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Critic Kaleefa Saneh on Latest in Pop

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The Best Rapper No One Knows


Published: July 25, 2004

DEVIN THE DUDE Unbeknownst to just about everyone, this Houston rapper recently released one of the summer's best and breeziest albums, "To tha X-treme" (Rap-A-Lot). In a world that knew how to appreciate a self-deprecating hip-hop stoner equipped with a sharp wit, woozy beats and a flow that puts the daze in lackadaisical — in that gentle world, the release of a new Devin album would be cause for a feeding frenzy at the record shops. Unfortunately, Devin remains a cult hero, but he's a reliable one: on the new album, he fends off suspicious girlfriends ("Who? When? Why?" he stonewalls) and suspicious cops ("I'm just sippin' coffee," he croons) without breaking a sweat. And then there's "Briarpatch," a surreal hip-hop version of a Bre'r Rabbit tale: as nursery school keyboards tinkle in the background, he mumbles, "You can carve me/ Tie me up and starve me/ Put me on the grill, still nothing can harm me/ Like the briarpatch."

THE BRONX This Los Angeles band knows that punk rockers no longer seem quite as intimidating as they once did — compared to rappers, punks seem positively quaint. So in "They Will Kill Us All (Without Mercy)," the great new video directed by Mike Piscitelli, a punk-rock song gets a hip-hop makeover. A black man in a big coat and a do-rag swaggers through Los Angeles streets, lip-synching the snarled words and occasionally pushing passers-by out of the way. It's a sophisticated commentary on race and music, as well as an audacious new form of blackface. Find it at www.ferretstyle.com/withoutmercy, and for the full effect, watch it twice — the first time with the sound turned off.

CHRISTINA MILIAN This Cuban-American singer and actress (she recently starred in "Love Don't Cost a Thing") has already scored hits overseas, and she has a breakthrough American hit with "Dip It Low," one of the summer's most popular songs. But Ms. Milian's new album, "It's About Time" (Island Def Jam), includes an even better song, "I Need More," on which she breathes a serpentine melody over a beat that consists of jagged snippets: some guitar chugging, a few handclaps, a couple of strategically placed beeps and, in the chorus, an unexpected nose-diving bass line. Ms. Milian's consonants snap as hard as the beat, and she spits out her kiss-off line — "It'll be a cold day in hell before you see your girl shed another tear, boy you better hear me" — so fast you almost miss it.

KILLSWITCH ENGAGE This brawny Massachusetts metal band recently released "The End of Heartache" (Roadrunner/Island Def Jam), with the group's new singer, Howard Jones. The staticky guitar riffs and angular rhythms hint at hard-swinging syncopation beneath the screaming chaos, and Mr. Jones knows when to switch off his guttural roar and unleash great, sobbing melody, vowing, "It won't be long, we'll meet again." Perhaps without meaning to, this seemingly fearsome band has made one of the year's best emo albums.

TRAX RECORDS This pioneering Chicago house label (recently reborn as Casablanca Trax) has been flooding the market with reissues this summer, starting with an invaluable (but messy) three-disc compilation, "Trax Records: The 20th Anniversary Collection," which brings together many of the mid- and late-1980's singles that gave birth to modern dance music. Classics like Adonis's "No Way Back" and Mr. Fingers' "Washing Machine" sound as startling and as exuberant as ever, distilling all the joy of disco into stark drum-machine beats. A dreamier, more seductive compilation, "Acid Classics," focuses on the squelchy subgenre known as acid house, starting with Phuture's jaw-dropping 12-minute fantasia "Acid Trax," from 1987 — it still sounds decades ahead of the 1990's British rave scene it inspired. A third compilation, "Queer Trax," celebrates the culture that created and sustained this revolutionary music: it evokes a sweaty night out at a black and Latino gay nightclub in the late 1980's.

NELLY At www.nelly.net, you can hear his incendiary new single, "Flap Your Wings," which has a brain-rattling Neptunes beat and — best of all — no tune whatsoever. Nelly barks out dance commands ("Drop down and get your eagle on, girl"), the Neptunes supply some ascending chromatic scales, then the beat takes over again.

M.I.A. A Sri Lanka-raised, London-based rapper with a pair of devastating dancehall-influenced singles to her credit. Her debut, "Galang" (hear it at www.miauk.com), had a monstrous mechanical beat topped with playful party chants and a magnificent surprise — some wordless singing — near the end. On her new single, "Sunshowers" (watch the video at www.xlrecordings.com), she updates the avant-disco classic by adding some slick, tongue-twisting rhymes and a frenzied beat. XL Records plans to release her debut album in January, which seems like a long time to wait.


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