The Flamin' Groovies

If you looked this good, you'd be smiling too: Truth Hurts
Ralf Strathmann

Since its inception in 1996, Smokin' Grooves has been one of hip hop's biggest tours--and also one of its most strategic. Though the lineup has been shuffled through the years--including everyone from the Fugees to Outkast to Cypress Hill--the assembly has never been made up of just any ol' marquee rap stars. Instead, the selections have always targeted hip hop's crossover (read: white) audience with acts that seem drafted from a college-radio playlist: A Tribe Called Quest, Public Enemy, Gang Starr, etc. Somewhere between the pale faces that greet most underground rap shows (think Atmosphere) and the black bodies packed in for Cash Money's stadium tours, Smokin' Grooves flaunts a street and pop cachet that can fit in Rolling Stone as easily as it would Vibe. Compared with the testosterone overflow of the competing Anger Management Tour (August 2 at the Xcel Energy Center)--Eminem, Ludacris, Xzibit--the Groovies might be less hard, but decidedly more hip.

Smokin' Grooves basically taps those crossover artists who have credibility: Call them the conscious couture. It's a rarefied talent pool, so if this year's lineup seems familiar, that's because it is. True, there are three newcomers: L.A.'s old-school provocateurs Jurassic 5 (an inspired selection given their wide appeal), Atlanta's Cee-Lo (Southern-fried crooner from Goodie Mobb), and Truth Hurts (alas, another Mary J. Blige clone with a hit single but unproven abilities). Of the three top acts, however, both Outkast and Lauryn Hill have been Groovies before, and the Roots have been billed with both artists. Despite the recycling, though, much has changed in the four years since the last tour. And all three artists find themselves at career crossroads.

The Roots have never been official Groovies until this year, but they're the most stage-savvy group in the mix, as well as hip hop's most extensively toured group ever. With 1999's Things Fall Apart and its Grammy-winning single "You Got Me," the Roots jumped from basement favorites to MTV candidates. With the Roots' fifth album, Phrenology (MCA), rolling out later this summer, their indoctrination as Groovies gives fans the opportunity to hear some new songs. More important, the show also offers a hint at whether the Roots are going to change their style now that they've become platinum-selling artists and not just another critically praised, commercially ignored underground act. Yet, even in their most high-profile moments--such as when they worked as backup band for Jay-Z's Unplugged album from earlier this year--the Roots never seem out of character in their roles as some of the hardest-working showmen in the biz. They're known for covering rap classics in their live show, but nowadays, they have a nice collection of their own classics to offer up, too.

The biggest enigma in the mix is Lauryn Hill. Times have changed since her last Groovies stint in 1996, when the Fugees were on their way to becoming the most successful group in hip-hop history. Despite the critical acclaim and six-times platinum success of her 1999 The Miseducation of... solo endeavor, Hill hasn't fared so well with her maligned MTV Unplugged No. 2.0 (Sony). Audiences have ignored it, while critics have ravaged it, calling the two-disc album "self-indulgent," "messy," and "baffling"--but you don't need the New York Times to figure out that this Unplugged stand is just plain strange.

Luckily, with Outkast as anchor, the Groovies are in good hands at the end. It seems unlikely, but Outkast have become hip hop's most politically relevant group since Public Enemy. Unlike the unyielding polemic edge of PE, Andre 3000 and Big Boi freak the funkadelic model of George Clinton's Mothership: freeing that ass so your mind can follow. Which other group could release a hit song as deliciously infectious as "The Whole World" and manage to sneak in a shout-out to laid-off airport workers? True to the duo's P-Funk influences, their stage show promises to be loud and flashy. But mostly, Outkast have the advantage of drawing from four of the best hip-hop albums of the past ten years. Like Hill and the Roots, Outkast play with a band--once a novelty item among rap groups. Increasingly, hip-hop artists are going live when they want to get live.

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