Times may no longer be hard for Run-D.M.C., the world's best-known rap group, but these days guys can't afford to rest on their Adidas. In the hectic hip-hop world, where the names and faces change faster than you can say "rock the house," the members of Run-D.M.C. have got half the kids in the streets dogging them for teaming up with shaggy museum pieces like Aerosmith and for taking two years to produce a follow-up to the ground-breaking urban magnificence of Raising Hell. Much of the mouthing off is just so much hot air from cool upstarts, but mainstream success does have a way of blunting hard edges. Just ask Grandmaster Flash.
Tougher Than Leather, the trio's fourth album, is a crucial test of Run-D.M.C.'s street credibility and rap's continuing insinuation into pop culture. Unfortunately, Tougher Than Leather isn't the convincing knockout punch it should be, but there's enough on the twelve tracks to give pause at least to the young blowhards out there nipping at Run-D.M.C.'s sneakers.
On the surface, Run-D.M.C. has not gone soft. Produced by the band and Def Jam artist Davy D., Leather shows that Run-D.M.C. has learned its lessons well from previous producers Russell Simmons, Larry Smith and Rick Rubin. "Run's House," the initial single, kicks the album off with a strident declaration of beat-box supremacy. "Papa Crazy," a keyboard-and-drum-driven tale of a carousin' and tomcattin' father, serves as a sly, stylistic update of the Temptations' 1972 classic "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone." But it's the kinetic rush of "I'm Not Going Out Like That" that shows off the swaggering rhymes and beats of Joe Simmons, Darryl McDaniels and Jason Mizell to best advantage.
No matter how good some of the new material is, there's an underlying timidity on Tougher Than Leather that is troubling. Perhaps the group has been shackled by success, because there's nothing on the album as uncompromising as earlier tracks like "Hard Times," "It's Like That" and "Proud to Be Black." It seems as if Run-D.M.C. has let the likes of Public Enemy and Ice T take over the more militant and politically aware hip-hop turf.
Thematically and musically, Run-D.M.C. has started to repeat itself. The updating of the Monkees' "Mary, Mary," the only track in which Rick Rubin had a hand, is humorous, but it appears to be a blatant attempt to follow in the lucrative footsteps of "Walk This Way." Further, "Soul to Rock and Roll," "Tougher Than Leather" and "Miss Elaine" are hamstrung by either tiring braggadocio or predictable rock-guitar rhythms.
In the end, Tougher Than Leather doesn't raise hell, but it does raise more questions than it answers. While the members of Run-D.M.C. aren't yet in danger of losing their self-applied titles as the kings of rock, the future is far less certain than it was two years ago. In the wake of such acclaimed new hip-hop stylists as Eric B. and Rakim, DJ Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince and a myriad of others, there are many more pretenders to the throne, and the citizens are restless.