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Wednesday, Jan 8 1997
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Mobb Deep
Hell on Earth
(Loud/RCA)

Among the really nice features of New York hip hop are its sophistication and integrity. For instance, in New York, you don't call gangsta rap "gangsta rap," you call it "hardcore." Bitches (women) are "shorties." A rapper who leaves the projects after gaining a little notoriety is a "punk." Death is an "occupational hazard" of life on the streets. And "keeping it real" is a 24-7 occupation more precious than life itself. No one knows more about any of this than Havoc and Prodigy of the infamous Mobb Deep. They've been rapping about it for two albums and living it for longer. Hell on Earth, album No. 3, is their most recent collection of musings on the subject. And its ideas, not surprisingly, are as drastic as ever. Just what you'd expect from a clique of brothers known for sticking up stickup kids.

Sure, there's a little remorse and frustration over their predicament. But nothing that can't be overlooked in the interests of self-preservation, stormy beats, and downright malicious rhymes. Call it "Animal Instinct." They do, admitting in the opening number's chorus, "I'm tired of living life this way/ Crime pay/ But for how long/ 'Til you reach a downfall."

It would be extremely easy to dismiss these guys if their approach were less grounded in solid technique. They walk right up to a beat and grab it by the throat, as in "Extortion," and tell it and their listeners what's what, rarely letting emotion cloud the issues at hand. It's a subtlety-free approach to producing a hip-hop record -- not always the most interesting experience for the listener or the artist, but a sure-fire method for ensuring that anything that isn't on the surface isn't Mobb Deep. So when on the introduction of "G.O.D. Pt. III" a member of the MD posse decides to smoke a brother he doesn't like from an open window in his apartment, we have to assume that fiction imitates life.

And it's enough to make you sick. Sick of big guns, big dicks, and niggas with attitude. Sick of Gods, Earth, and hip-hop metaphysics. Sick of Lexus coupes, the back seat of Uncle L's Jeep, and Timberlands. Sick of video hos, Philly blunts, and St. Ides. Sick of getting faded, episodes, and bustas who can't freestyle. Sick of slangin' on the corner, BET, and Tommy Hilfiger. Sick of Mary J. Blige cameos, crack cocaine, and knuckleheaded rappers playin' "iller than thou." Just plain sick.

Choose life, not hell.
-- Victor Haseman

The Apples in Stereo
Science Faire
(Elephant 6 Recording Co./spinART)

Driven to distraction by Beatles fetishism? Not by the Beatles themselves, who the punks have always denounced (with some justification) as a glorified skiffle band. Nor by Beatles songs, which are, 'fraid so, just another layer to scrape and tally in pop archaeology, and not the foundation. Nor George Martin's production techniques, which should be appreciated much in the same way that Jules Verne's futures are -- namely, long surpassed, but, hey, in their time, really clever. No, the problem isn't so much in any one of these, but their whole tawdry conflation by their partisans: the mop-top myth, the dogged insistence that they produced the greatest music and lyrics of all time -- not just genius du jour, but omnipotence everlasting. The sort of cultishness practiced not only by boomers -- who enshrine their youth by telling each other how important it was -- but, as evidenced by the Apples in Stereo, by certain younger dupes. Look. My parents were playing Rubber Soul on their quaint tube-amp record player when I was still toddling around in Pampers (no, that wasn't last week), and the catalog may offer nice selections, but frankly, whenever I'm sitting in someone's living room and they spin a Fab Four platter, I just wonder why the elevator isn't moving. Still, the Apples in Stereo and their ilk would doubtless think I'm full of shit, and continue their genuflections without a flinch or a doubt. It is with some glee that I admit I agree with them, because Science Faire -- a "collection of EPs and singles ... released between the summers of 1993 and 1995" -- is actually a worthwhile compendium, however exaggerated the recording career.

Why the Apples' frequent use of the I-IV-V structure (with assorted well-considered modulations, melodies, and breaks, as on "Motorcar") sounds less musty than most other bands', got me; that particular chord progression, stale and reliable as it is, is about the last thing you want to hear without Shitbirds-style garage novelty. The lyrics are equally pleasant and dopey; on "Not the Same" ("Wish you could walk away/ You'd see the forces and naivete/ That swerve you"), "naivete" is proselytized with four forceful syllables. A general clumsy psychedelia pervades -- the musings of people who've never taken LSD but think it would be weird and nostalgic, not of true acid casualties (as the Brian Wilson vocal timbre would suggest). Perhaps garage novelty and nigh-eve-uh-tay is what saves Science Faire from too much Beatles delusion: The Apples self-record, and George Martin they're not. The guitars are all tin and dirt, the way Kramer would have had it at Shimmy Disc by plugging straight into the deck between bong hits. The bass crackles at times like an acromegalic kazoo. The drums are a uni-mike mess, with acoustic guitar strums sounding more crisp than the snare, toms, or cymbals. All of which is well and good, since, whatever the Apples' intentions, we hear how the Beatles would have sounded if they had had more meat in their heads than conjectural godhood: better.

-- Michael Batty

Joi
The Amoeba Cleansing Syndrome
(Limp/EMI)

On her first recording, The Pendulum Vibe, Joi (last name Gilliam) redefined the role of the R&B diva. She sang with naked, unbridled passion at certain times and intense, seething control at others, but she was also openly bisexual, and coyly baited both men and women suitors in her saucy songs and steamy stage presence. (She appeared in a see-through gown, several months pregnant, in the video to D'Angelo's "Lady.") Her music was a match for her bold attitude. It reached back to the early '70s (live covers of Stevie Wonder's "Jesus Children of America" and Rufus' "Tell Me Something Good" bookended her wide-ranging sources of inspiration), but it didn't yearn for that era. Instead, Joi offered an exciting vision of the future of R&B. But while her song "Freedom," covered by a choir for the soundtrack of Panther, had a brief moment on radio, her work has largely failed to reach the audience it deserves.

On The Amoeba Cleansing Syndrome Joi takes that vision even further. Again she aims for emotional transcendence rather than big bucks. Working with rockers like Fishbone and Organized Noize, she has created an edgier, more aggressive sound, something like a merging of the fierce roar of Nona Hendryx and the gritty elegance of Annie Lennox. Some songs break into bluesy vamps, others launch into power-chord-driven classic rock. The recording recalls the diverse agenda found on the Family Stand's Moon in Scorpio. It is all held together by Joi's singing, which has deepened a bit; the huskiness lends greater sensuality. Although EMI should market her as a soulful rebel, she is not out to break every rule; her music casually ignores them en route to a unique sound. Not all the songs click quite as well as the tunes on her debut, but it is heartening to see an R&B diva on very good terms with ambition. More than Toni, Mary, Brandy, Faith, Monica, or Monifah, Joi seems on track to make the great R&B record of this decade. Amoeba isn't it, but it's a reminder that Joi deserves all the attention that she willfully goes out of her way to attract.

-- Martin Johnson

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