LIFE AIN'T ALWAYS what it seems here in the more money/more problems era of rap, when the genre enjoys stupefying success and widespread respect but lives uncomfortably in the shadow of its former achievements. Every corner-stoop critic can pinpoint the exact moment in which hip hop reached its artistic peak--'87? '89? '93?--but both the hard-core audience and the big press seem haunted by the knowledge that the moment has passed. Take the muted response to the self-titled debut by the Firm, a corporate merger of East-meets-West with powerhouse producer Dr. Dre and rappers Nas and Foxy Brown taking anxious fans on a cinematic Benz ride through junior mafialand. Sure, the album sold well, but critics couldn't ignore its lack... More >>>