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Method Man and Redman, Mos Def

By Alex Pappademas

OCTOBER 25, 1999:  From the new Blackout's references to JFK Jr. and the Blair Witch, we know what Redman and Method Man did last summer -- they knocked out this collaborative romp of an album, in less time than it takes Ol' Dirty Bastard to throw himself on the mercy of the court. Since Red's funkdiculous Doc's da Name (Def Jam) is barely a year old, and (legend has it) Meth will be dropping his third album before Y2K, you could chalk Blackout up to Mariah-worthy chart greed on Def Jam's part. But it entered Billboard as an R&B #1 (#3 overall, behind Creed's regenerated scrunge and Chris Gaines frontin' in a Joan Jett wig), so people clearly wanted this even if their CD collections didn't need it.

Like the three Red/Meth tag-teamings that preceded this outing (they're included here as bonus cuts), the new songs balance stentorian outrageousness (paint-chip-eatin' Red) with bracingly economical wordplay chiseled out of mesquite (Meth). Both artists try to come off like Stagger Lee Marvin Haglers with shit lists as long as your arm, ready to chew ass, kick bubblegum, and frighten Leroy Brown out of the damn town, and they undoubtedly made thugly palooka-faces in the studio while recording this stuff. But consider: Redman's recordings are goofier than Kool Keith's, and Meth's galvanic menace has been half a joke ever since he opened "Bring the Pain" threatening to "fuckin' cut your eyelids off and feed you nothing but sleeping pills." Real thugs just aren't this funny; one Blackout skit is literally a piss-take, and Meth keeps equating himself with Jabberjaw (a Hanna-Barbera shark, and the most annoying Scooby-Doo knockoff ever). And though "Cereal Killer" is horrorcore lunacy about "murda, murda, murda" and "heads . . . hung from the chimney with care," the pizzicato bass line could be Ron Carter backing Itchy & Scratchy, so maybe Red & Meth are just cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs.

The pirate-booty hooks are swiped flagrantly from Das EFX, the Fat Boys, and Jay-Z. But George Bush was in office the last time EPMD's Erick Sermon exec-produced beats this spry, and the only track that grates is the one the Wu-Tang's RZA faxed in. Meth busts some vintage surrealness ("Let a chickenhead lay a Chiclet!"), and bald thespian L.L. Cool J gets the last word, boasting that he's rougher than Rudy Giuliani. Which is pretty rough.

New York indie rap's playa-hate machine has yet to produce any actual stars. Although I have high hopes for demented Polo aficionado and Rawkus Presents Soundbombing standout Thirstin Howl III, supposed underground messiahs like Non-Phixion and the Arsonists have been running on the "At Least We're Not Jiggy" ticket for far too long, Pharoahe Monch is practically an oldies act, and the High & Mighty are all high and no might. So Mos Def -- who's been rap's mos' valuable cameo player for a few years, rhyming alongside De La Soul, DJ Honda, Reflection Eternal, and countless others, and earning raves as half of Black Star besides -- goes into his solo debut with a lot of weight to push.

Propelled by insistent, subway-riding rhythms, the assured, heartfelt Black on Both Sides (Rawkus) builds a Brooklyn bridge between Gang Starr-ish street-level editorial and a proud boho-ism traceable to the days when Brand Nubian and Soul II Soul breathed the same incense. As the title suggests, Mos is out to make hip-hop that speaks to the breadth and depth of black inspiration, to write rhymes that sing. And though he's not immune to overreaching -- "New World Water" is an undernourished metaphor, "Ms. Fat Booty" an incomplete thought -- his blacklight still shines uncommonly bright, and the preaching always nudges the funk along (instead of vice versa).

"Hip-Hop," a requiem for rap as an ideological ghetto full of liquor stores, is bracing and passionately conflicted, but the airy jazzspeak of "Umi Says," one of several tracks on which Weldon Irvine contributes keys and Mos dips into a Gil Scott-Heron-ish croon, rings just as true. And "Climb," full of fairytale images of ladders to the stars, winds the theme from Mahogany through shades of the Roots' Cassandra Wilson-backed "Silent Treatment," then swells into an emotional mid-record dream sequence. "Rock & Roll" (echoing Schooly D's "No More Rock & Roll" and ODB's more recent Korn-my-black-ass rants) disses the Stones (because "they didn't come up with that shit on they own") for Fishbone and Nina Simone. Mos snaps, "I ain't tryin' to fuck with Limp Bizkit," then revs the guitars for the year's most unexpected hardcore coda. Mos is so charismatic you'll keep it locked even through the umpteenth paean to Planet Brooklyn; he's not merely blowing breezes when he claims to "navigate the treacherous, and make it seem effortless," and it's hard to deny someone who'd rather stand for something than represent.

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