David Browne
June 30, 2000 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Two new rap albums

Although rap’s hard-core element has reigned for more than a decade, it now appears to be entering its Sopranos period. Thanks to the swelling number of cameos on hip-hop albums, every new release sounds as if it were recorded at Tony Soprano’s Bada-Bing! nightclub. All we hear are made men talking in ceaseless police-blotter slang, carrying more heat than a New York City summer, and out-shocking one another with their bedroom conquests and list of victims. It’s one big happy familia, but with champagne and pot instead of pasta.

Ryde or Die Vol. II, the second album (in stores July 4) by the collective known as the Ruff Ryders, revels in this hard-Glock life. Track after track, the rappers present themselves as businesslike urban soldiers whose primary goal in life is to fill as many body bags as possible. On ”Ryde or Die Boyz,” Larsiny brags of being ”kicked outta preschool/Played too rough,” while on ”My Name Is Kiss,” the Lox’s Jadakiss tops him by boasting that ”the FBI got me on their list” and by threatening a stooge: ”We can do this the Mob way and kiss you on both cheeks/Or do it the hard way and shoot through your gold teeth.” One of the between-song skits involves a rat of the human kind being tossed off a roof. With his nasal bravado and quick trigger, Yung Wun is the equivalent of Christopher Moltisanti, Tony Soprano’s hotheaded nephew. When the instantly recognizable DMX finally appears on the penultimate cut, it’s as if Tony himself has stood up at the head of the table to assert his authority.

The music accompanying these austere tales is an equally rough ride. The beats are like staccato blasts of an Uzi, the choruses little more than burly shout-outs. With its reliance on new talent, the album suffers next to its predecessor, which was dominated by colorful players like DMX and Eve (here in much smaller roles) and Jay-Z. (The Lox are back, but their central contribution is one of the year’s most tasteless-but-proud rhymes: ”I got ’em looking for my solo album like Kennedy Jr.”) Still, the music has an undeniable meatiness, and the new crew isn’t without flair: During the Twista and Drag-On duet ”Twisted Heat,” producer Swizz Beatz speeds up and slows down the rhythm as if it were a roller coaster, and electro-Caribbean textures enliven Eve and Jadakiss’ bouncing-ball battle of the badass sexes, ”Got It All.” Naturally, it’s all an act — cameos by Snoop Dogg and Busta Rhymes are like visits from competing dons — but you do wish some of the Ruff Ryders would act a little less like Soprano hitman Paulie Walnuts.

Speaking of Rhymes, ”The Heist,” a track on his new album, Anarchy, could easily be a Sopranos episode. With guest stars Raekwon and Ghostface Killa of the Wu-Tang Clan, it chronicles in minute detail a diamond robbery at the swank Tiffany’s in New York. Some of the lyrics are amusing (they down chocolate milk before the crime), others are adolescent playacting (telling ”them Jewish niggas” to step away from the counter). What’s sad is that those are some of the few coherent lines on Rhymes’ fourth and weakest work. It opens with simulated newscasts about ”political and social disorder” — the Amadou Diallo and Columbine murders, the Elian Gonzalez incident — but the commentary ends there. The album is anarchic, all right; it’s a jumble, with Rhymes’ garbled lyrics and gravel-road voice set to a series of numbing, lusterless beats. Although ”Show Me What You Got” is based on a sultry Stereolab sample, most of the music is only slightly more interesting than Morse code. The spew that is ”Get Out!!”, the first single, samples the kiddie song ”The Ugly Duckling” the way Jay-Z did Annie‘s ”Hard Knock Life,” but to lesser effect. The perfunctory cameos range from poignant (Jay-Z’s elegy to dead friends in ”Why We Die”) to numskulled (Spliff Starr’s ”Causin’ blood spillage like a faggot from the Village” in ”Here We Go Again”).

Rhymes himself is at a curious crossroads. He’s a full-on celebrity now, complete with his own record label, designer-clothing line, and acting career. More power to him, but he’s in danger of being better known for his cartoonish image and dreadlocked ponytail than for his music. The decline can already be heard on Anarchy: His wild-eyed rapping sounds strained, as if he feels he still must live up to his first name. The Sopranos makes art out of bedlam; Rhymes just makes a muddled action movie.
Ryde or Die Vol. II: B
Anarchy: C-

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