New twists on old sounds

December 3, 2006


To anyone who cares about musical innovation, gangsta rap and nu metal are two genres that have long since outlived their welcome circa 2006, the former with its endless imitations of the West Coast "Gin and Juice" groove and tiresome tales of loose women, pointless violence and easy-money drug deals, and the latter with its solipsistic, woe-is-me whining, trite rap-rock mergers and growled "Cookie Monster" vocals.

But as any critic worth his or her salt will tell you, any genre -- no matter how much it seems to be all played out -- can produce artists capable of surprising the listener and twisting the rules of the game into something new and exciting.

In the world of gangsta rap, the Virginia Beach duo the Clipse, a k a brothers Pusha T and Malice, have been the beneficiaries of one of the biggest buzzes in recent memory, based on the strength of their Neptunes-produced debut, "Lord Willin'" (2002). Label problems have been part of the crew's story from the beginning, first with Elektra and then with Jive (whose executives they now disparage as "crackers"). But after a four-year wait, the pair's sophomore effort finally was released last week.

With the exception of the insanely catchy "Wamp Wamp (What It Do)," the duo mostly shuns the Dirty South sound on "Hell Hath No Fury" in favor of a vibe that's more old-school East Coast, and they benefit from spare, dark and moody grooves that are almost strong enough to redeem the Neptunes for their recent string of mediocre to awful productions. In the process, the brothers cover a theme that is far beyond familiar: Almost all of these 12 tracks focus on the intricacies of, as Pusha T raps on "Ain't Cha," "Baking pies, making cake / Hustling them Es and that C and that H" -- that is, producing and selling ecstasy, cocaine and heroin. But like Wu-Tang Clan veteran Ghostface Killah's "Fishscale" earlier this year, the brothers' skills with rhymes and flow and their novelistic eye for detail make the usually played subject matter seem fresh.

The Clipse neither condemn nor glorify the life of the drug dealer; they just document it, with songs that are alternately poignant ("Mamma I'm So Sorry," "We Got It for Cheap"), sexy ("Dirty Money"), frightening ("Nightmares") and very funny (from "Ride Around Shining": "While I'm shoveling the snow, man / Call me Frosty ... The Black Martha Stewart / Let me show you how to do it / Break pies to pieces / Make cocaine quiches / Money piles high as my nieces"). "Hell Hath No Fury" isn't exactly the masterpiece some fans are hailing: As powerful as their take on the topic is, an hour of lyrics about drug dealing still gets repetitive. But the album is one of the strongest that the gangsta rap genre has produced, as well as one of the best hip-hop releases of 2006.

Meanwhile, in the nu-metal realm, the Sacramento-based Deftones have always been the smartest and by far the most musically inventive in the school of late-'90s bands headed by Korn and Limp Bizkit. They included hints of My Bloody Valentine's disorienting shoegazer swirl on "White Pony" (2000), thanks to the wall of noise guitar of Stephen Carpenter and the Public Enemy-like sonics of DJ Frank Delgado, while vocalist Chino Moreno's fondness for the atmospheric mope-rock of the Cure and Depeche Mode came further to the forefront on their self-titled 2003 effort. The Deftones may be as angst-ridden and tormented as their peers, I noted at the time, but they believe in the power of music to save their listeners and help them transcend whatever dire circumstances may befall them.

All of these traits are emphasized, expanded and blown up to near-mythic proportions on the group's long-awaited new album "Saturday Night Wrist," as befits a production by one of rock's kings of tasteful bombast, Bob Ezrin, whose resume includes Alice Cooper, Kiss, Lou Reed's "Berlin" and Pink Floyd's "The Wall." Here, the quintet moves even closer to the sort of grandiose, pseudo-gothic soundscapes that the Smashing Pumpkins perfected in their heyday, and the result is one of the most listenable, creative and uncompromising hard-rock albums since the debut of Rage Against the Machine.

Actually, a bit of compromise would have helped, if someone could have convinced the Deftones to remove the only track that falls flat: a pointless, meandering piece of computer-driven art rock called "Pink Cellphone" that finds Annie Hardy of Giant Drag dropping by for a scatological monologue punctuated by Moreno's chants of "Can't stop the sound." Other guest slots are more successful, however, including a turn by System of a Down's Serj Tankian on "Mein," and it is indeed impossible to stop the sonic assault of songs such as "Rats," "Hole in the Earth," "Cherry Waves" and the aptly named "Combat."

Dismiss both of these discs if you will; their often harsh and unrelentingly powerful sounds aren't for everyone. But don't tune them out just because you think these genres have nothing left to say.