The Master

With partner Eric B., rap stylist Rakim was the architect behind some of hip-hop's pioneering moments: "Paid in Full," "I Know You Got Soul," "Follow the Leader." The flow between DJ Eric B.'s deft turntable skills and Rakim's equally smart rhymes was ground zero for many of the genre's dynamic duos to follow, from Dre and Snoop to Timbaland and Missy. It's old school at its finest, and it was nearly as important as Run D.M.C. and Public Enemy in the formation of hip-hop.

But it's a different game a decade-plus later. Master P's synthetic riffs and the Wu-Tang sway are all over, creatively stifling the music, and innovators are in short supply. On his second solo album, The Master, Rakim lays down an unabashedly old-school groove, employing a variety of producers to replicate, if not downright imitate, his old partner's technique. Most effective is Gang Starr's DJ Premier, probably the turntablist who's been influenced the most by Eric B.'s cut-and-paste sound collages. Here, Premier slices and dices across the vinyl, contrasting with -- and therefore giving an edge to -- Rakim's smooth wordplay (something undoubtedly picked up from Premier's own partner Guru, the rapper most influenced by Rakim).

Yet, there's an uncomfortable lack of direction on The Master. It's assembled like an old-school album, with little flow among the tracks themselves. It often plays like a collection of songs recorded over an extended period of time and then tossed together with little concern for consistency or pacing. The structure is wobbly, despite Rakim's valiant performance. His mic skills are still unyieldingly complex, if not as relevant or timely as they used to be (just check out the defensive "Flow Forever").

On 1997's The 18th Letter, Rakim's return after a five-year hiatus, the microphone master had something to prove (namely, that he still mattered in the current rap universe). The Master doesn't carry this burden. It's a smoother album, more comfortable in its surroundings. "It's the R" even samples "I Know You Got Soul" without coming off as a nostalgia trip, and the closing "We'll Never Stop" is an appropriate post-millennium declaration. Faithful old schoolers couldn't ask for more. -- Michael Gallucci

Selection Sixteen

A little less than four years ago, Squarepusher's Tom Jenkinson debuted with Feed Me Weird Things on the England-based Rephlex imprint. The frantic flurry of breaks taken past 160 bpm combined with precision percussion programming to foster drill 'n' bass -- an offshoot of drum 'n' bass -- at times too painful to endure. As legions of copycats flooded the market with cack tracks, Jenkinson retreated to his electric bass to experiment with different time changes, slower tempos, and a more organic jazz aesthetic, with varying degrees of success. A remarkable eight releases later, Selection Sixteen sees Jenkinson coming full circle with a disciplined balance of programming wizardry and raw fusion sensibilities.

Selection Sixteen is, for better or worse, two albums mixed together. The first sees the reemergence of tight, effortless melodies over dense programming; the last time Squarepusher released such memorable melodies was on 1996's Port Rhombus EP. Since then, it's been either madcap percussion (1997's Hard Normal Daddy) or noodly jazz improvisation (1998's Music Is Rotted One Note). Now, on "Square Rave," an echoing melody comes to the fore over reined-in breaks and a heavy Bootsy Collins-inspired bass line -- it's almost pop. On "Dedicated Loop" and the intro "The Eye," Jenkinson careens a little too close to Aphex Twin's more self-indulgent ambient moments. But "Tomorrow World" is every bit as magnificent as Feed Me Weird Things' "Theme From Ernest Borgnine," where scaling spirals effortlessly balance a dense pipe organ theme with a thousand glassy drum snaps.

The second half of Selection Sixteen consists of live jazz-like interludes, mixed as though Jenkinson were playing in a two-mic studio with, say, John Coltrane back in 1957. As such, "Freeway," "Cool Veil," and "Yo" bask in the glory of the live room, spacious and bordering on relaxed messiness. Together with four negligible remixes, these songs make Selection Sixteen a challenging album best enjoyed in small doses. -- Heath K. Hignight

Conehead Buddha
(BFP Music)

It should be a coup when a brand-name studio guru like John Alagia (Dave Matthews Band, Moe., Agents of Good Roots) gets involved with a relatively unknown act like Albany, New York's Conehead Buddha. Unfortunately, Alagia produced only a few tracks on this not-quite-ska septet's fifth album. As a result, Rockets' schizophrenic nature sends it spiraling slightly out of control. More to the point, Rockets doesn't really make Conehead Buddha sound good, and it's a far cry from accurately representing the band's phenomenal live sound.

At its best, Rockets moves toward more traditional ska-pop -- the band comes off as a revamped Dexy's Midnight Runners with killer horns replacing the synths. Borrowing a page from SoCal post-ska, "Birds" is the break-up anthem that will make you forget all about that "Nookie" tune. And while frontman Chris Fischer's monotone vocal delivery isn't quite as sexy as Gwen Stefani's, his amusing lyrics would probably have the No Doubt diva's stamp of approval.

The heroes here are the horn section of Brian Kaplan and the brother-and-sister team of Terry and Shannon Lynch, who produce a seemingly endless supply of butt-shaking grooves and flawless layers of texture. Shannon also adds backing vocals to several tunes, and Terry lends his vocal talents to the pseudo-rap "Mattress Mambo," a track that could make Lou Bega jealous.

When Rockets hits its stride, as on the funky workout "Freakshow," Conehead Buddha's bright, danceable nature comes shining through. But Rockets fails when it tries to kick into overdrive. An underpinning of thrashing, quasi-metal rhythm guitar pervades the disc, dragging down otherwise solid tracks like "Lioness" and "Piggies." It's nice to see Conehead Buddha explore its darker side, but the vision of the band as a heavier Reel Big Fish never completely finds its legs, and more often than not, Rockets is the sound of a band still trying to find itself in the studio. -- Zachary Roberts

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