The Wu-Tang clan and their offshoots have returned an elevating spirit to the New York hip-hop scene in a way that hasn't been experienced there since the mid-'80s, when rivals KRS-One and MC Shan traded lyrical barbs with "Kill That Noise" and "The Bridge Is Over." New albums by KRS-One, Mobb Deep and Fat Joe bring the spotlight back to New York's South Bronx and Queensbridge Projects, but rather than fighting for borough supremacy, they unite musically for the spiritual sanctity of their city in the face of the looming West Coast sales menace.
In a genre that regularly denigrates its heroes, KRS-One has enough battle scars to be considered the Neil Young of hip-hop: a raggedy, highly opinionated figure from rap's golden age who's able to hook up with hot producers (a DJ Premier to Young's Pearl Jam) who keep the music behind him as relevant as his spirit. Eight albums later, KRS-One has proven that black power on wax isn't played out; you just have to be able to rock the Jeep crowd at the same time. On KRS-One, he always goes for the metaphorical jugular as usual, but KRS doesn't just sit around spitting nonsense, either. As with his previous efforts, he divides the album into songs that display straight lyrical skill ("Rappaz R.N. Dainja,"), conceptual experiments ("Hold") and scathing politics ("Ah Yeah"). Even when he gets preachy, KRS remains listenable because he always pushes the edge that thrives on change. He manages to stay ahead of the deadly competition without sacrificing the elements of his character that made him a legend in the first place.
The members of Mobb Deep weren't even 10 years old when KRS-One and MC Shan were at each others' throats fighting over the soul of hip-hop. But that hasn't stopped Mobb Deep from raising the stakes on their older rivals. Their second album, The Infamous..., is a darkly nihilistic masterpiece. Call it the Clockwork Orange of gangsta-rap records, in which violent, unsupervised teenagers roam the streets in search of good lah (weed), skins (women) and manhood tests just for the hell of it. The beats aren't blunted but drunken: bubbling bass lines, marauding snare drums and eerie piano loops slowed to a crawl like the steps of a lurking carnivore — a stylistic cousin to the production pioneered by Wu-Tang Clan's RZA. The MCs trade lines about wading through the drama of their hellish existence; it's a depressing, often frustrating look at ghetto pathology. But despite the ugliness, the beauty and urgency of Prodigy's intricate poetry and Havok's pulsating electromagnetic rhythms have a power that will not be denied.
Fat Joe, the South Bronx Puerto Rican counterpart to Notorious B.I.G. of Brooklyn, N.Y., is a gigantic physical presence with the rhyming skills and booming voice to match. The force of his delivery often forces the beat to match his flow rather than his flow surrendering to the beat's rhythmic constraints. Jealous One's Envy, his stellar sophomore effort, finds the Fat one living much the way he did the last time out, daring suckas to step up to get beat down, interspersing his autobiographical tales of the hard life with boasts about how large he's living. Unlike other pseudohard rappers, Fat Joe doesn't necessarily always have to talk about bucking people down to communicate his hardcore appeal. On "Bronxtale," he pairs with KRS-One over a lush jazz track that floats along without losing its edge, a style characteristic of most of the songs on the album. The best moments come with "Success," a "Flow Joe" remake called "Part Deux" and the album's best song, "Respect Mine," on which Fat Joe is matched with the hottest underground rapper of 1995, Wu-Tang's Raekwon the Chef. There might be better rappers than Fat Joe, but he has so much heart, so much exuberance in his flow and in the way he approaches his subject matter, that his personality has a way of winning you over.