Naughty by Nature
Poverty's Paradise
Tommy Boy

If any rappers deserve to be called poets, Treach and Vinnie of Naughty by Nature do. The two don't plumb the depths of human existence, but man, do they love to play with words. They fire off line after line chock full of internal rhymes and alliterations such as, "Coming from the town of Illy / And alleys are full of Phillies and Rallys / Suckers get silly as Sally then found in alleys / I'm rowdy really ...." They create scenes, drop allusions and display a knowledge of the world beyond hip-hop.

If any poets deserve to be called rap stars, it's this powerful New Jersey trio (with DJ Kay Gee). On their third album, Poverty's Paradise, Naughty strikes up enough hard-edged partying in their smart lyrics and sharp beats to keep on top of the hip-hop core, while a handful of radio-ready tracks throw them into wider pastures just to remind everyone else they're also making marks on the pop charts.

And if any rap stars deserve to be called survivors, it's the group that's delivered three classic rap records and three hip-hop anthems in the last few years: 1991's self-titled debut brought "O.P.P." and Nineteen Naughty III gave "Hip Hop Hooray." Now this year's "Feel Me Flow" gets grooves going. In rap, their achievement is unprecedented. -- Roni Sarig

Jennifer Trynin
Squint/Warner Bros.

Jennifer Trynin obviously has the smarts to pull off a fizzy pop gem such as "Better Than Nothing," and Lord knows she's got the charm when she's not trying too hard. But she runs into problems on Cockamamie, her major-label debut, by straining too hard to accentuate off-the-wall characteristics. No doubt Trynin's learned her lessons from the best. Suzanne Vega pulls Trynin's creative strings on the opening "Happier," a matter-of-fact first-person account of the desperation of city living. "Snow" takes off on a Liz Phair-ish tangent before drifting into a whole lot of nothing. It's likely she'd rather not admit it, but Trynin is really a sweetie at heart. Her sentimental love songs come off sounding truer to form than any homage she could pay to influences or contemporaries. For instance, the line "I'd drink every ocean dry / If I thought you might fall from the sky" from "One Year Down" carries a hell of a lot more weight when measured against her lackluster stab at grittiness in "Too Bad You're Such a Loser." Sometimes lightening up can be revelatory. -- Hobart Rowland

Grand Puba

A little too soon to call an album 2000, perhaps? Not for Grand Puba. Based on how long it took to deliver this new record, it's quite likely Puba is counting on it to carry him through the end of the decade.

After appearing on two of rap's more accomplished and entertaining releases -- Brand Nubian's 1990 debut One for All and his own 1992 solo effort Reel to Reel -- Grand Puba seemed to fall off the face of hip-hop. Three years later he's resurfaced, first freestyling in a Sprite commercial and now with his long overdue second solo work.

Puba carried those first two records on the inventiveness of his rhyme style: a little Slick Rick swagger, some Biz Markie pop culture referencing and tone deaf singing, and a lot of Puba's own distinctive whine and boast. On 2000, Puba recaptures all of that and sounds like he's never been away. As before, he packs scores of name drops and song snatches -- from Erkel to "Little Drummer Boy" -- in between his own self-aggrandizing hyperbole and earns more than a few chuckles for the effort.

Also in tried-and-true Puba fashion, the tracks on 2000 favor a heavy bounce and melodic soul groove over the more raw and rhythmic funk backings of most rappers -- which means there's more music and fatter hooks than usual. Plus a bonus: there are virtually none of the pseudo-Islamic race theories that occasionally popped up in Puba's earlier lyrics.

The only disappointment is that there's not enough material. 2000 offers a mere 11 songs. Not to worry, though -- 2001 is just around the corner. -- Roni Sarig

Death to Traitors

With songs titles such as its title track, "Texas" and "Sweet Sally," Death to Traitors, the second release from Kansas-bred good-old-boy grungesters Paw promises a lot more inflated redneck drama than it delivers. The cover, with its photo of stampeding horses kicking up dust beneath a canopy of menacing storm clouds, is enough to bring a tear to the eye of any die-hard Molly Hatchet fan.

Fortunately, Death to Traitors sidesteps Hatchet's habit of opting for slogans and well-worn hooks over tonal dynamics and simple human experience, going instead with a more personal -- and personable -- approach. "Hope I Die Tonight" effectively conveys a '90s live-for-the-moment mentality while avoiding the party-till-you-drop cliches, while "Seasoned Glove" deals with infidelity through the eyes of the unfaithful parent's kid, who pleads, "I miss your shoes on the doorstep / Whose doorstep are they on now?" Granted, none of this equals the down-home earthiness of Dragline, Paw's stunning debut. But guitarist Grant Fitch continues to amaze with his uncanny sense of dynamics and melody, and this, combined with Mark Hennesy's Vedder-in-Wranglers vocal dramatics, gives Paw plenty of substance. -- Hobart Rowland

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Hobart Rowland
Roni Sarig