Record Roundup

Jeru The Damaja

Wrath of the Math

Payday

          "THE STATE OF hip-hop today is like hookers and politics," Jeru spits on "Whatever," one of a number of tracks on his cranky new platter that lambastes the materialistic hypocrisy of fake MCs. But Jeru positions his image in the hip-hop game with an agility most politicians would envy. His emphasis on rhyme skills over gats as a source of power gives sustenance to the anti-gangstas (and affirms the old-school East Coast influence on this Brooklynite), while the hardness of those skills--the snideness of his tone, the mastery of his slang, the strength of his flow--signifies that his bile is directed more at the pretenders than at the gangsta lifestyle itself.

          Wrath of the Math is an unabashedly reactionary album rimmed with righteous anger and paranoia, "created to SAVE hip-hop and the minds of the people who listen to it," Jeru says in the liner notes. As defender of an art form under siege, he's out to expose the enemy, and doesn't mind naming names: Bad Boy Entertainment executive Sean "Puffy" Combs is accused of kidnapping hip hop in the satirical narrative "One Day" and also gets disparaged on "Me Or The Papes," while the Fugees get called out (presumably for mixing hip hop and r&b) on "Black Cowboys."

          As on Jeru's debut, The Sun Rises in the East, he also wants us to know that he is decidedly not gay, and that most of the women he deals with are useless gold diggers. Claiming he was "misunderstood" on "Da Bichez," Jeru supposedly clarifies by saying the generic hate terms he invokes only apply to some women. Two tunes--"Not The Average" and "Me Or The Papes"--again detail the perfidy of these women at some length. Truth is, Jeru has yet to focus a tune on women who aren't "bichez."

          So why, despite this, is Wrath of the Math one of the year's better hip-hop records? Mostly because Jeru continues to work with DJ Premier, the best soundscape artist in hip hop. Punch up any track on Match and he'll harness your imagination with mixes that range from the raga vibe of "Frustrated Nigger" to the fat molasses pastiche of "Whatever" to the burbling yet techno-clinical sheen of "Physical Stamina" to the spare funk of "Ya Playin' Yaself." Jeru concedes in the press kit that he doesn't write the raps without the inspiration of Premier's mix, and the result is a creative, unified flow.

          But Jeru is also a hell of a wordsmith, which is more apparent the more you agree with his message, as on the awesome "Scientifical Madness," which takes a big-picture, socio-political view of things and rails against a racist government rather than those who fail to pass his hip-hop purity test. On those galvanizing occasions, you see how Jeru is heir to the proud tradition of KRS-One, and with a better DJ to back him up. (Britt Robson)

Smog

The Doctor Came at Dawn

Drag City

          WHILE RADIO EMBRACES tuneless screaming for the first time ever (thank you, Tracy Bonham), underground music seems to get quieter and quieter. Low, for instance, lets haunting vocals give the band's slo-mo pop its weight and momentum, while Yo La Tengo, Sonic Youth and Fugazi continue to find their freshest material in quiet moments. But Bill Calahan, a.k.a. Smog, has released an album of songs so quiet they're hardly there at all. With mournful melodies put to strings, guitar and piano accompaniment (Callahan plays all the instruments), The Doctor Came at Dawn is the sound of songs stripped to skeletons, standing there shivering.

          Callahan is a kindred spirit of (and a likely influence on) Lou Barlow and Beck, and his no-fi experiments have traditionally used just a few elements per cut--tape loops, distorted vocals, an electric guitar strum or a piano bang--to sear a song into one's brain. His best album, Julius Caesar, married his growing skills as a metaphorist to his bedroom-tape experimental weirdness: Listen to the crude Stones sampling on his I-feel-good anthem "I am Star Wars!" Now, presumably, Callahan wants to be taken seriously as a songwriter. And he should be. Lyrics like "You took pride in your lies/You used to pay more attention to details" are unforced poetry. My only complaint is that this grey little album will reach only Smog fans, and that his ready-for-the-overground talent will remain forever underground. Shhhhh! Listen. (Peter Scholtes)

 
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