Money, Power & Respect (Bad Boy/Arista 73015)
At first glance, the Lox would seem to be a classic case of "it's who you know that matters." After making cameos on both the Notorious B.I.G.'s "Life After Death" and Puff Daddy and the Family's "No Way Out" and touring with Puff Daddy, the trio was on its way to stardom even before its debut hit the streets.
But even if the Lox owes its initial success to that association with Puffy and Biggie, the credit for "Money, Power & Respect" belongs with the group itself. Because instead of following the Puff Daddy formula of tightly rhymed, loosely phrased raps over an all-too-familiar rhythm bed, "Money, Power & Respect" takes its own course, one that relies on tougher rhymes and less-obvious samples.
Musically, the Lox hold back a lot more than most of Puff Daddy's Bad Boy productions, letting the space between the notes speak as loudly as the raps themselves. For instance, even though "If You Think I'm Jiggy" bases its chorus on the Rod Stewart oldie "Da You Think I'm Sexy," the bass-and-drums backing track is so lean and mean that it almost reduces the melodic weight of the chorus until the refrain seems more like a chant than a melody.
Likewise, the title tune uses its string-section hook -- taken from the Dexter Wansel track "New Beginning" -- more for mood than melody, repeating its minor-key phrases to emphasize the desperation at the heart of the lyric. But the words are what ultimately carry the track, as producers Deric "D-Dot" Angelettie and Ron "Amen Ra" Lawrence keep the basic groove so stripped down that the raps provide as much rhythmic information as the drums, bass and guitar.
At the same time, the Lox allow their wordplay to generate more in the way of rhythmic momentum than most of Puff Daddy's crew. Jay, Styles and Sheek are at their best when they are much more aggressive with their flow, pushing the beat the way Wu Tang would, and that brings a lot of urgency to these tracks.
At the same time, the trio has trouble working within the well-defined context of a classic Puff Daddy joint. "Can't Stop, Won't Stop" is a case in point. Between its clean, spare pulse and hypnotic repetition of Puff Daddy's chorus, it recalls the stripped-down simplicity of Notorious B.I.G.'s "Hypnotized." But rather than ride that beat, and let the rhythm track do all the work, the Lox seem to want to swim against the music's current, complicating the rhythmic flow without actually enhancing it. At times, the group seems almost unbalanced on that count. "Livin' the Life," for instance, never quite settles into a pocket because the raps constantly step over or push past the beat, as if Jay, Styles and Sheek were unable to agree on quite where the one was.
But when the Lox find their groove, the ensuing sound seems to reconcile the rhythmic sophistication of East Coast rap with the verbal urgency of West Coast crews. Here's hoping that, next time around, the Lox continue to chart their own course between those two poles.
American Sketches (Klavier KCD-11078)
This record is a tour de force for its participants -- soprano (Kenneth Foerch), alto (Anjan Shah), tenor (Irvin Peterson) and baritone (Sheila Connor) saxophonists, all of whom have impeccable musical credentials and live in the Washington-Baltimore area. One hundred and four years after the death of Adolphe Sax, the instrument's inventor, the saxophone has become a trademark of the jazz world. Nevertheless, as this disc abundantly demonstrates, composers who work the classical side of the street have been attracted to its possibilities for flash, glitter and rhythmic variety. If you don't ordinarily think of the saxophone as a classical instrument, these terrific performances should persuade you otherwise.
Howard Johnson & Gravity
Right Now! (Verve 314 537 802)
If you're stunned by the thought of seeing bluesman Taj Mahal sitting in with Howard Johnson's tuba-heavy jazz band, Gravity, it's only because you don't know them very well. Johnson and Mahal go back to 1971, when Johnson backed Mahal on a live album, and the chemistry they had then carries through to "Right Now!" This isn't a blues album, though. Mahal only joins Gravity on three tunes, including a tasty remake of Willie John's "Fever." For the rest of the disc, Gravity focuses on its usual gruff, Kentonian jazz approach, as Johnson and his cohorts -- particularly Dave Bargeron -- demonstrate why the tuba deserves to be considered top brass.
My Own Prison (Wind-Up 13049)