Naughty by Nature: Nature's Finest

Naughty by Nature
Nature's Finest
Tommy Boy

HIP HOP IS well into its post-Sgt. Pepper's era, a time of ambition and pretension completely separate from the music's relatively innocent '80s days as the doo-wop of the MTV generation. Naughty by Nature, who hit in 1991, hearken back to those heady days of middle school rap. They may be the best singles act of the '90s, but they hadn't released a great album until this essential greatest-hits collection.

Nature's Finest is a testament to a group that was never fully embraced by the hip-hop nation or taken seriously within most critical circles--despite its inspirational mix of searing, honest urban reportage and joyous, accessible grooves and rhymes. Unlike the mid-'90s hater-players who replaced them on the charts, Naughty by Nature has never exploited a dire social situation; they've merely documented it, refusing to indulge in violent fantasies or Big Willie-style hokum. Its easy to brag about guns and money and hos and whips, but it takes realist guts to claim that your "fly ride" is a bus pass or warn your homies, "You want a lift you better pick up a transfer."

Of course, casual fans will know NBN for their career-making booty-call anthem "O.P.P.," one of the decade's sublime summer singles. DJ Kay Gee hooks a beat up to a sonic sampling of chants, moans, and smooches, then caps it with a buoyant piano sample from the Jackson Five's "ABC." MC Treach delivers a sly, witty treatise on the ground rules of messing around. And a prepubescent Michael Jackson bears witness ("Come on, come on, come on, let me tell you what it's all about!"). "O.P.P." was followed by NBN's other masterpiece, the defiant "Everything's Gonna Be Alright," possibly the most absorbingly matter-of-fact account of urban poverty since Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's "The Message." Those two records alone are worth the price of admission, but Nature's Finest is packed with gems: the relentless "Uptown Anthem," the sunshine soul "Feel Me Flow," the celebratory "Hip Hop Hooray," and the dance-hall-tinged "Wickedest Man Alive."

If later cuts like the playin' "Penetration" (featuring Next) seem a bit weak by comparison, in a way this only accentuates the accomplishment of Naughty by Nature's early-'90s contributions. They made Kris Kross get down with Public Enemy, simultaneously teaching the bourgeoisie and rocking the boulevard like few groups of the decade. At its best Nature's Finest is a glimpse of hip-hop pop that went against the grain of gangsta chic. And whether their hardness was a pose or a necessity of the ghetto life all self-styled thugs claim to have transcended, Naughty by Nature never took it as an excuse to be anything less than intelligent and compassionate.

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