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Rap of ages

Two icons that are getting long in the tooth, at least by hip-hop standards, try to beat the clock. One succeeds in freezing time.

Published June 15, 2006

Great rap songs age with style and strength.

Great rap stars? Not so much.

Unlike any other genre of popular music, hip-hop is almost exclusively a youngster’s game, a cruel bit of beat-the-clock that curtails careers in manners both violent and benign.

Think about it: 10, 20 years from now, shotgun-blasted social commentaries from Public Enemy and N.W.A., Jay-Z and Eminem will still resonate as razor-edged works of truth-telling. For better or worse, there will always be a place for Fight the Power and Straight Outta Compton, 99 Problems and White America.

But although the songs will retain relevance, the men who made them are a different story. It’s hard to name an iconic rapper who has kept his cred and his commercial clout and, in too many cases, his heartbeat past the age of 35.

P.E.’s Flavor Flav, once a complex combination of Molotov cocktail and stand-up comic, is now merely a punch line chasing Brigitte Nielsen around on VH-1. Ice-T, of Cop Killer fame, is now a regular on a TV cop show. Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur and Eazy-E, the greatest street poets of all time, never had the chance to get old.

Jay-Z, who has since “retired” into a CEO’s chair and Beyonce’s arms, is one of the few hip-hop artists who realized the genre’s limitations and quit on top. The 36-year-old mogul knew that what initially informs a rapper’s work — the dangers of life on the street, the hunger to escape the hustler’s life — disappears after that first big hit, that first big mansion, that first fleet of Hummers.

There’s also the fact that rap is purchased primarily by a younger audience who crave danceable hits, hummable hooks — and young, good-looking stars.

At 33, a burned-out Eminem, rap’s biggest name, appears to be falling prey to all of these pitfalls, not to mention rap’s penchant for bloody territorial feuds. After recently suffering the loss of best friend Proof, Marshall Mathers is now merely a shadow of his former Slim Shady.

Such aging MCs as LL Cool J, Snoop Dogg and the Wu-Tang Clan might be able to buck the trend, at least in terms of album sales. But for my money, the two rappers with the best shot at transcending the genre’s age discrimination have always been 37-year-old Ice Cube, once N.W.A.’s most volatile mouthpiece, and 34-year-old

Busta Rhymes, rapdom’s unabashed oddball.

Both artists have new albums out this month: Busta’s The Big Bang and Cube’s Laugh Now, Cry Later.

Unfortunately, only one of the men succeeds in coldcocking Father Time, mainly by highlighting his own age instead of running from it. The other rapper merely sounds like 50 Cent’s dad.

Ever since his salad days with Leaders of the New School, Rhymes (a.k.a. Trevor Smith Jr.) has been the lovable outsider, the Big Bad Wolf on peyote buttons, the interplanetary party-thrower. On such hits as Woo Ha!! Got You

All in Check and Gimme Some More, Busta’s unconventional delivery (the motormouthing skills, the Lewis Carrollian choruses, the curious syncopation) played like performance art. Plus his conspiracy theories and apocalyptic obsessions were a nice change from rap’s usual barrage of bullets and braggadocio.

But on The Big Bang, Busta often loses sight of his charming quirks, opting for a thug life instead of the wild life.

His flow is now more threatening than dizzying. And for a guy who always seemed lost in space, his personality is now pedestrian. It also doesn’t help that Busta’s rep was recently hardened by the recent shooting death of his bodyguard.

This is Busta’s first work on Dr. Dre’s Aftermath record label, and the Good Doctor himself, the former mastermind of N.W.A., produces some of the tracks. And the star power doesn’t stop there: Special guests include legends both late and living, including ODB, Rick James and Stevie Wonder, who sings the hook on the strangely lifeless duet Been Through the Storm.

Despite all that help, however, The Big Bang is pretty much a big bust. Busta was more likable when he was paranoid. Now, instead of belonging in a psych unit, he belongs in the G-Unit, albeit with hard-core rappers umpteen years his junior.

Album opener Get You Some opens with a weirdly promising Far Eastern vocal, but then turns into hollow gangsta ho-hum about “fortune, power, fame.” The problem is, Busta already has all that stuff, and his violent search for it rings hollow. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to churn out a club banger. But at least on his 2001 hit Pass the Courvoisier, the tongue-tripping was just weird enough to work.

First single Touch It, produced by hot producer Swizz Beatz, has some offbeat edges and budding energy, but it never takes off like the Busta cuts of old. It just kinda sits there, a generic bouncing blob.

Every once in a while, however, good ol’ Bizarro Busta reveals himself. This is a time to rejoice, especially on the Dre-produced How We Do It Over Here, which features Busta’s female rap counterpart: Missy Elliott. The two flirt and have fun, unleashing their words like randy robots over an air-siren hum and mystical keyboard swirls. For once, Busta forgets about impressing the youngsters — and winds up getting the girl.

Now for the good news: In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Ice Cube (born O’Shea Jackson) was such an incendiary hellraiser for West Coast kings N.W.A., his actions were shadowed by the FBI. These days, however, the gangsta-rap progenitor is better known as a Hollywood player with a manse in the suburbs. In 2005 kiddie flick Are

We There Yet?, the man who once rapped F--- Tha Police repeatedly gets kicked in the crotch in the name of family entertainment. Not exactly the best preface for a rap comeback.

But lo and behold, on the new Laugh Now, Cry Later, Cube sounds as tough as ever, a retired superhero tying on the cape for one more battle. This is an old-school rap album, and Cube still pushes rhymes like weight. He cares more about getting his point across than getting you on the dance floor.

Believe this, doubters: When it comes to vocal dexterity and lyrical wit, Jay-Z and Eminem are indeed best. But when it comes to sheer forcefulness and commanding presence, Cube will always be king.

Cube has no desire to play a young man’s game. And on sucker-punching album opener Why We Thugs, produced by in-demand beatmaker Scott Storch, Cube proves that he doesn’t need N.W.A pal Dr. Dre to help make magic.

Over a thick synth line, Cube plays hip-hop historian, ripping on George Bushes young and old and remarking how Senior didn’t help the poor black neighborhoods and Junior isn’t doing any better. (“They give us guns and drugs, then wonder why the f--- we thugs.”) It’s a political haymaker that resonates in your head and your chest. They don’t make ’em like this anymore. Turn that sucker up.

On the vicious diss track Child Support, Cube turns his heat on all the “one shot” wonders clogging the rap game today. The music is turned down and Cube’s snarl is amped up, as he blasts today’s new breed for rapping solely about “ho’s and money” and ignoring the real problems in the inner city. “Go get your diaper changed,” he snarls at song’s end.

Even when Cube teams up with Snoop Dogg and Lil’ Jon for the locked-and-loaded gangsta cut Go to Church, the song is so profanely over the top it rings out more as homage to the hard old days than a rich dude trying to make like a pistol-packing pimp. This is how we used to roll.

Like many rap albums, Laugh Now, Cry Later is bloated (20 tracks and skits), and Cube is guilty of repeating himself at album’s end. Still, young rap fans would be wise to cue up this hip-hop hero. As he says on the groovin’ remember-when song Growin’ Up, “I used to be lyrical, political. Now you want it sugar-coated like cereal.”

Go figure: By embracing his status as rap’s rare elder statesman — and not playacting like a respect-hungry upstart — Ice Cube is once again one of the most radical rappers around. Chalk one up for the old guys.

Ice Cube, Laugh Now, Cry Later (Lench Mob) GRADE: B+

Busta Rhymes, The Big Bang (Interscope/Aftermath) GRADE: C

[Last modified June 14, 2006, 18:15:37]

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