One of the continuing ironies of the R&B world is the way female singer-rappers assert their independence and dis male offenders on tracks written and produced by, well, men. Two years ago, Missy ''Misdemeanor'' Elliott threw a wrench into that testosterone-ruled machinery with her debut disc, a funky-smooth blend of urban grooves and silky harmonies called Supa Dupa Fly, which listed her as both a songwriter and an executive producer. When Elliott stood up for herself on tracks like ''They Don't Wanna F--- With Me,'' you knew the thoughts were emanating from her own mind.
With its contributions from sister soldiers like Da Brat and Lil' Kim, Supa Dupa Fly was, in a way, a hip-hop companion to the more sedate bonding-fest that was the Waiting to Exhale soundtrack. On Da Real World, Elliott's second album, Lil' Kim is back, proudly braying that she and Elliott are ''rich motherf---in' bitches!'' But this time, the sexual politics are more complex. Never mind the bombing in the Balkans the real war, Elliott implies, is between men and women, and both sides have to shoulder responsibility for the casualties.
Men are still to be eyed with suspicion, like the one in ''We Did It'' who beds Elliott and is never heard from again, and the gold diggers in ''Beat Biters'' who constantly hit on her in clubs. In ''Dangerous Mouths,'' Elliott rebuffs the crude advances of rapper Redman (''One shot will have you ravin', like Symone!'' he growls) with swipes of her own: ''Would you still be in love, baby, if I cut ya throat?'' But women, she says, aren't quite innocent lambs when it comes to sexual combat. Elliott plays the role of a clinging female in ''Hot Boyz'' and confronts a woman who's having sex with her man in ''You Don't Know.'' It's a brave and admirable move; to Elliott, these situations constitute a world more ''real'' than the gin-and-juice post-gangsta cliches that still wend their way into hip-hop.
Perhaps reflecting Elliott's own ambivalence, Da Real World is neither bleak nor raucous. The music, once again produced by Elliott's cohort Tim Mosley (a.k.a. Timbaland), is on one level very grim all beats, bass lines, and string arpeggios that lend the tracks the dramatic undertones of classical dirges. The music sulks much more than it did on Supa Dupa Fly; it shakes a very tentative booty. At the same time, Elliott and Timbaland know the traits of a good pop record a melodic hook, a gush of warm sisterly harmonies. When they combine the two styles in ''Hot Boyz,'' ''You Don't Know,'' and ''All N My Grill'' the results are a new style of simmering hip-hop soul. Years ago, someone (was it the Fat Boys?) attempted ''hip-hopera.'' The mixture didn't jell, but the som-ber, string-driven set pieces of Da Real World feel like that concept sprung to life. (Strangely, one of the album's most unremarkable and most cluttered tracks, ''She's a Bitch,'' is the introductory single.)
Here and there, Timbaland tosses new musical elements into the mix, like the dancehall reggae feel of ''Mr. D.J.,'' with guest Lady Saw. Indeed, Da Real World is that rare cast-of-thousands rap album that doesn't sound like chaotic studio bum-rushing. Everyone from Lil' Kim, Da Brat, and Aaliyah to members of Outkast and Destiny's Child shows up for a chorus or a rhyme, but they all blend in with Timbaland's brooding soundscapes. The exception is Eminem, whose jarring whiny-homicidal-wacko routine on ''Busa Rhyme'' nearly jams up the album's flow.
The use of Eminem and Redman on Da Real World plays into the worst stereotypes of men and male rappers, which is unfortunate; it would have been nice if Elliott had painted at least one portrait of a decent guy. She clearly finds their drooling inappropriate, yet thinks Lil' Kim's pro-''bitch'' tirades on two tracks are hilarious. (They aren't.) Despite these flaws, and the sense that Elliott needs to make a few new friends, Da Real World marks steps in several right directions both for rap and for understanding the never-ending battle of the sexes. A-