Business Never Personal

Innovation has always powered black pop, and in hip-hop the flavor of the month changes almost every week. One moment fans are down wit' "OPP," then — blam! — "They Want EFX." In an atmosphere of constant expansion, EPMD has proved, better than anyone else, that sonic consistency can sustain careers. The group's previous albums (Strictly Business, Unfinished Business and Business as Usual) have all sold gold using similar scorched bob-and-weave sounds.

Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith can always be counted on for loopy, laidback black noise that's at once playful and hard-core. They have never bothered with trends — schlock ballads, jams sporting singsongy R&B choruses. Like other rap quasars from "Strong Island" (Public Enemy, Eric B. and Rakim, De la Soul), EPMD masterminded a distinctive style, and its texts and textures have changed very little since being introduced on "It's My Thing" (the pair's fly first single, from 1988). EPMD does what it does very well, thank you, and a large part of the group's musical magnetism is owed to how Erick and Parrish manage to run the same formula — a funky joy ride through a gangster-fantasy universe — without running it into the ground.

The best track on their latest effort, Business Never Personal, is "Play the Next Man," a warning to skeezers that takes hold with a juicy call-and-response chant. Running a close second is "Nobody's Safe Chump," which embraces gangsta rap's madman attitudes without getting evil. "It's Going Down" and "Chill," meanwhile, are more shots of MOR badassness. Members of EPMD's posse, the Hit Squad, are showcased on two of the album's other cuts: "Head Banger," with its smooth, rugged beat, features K-Solo and Redman, while "Cummin' at Cha" sports double-time rhymes from DAS EFX. More typically, on "Scratch Bring It Back (Part 2-Mic Doc)," Erick and Parrish do it by themselves; Parrish changes his flow midverse, and the track also flips onto another level.

The musical gymnastics end there. As the album's leadoff single ("Crossover") suggests, EPMD will make its underground funk forever — keep the crossover!