Given that hip-hop has begun turning on itself -- gangsta factions splinter between Left and Right coasts, Marion "Suge" Knight is knocked off Death Row and placed in Cell Block No. 9, Snoop Doggy Dogg gets a Lollapalooza slot and prays it ain't on the second stage -- Peter Spirer's documentary Rhyme & Reason couldn't arrive at a better time. This isn't the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning: Hip-hop, an art form now two decades old, is coping with its growing pains, splintering into factions, struggling with how to sell without selling out.

Like the music itself, Rhyme & Reason is presented in quick-hit sound bites, filled with talking heads and Steadicam shots. The film doesn't spend much time on performance; there are only snippets of singles and scratches, and there's little concert or studio footage. Rather, the movie is divided into little informal chapters: the birth of rap in the Bronx, women in hip-hop, record labels and rap, life and death and music in the hood and so forth.

The impact comes after those bites and blurbs sink in. When Mack 10 says, "[We] talk about money, dope, hoes, cars, guns -- what else? That's reality. Talk about what motherfuckers is really doin'," he's churning out the same ol' same ol' that the cannier rap artists have been giving us for years. It's the cry of the man who can't -- or won't -- look past his front stoop. But when paired with Q-Tip's plea for "all of you niggaz playing that hard-core shit [to] stop it 'cause ... y'all lyin'," then there's real analysis and illumination.

It's KRS-One, the self-styled specialist in "edutainment," who lends the film its real depth. He contends that true rap culture -- break dancing and graffiti artists -- ended when the music went mainstream in the mid-'80s: Hip-hop became lucrative, he insists, only "because corporate America -- massa -- deemed it important." Indeed, the film acts as an indictment of the very labels that elevated the music from the streets and into the bins; the Fugees' Lauryn Hill and Spearhead's Michael Franti offer their disdain for the men and women "in the middle," the record execs who expect "phat interest" on their million-dollar advances.

Rhyme & Reason is often no more than an MTV rockumentary, landing glancing blows when it should knock you flat-ass out. But there's enough to make you want more, especially when Tupac Shakur offers this haunting comment: "The same crime element that white people are scared of, black people are scared of." This isn't the "black CNN," as Chuck D used to say; this is unexpurgated real life -- messy, violent, funny, stupid, unfair, deadly. Hip-hop isn't a lifestyle anymore. It's a contact sport.

-- Robert Wilonsky

Rhyme & Reason
Directed by Peter Spirer. With KRS-One, Lauryn Hill and Tupac Shakur.
Rated R.
90 minutes.


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