Nas, "If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)" (Columbia). Coloring his adventurous narratives with blends of stark blues, grays and occasional bloody reds, Nas updates the old Kurtis Blow anthem. Things have changed. Nas imagines a world of legal marijuana, courts without trials and designer clothes, but he also manages to make political points ("I'd open every cell in Attica / Send em' to Africa"). With throaty harmony by the Fugees' Lauryn Hill and a slow, pulsating beat, "Ruled" is bound to be one of the summer's hottest jams. 83

Metallica, "Until It Sleeps" (Elektra). The brooding "Sleeps" slowly builds from a medieval dirge to a gas-guzzling, rubber-burning road anthem--imagine zipping from a "Braveheart" march to a "Terminator 2" road chase in a matter of seconds. Metallica, with the help of producer Bob Rock, has slowed things down for more mainstream consumption, but maintains enough of an edge that their original fans will appreciate--with gritted teeth. 75

Jewel, "Who Will Save Your Soul" (Atlantic). This song lopes along like America's "Horse With No Name," but with a little more meaning and soul. This Tori Amos/Sheryl Crow hybrid does her take on the organized religion thing. The message to her apathetic generation is not to blame God for all of its problems, but for people to look at their own involvement in the situation. The delicate and much more interesting B-side, "Near You Always," better showcases Jewel's airy, winsome voice, which has the emotive power of a candle at the center of a dark, empty room. 70

Cher, "One by One' (Reprise). First anthemic, '80s-style arena rock and now New Jack R&B? Cher has expansive musical ambitions, but it's been a long time since she's had credibility as a pop figure. Her earthy voice is much better served by the bluesy "I Wouldn't Treat a Dog (the Way You Treated Me)," the second track on the single, than it is by this vacant main track. 55

Top Secret, "Lap Danz" (Bellmark). It's bad enough that movie viewers had to suffer "Striptease." But a song about lap dancing? Pleeeze. If Top Secret's single had the erotic imagination and thump of Prince's "319," or at least the campy (albeit sexist) humor of Sir Mix-A-Lot's "Put 'Em PUNC on the Glass," that would be one thing. But the slow-crooning, heavy-breathing "Sexy Mix" and the considerably faster "Hot Mix" are an embarrassment to digital tape--let alone to women. 5


TimesLine 808-8463

To hear excerpts from the singles reviewed, call TimesLine and press * and the artist's corresponding four-digit code.

Chino X L *5713

Mista *5714

Nas *5715

Metallica *5716

Jewel *5717

Cher *5718

Top Secret *5719

In 805 area code, call (818) 808-8463.

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