Two Hours And Counting...

Tupac, what hath you wrought?

When the now-deceased California Lover released the first double

hip-hop CD, he raised

the stakes for ego-maniacal rappers the world over. We are still

enduring the assault of

Biggie's overblown two-fer, and a few months after the release of

Wu-Tang

Forever, the jury is still out on whether or not the Clan's legacy

would have been better

served by simply releasing what might have been the best single

hip-hop CD ever. Now

Bone Thugs -N- Harmony have stepped up to bat with their bid at

supremacy, The Art

of War.

Hopefully this double rap CD craze is something that will blow

over, just

as the ill-conceived live hip-hop album fizzled after Vanilla Ice and

Boogie Down Productions almost simultaneously released their

own live

albums back in 1991 (the history books read that BDP put out the

first

live hip-hop album even though Ice beat them to the punch, but

that melted

ice cream cone-head isn't really "hip-hop," so he was disqualified,

I

guess).

As far back as 1991 Chuck D complained that rap albums were

too

long, and that there wasn't enough substance in many of them to

merit

their length. Then and now, I couldn't agree with him more. It is

pretty

much accepted among all but the most strung-out beat junkies that

back

when hip-hop albums lasted up to 75 minutes on single discs, that

was

about 25 minutes too much. Now that these newfangled double

discs

threaten to push the two-and-a-half hour mark, it's enough to make

anyone

with common sense listen solely to 12"s.

After enduring my tirade, I bet you're wondering if The Art of

War is

any good. Surprisingly, it's not that bad, even at two hours in

length.

I'll lay it out on the table. I was never fond of Bone, and the fact

that they were discovered and signed by the world's lamest

rapper, Eazy-E

(c'mon, the guy didn't even write his own rhymes), didn't help their

status in my mind. Despite being assaulted by that "Crossroads"

song for

a good two months straight, it still didn't catch fire in my head.

Hell,

it only took about half a dozen listens before I involuntarily

hummed

along to "MMMbop" (OK, so maybe it was voluntary, but don't tell

anyone).

Despite my prejudices, I came to The Art of War with an

open mind,

hoping they could win me over, which they did, for the most part.

Opening with the obligatory hip-hop "skit" album intro, things go

into

medium gear with the first song, "Handle the Vibe" (despite their

chants

of putting "the pedal to the metal"). This song shows off Bone's

now

familiar patented style which fuses rapid-fire vocal interplay and

close-knit harmonies on top of functional, but not exemplary,

beats. I've

gotta give 'em credit, they do have their own style that's engaging

and

unique -- they certainly haven't built their career by ripping off

others.

Their originality comes almost entirely from their use of their

voices -- the way Krayzie, Layzie, Wish and Bizzy Bone lock into

formation

and spray the listener with barely-intelligible machine gun rhymes

and

harmonies. Fortunately for the listener, their rhymes are

hard to

understand (unless you really pay attention), because many of

them are

cookie-cutter, post-gangsta hard-n-authentic lyrics about the

standard

fare: thug life, killin', cash and defensive rants lambasting "playa

haters." The freshness of their style is not a product of what

they

say, but how they say it. Bone is at their best when their

multi-syllable assaults blend together in a primordial goop,

allowing the

listener to make whatever sense he or she wants to.

Even when what they say becomes obvious, and obviously trite (I

mean, how

many stories of gun battles can one hear before it starts sounding

more

like a marketing scheme than "street reporting?"), Bone Thugs-N-

Harmony can

be pretty damn fun. Take disc two's opening song with Tupac,

"Thug Luv."

It features the best use of gun sound effects I've ever heard in a

hip-hop

song (or any other genre, for that matter). Again, the production on

this

song ain't nothing to write home about. The ominous synth lines,

piano

rolls and heavy-hitting minimalist drums have all been done

before, but

the rhythmic double shotgun blast that anchors "Thug Luv" will

have the

fists of cream-puff white suburbanites and hard-core black city

dwelling

teens pumping for some time to come.

Like many of Bone's contemporaries, they give respect to the old

school

pioneers who preceded them by including a cover of a hip-hop

classic on

their album. In this case, The Art of War contains a version

of

Whodini's 1984 hit, "Friends." Like most recent hip-hop covers,

much of

the original lyrics have been rewritten, updated for newer, harsher

times,

save for the chorus (whose lyrics, "Friends ... how many of us have

them?

Friends ... ones you can depend on?" are pretty timeless).

The Art of War isn't a terrible album, but it isn't a great one

either.

Bone Thugs-N-Harmony don't profess to be the best rap crew in

the world;

they are just content to kick some nice-sounding rhymes and

harmonic

R&B-inspired vocals. There was no need to spread themselves so

thin

across a double disc set that could have easily been condensed

into a

strong single piece of plastic, except to keep up with the

competition.

If this game of excess continues in hip-hop (overly long albums,

million

dollar videos, etc.), then I'm afraid the used CD bins of the 21st

century

will be littered with rap's numerous answers to Frampton

Comes Alive,

and that isn't a pretty vision of the future.