Strictly Business

Stop the presses! There's an actual R&B chorus on Erick Sermon's third solo album. Someone place a call to Satan: Is it particularly chilly in his neck of the woods?

The R&B chorus on "Can't Stop" (

href=",_Eric/Cant_Stop.ram">RealAudio excerpt) is a concession to the pop market that EPMD railed against back in 1992 on Business Never Personal's "Crossover" and "Headbanger." Is this why Sermon is going by the Onasis surname for this album? Inquiring minds want to know.

Okay, so I'm exaggerating a bit. That one R&B refrain aside, Onasis' lyrics still are presented in the same "rough, rugged and raw" style he's been kicking since his 1988 debut (along with old partner Parrish Smith) as the E part of Long Island, N.Y.'s EPMD. And, that R&B chorus aside, Def Squad Presents Erick Onasis is a solidly head-bobbin' hip-hop album and may be the best proof yet that EPMD's monotone-rhymes-about-rapping-sex-and-money-over-thick-funk-tracks style was indeed 10 years ahead of its time.

Why? Because this album is tight, with few missteps, and sounds not only of a piece with the rest of the Sermon catalog but also completely modern. Both "Don't Get Gassed" ("Who wanna go at it buck for buck?/ I come though like, 'Nigga what?'/ In a Brinks truck") and "Live It Up" ("How the hell you get backstage with no laminate?/ Area restricted/ For those MCs that's not gifted/ Amateur night show, you missed it") sound like vintage EPMD tracks, while hard-hitting yet grooving songs such as "I Do 'Em" and "Get da Money" also easily could pass for entries by the Notorious B.I.G. or Black Rob. Hell, "Get da Money" (RealAudio excerpt) sounds so much like a Ja Rule tune that it's no surprise at all that he's a guest on the track.

And, speaking of guests, there are a lot here, and few of them sound out of place — and that includes the late, not-always-so-great Eazy-E on "So Sweet" (RealAudio excerpt). There's no info here about where Eazy-E's verses came from. Are they from the vaults? Did he record with Sermon before his death? Ultimately, though, it doesn't matter, as the rolling funk punctuated by a staccato keyboard line suits both rappers just fine. Other fun cameos include Xzibit and DJ Quik on the too funky "Focus" and Too $hort on "Fat Gold Chain," the latter a song that ends too soon and makes one wonder why it took so long for these two underground P-Funk devotees to get together.

The Slick Rick pairing on "Why Not" (RealAudio excerpt) doesn't work as well, though. The track sounds like a

lethargic Mobb Deep throwaway, and the mellow style of both men does

nothing to lift the song up to the listener's ears. Suffering a similar fate is "Feel Me Baby," a negligible track featuring newcomers Khari Santiago and Sy Scott, neither of whom have the charisma to make the song worth your time.

These few misses aside, though, if you're a fan of the East Coast hardcore sound pioneered by EPMD and popularized by the Notorious B.I.G., there's plenty on Def Squad Presents Erick Onasis for you to love. After all, you're a customer.