Ugly Duckling

Taste the Secret (Emperor Norton)

Hip-hop, not rap. Charming, not tough. Suburban, not street. Taste the Secret, Ugly Duckling's latest laugh-in-the-face-of thug-life "realism" assault, continues the group's brave struggle to carve a niche for intelligent, playful B-boy culture.

Over the course of an engaging EP and a terrific full-length debut, Ugly Duckling sought to reanimate the Native Tongues era. But they lacked the grittier sound, flashier MCing and bigger label clout of like-minded groups such as Jurassic 5 and Black Eyed Peas, and consequently this trio met mostly with indifference. Undaunted, Taste the Secret finds Andy Cooper, Young Einstein and Dizzy Dustin still enraptured with 3 Feet High and Rising. However, their gentle good humor is beginning to feel like shtick, and the new album doesn't have enough stellar material to compensate for their what-me-worry novelty.

Enriched by hysterical skits concerning MeatShake, a heartbusting fast-food franchise monstrosity, Taste the Secret is all squeaky-clean nicety. Over pleasing loops, "Mr. Tough Guy" and "Potty Mouth" lightly scold hardcore meanies, offering catchiness and positivity as the antidote to guns and bitches. But while their last joint, Journey to Anywhere, was consistently fresh and funny and light on its feet, Taste the Secret rehashes moods and subject matter. Again, we get self-effacing story songs and silly lyrical references. The only revelation arrives in the opener, "Opening Act," the last word on the indignity of warming up someone else's crowd.

Ugly Duckling might aspire to be De La Soul, but they've only mastered half the formula. Goofy jokes and cutesy fun aren't enough to overcome the cynicism and materialism that dominates rap music -- you need a little innovation, too. If this group serves up too many well-meaning mediocrities like Taste the Secret, it'll find itself as the eternal opening act.

 
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