Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Fury, Not Finest

Naughty by Nature's mad science

By Franklin Soults

MAY 10, 1999:  Naughty by Nature's first new album in four years begins with a silly skit that bucks the hip-hop norm by offering more than just superfluous self-promotion -- even if unintentionally and ironically. Nineteen Naughty Nine: Nature's Fury (Arista) opens with a storm raging in the background while in the foreground the crackle of electrical currents signals a mad scientist's lab. An anonymous voice laughs, then muses, "Naughty by Nature: whoever thought it was gonna come to this . . . I knew they was gonna come back. I just didn't know they was gonna come back like this." Then the music kicks in. With old hand Kay Gee at the boards, it's still smooth, jazzy, foreboding; with old hands Treach and Vinnie on the mikes, the raps start spilling hard and fast, burbling with close-packed rhymes and alliteration. For a minute, it seems nothing has changed. That feeling doesn't last long.

A four-year absence would spell death for almost any hip-hop crew, even for one with a string of exultant sing-along smashes to their credit like this Jersey trio's ("O.P.P" in '91, "Hip Hop Hooray" in '93, "Feel Me Flow" in '95). Another bad sign was the crew's recent departure from the vaunted hip-hop label Tommy Boy for the relative anonymity of all-purpose major Arista (Tommy Boy retaliated by releasing the greatest-hits package Nature's Finest). On the face of it, then, the Frankenstein metaphor turns an acknowledgment of the obvious into an equally obvious boast, the contention being that Naughty are now back larger, more vivid, more furious than ever before. And the skit works because the techniques they use are roughly parallel to those employed by Mary Shelley's flaky physician: exhuming disparate, recently interred body parts from the hip-hop grave (that is, other rappers' styles); patching them together with crude stitches (more dumb skits); jolting the creature to life with a lot of flashy gadgetry (easy samples and big-name guests). Just like Boris Karloff in Bride of Frankenstein, their ungainly creation then lurches around the 'hood for an hour or so (substituting East Coast ghettos for Middle European grottoes), with unpredictable results in every scene.

The first six cuts embody all the direction and unity the album ever generates. Aside from a brief cheesy "Holiday" -- a lightweight party piece built, like several later numbers, around an early-'80s disco sample (in this case it's Change's 1980 hit "Lover's Holiday") -- this opening set works a standard hard attitude, with the crew defending their manhood and freedom by whatever means necessary and doing their dirt all by their lonely. Even the current single featuring Master P and several of his No Limit lieutenants ("Live or Die") flashes more flamboyant guff than flaming gats.

Pretty soon, though, the hard stuff starts sounding received, or worse: "Live Then Lay" dredges old moves from Bone Thugs-N-Harmony's well of juvenile-delinquent sentimentality; "Thugs & Hustlers" cancels out "Live or Die" with some of last year's most leaden No Limit formulas. By mid album, the creature keeps stumbling forward mostly on the power of the poontang. The musty taste of "O.P.P." lingers in the Big Pun collaboration "We Could Do It," which slides smoothly into the Next-backed "The Blues," a mid-tempo croon that finally acknowledges the most truly painful aspect of the blues -- blue balls. "Got the vesicles in my testicles stopped on gridlock" raps Treach with an urgency that makes it sound as if he actually knew what it feels like (yeah, right).

Of course, lewdness has always been a Naughty by Nature strong point. But even here, there's a change for the cruder. Compare the boastful pornographic spew of "We Could Do It" to the exacting delineation of the thrill of taboo of "O.P.P" -- a delineation that never commits any FCC no-no -- and you've lost that sense of a generous fantasy in which almost anyone with the self-knowledge to acknowledge his id could share.

Nature's Finest reminds us that this reach for community -- one made of broadcloth, not patchwork -- was what jolted Naughty's best boasts and toasts into the realm of jubilation without undercutting their toughness or daring. Unfortunately, this Tommy Boy compilation is bungled by several questionable cuts, a lack of liner notes, and a slapdash organization that shortchanges Naughty's best album, Poverty's Paradise. When it's on the money, though, it brims over with anger and yearning like nothing on the new album, reacquainting you with the fresh vigor of two great old-school shouters at the start of their career. For a while, that career was among the few ever to suggest the full pop potential of stentorian hard rap. The raging storm on Nature's Fury may raise the dead; nothing can restore this lost youth.

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