Listening to their first full-length album, E. 1999 Eternal, you'd hardly know Bone Thugs-N-Harmony were protégés of the late gangsta-rap entrepreneur Eazy-E. In a music scene that never placed much import on harmony singing, the Cleveland rappers (who went triple platinum with their 1994 debut EP, Creepin' On Ah Come Up) blend their voices like a Jeep choir Boyz II Men with wool hats. When they're not singing, they're speed-rapping in a delivery steeped in Jamaican patois they speak so fast, in fact, it's often hard to understand a word. If any rap album needed a lyric sheet, it's this one.
But even when you can decipher the lyrics, it's often not worth the effort. This is an all too familiar world where characters are ''smokin' blunts,'' where ''even the bitches carry guns.'' (The one exception is ''Crossroad,'' a paean to their dead friends: ''Too many punks out there pumpin'/And thinkin' your gat is your friend,'' they lament, as if mourning Eazy and chastising the lifestyle he and Bone promoted.) The ode-to-welfare-check single, ''1st of tha Month,'' has a slinky elegance, yet most of the music is a rinky-dink take on the growling gangsta funk of Eazy's nemesis Dr. Dre. For all their polish, Bone Thugs commit that most unimaginable of sins: They make gangsta rap that's smooth but dull. B-