The 18th Letter/The Book of Life
(Universal Records)

In 1967, when American boxing commissions stripped Muhammad Ali of his license to fight, he was an unpopular champion widely denounced for his religious beliefs, unwillingness to serve in the military and tendency to toy with inferior contenders. By 1970, when his exile from boxing ended, Ali had become a legend--both a political martyr and an internationally recognized ambassador for his sport. Basically, it took the masses three and a half years without Ali to truly appreciate how wondrous his presence had always been.

In the world of hip-hop, Rakim was never unpopular, but he was often taken for granted. Like a young Ali in the ring, Rakim behind the mike was a marvel, floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee with effortless fluidity. But rap's ever-changing directions--from the East Coast activism of Public Enemy to the trippy psychedelia of De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest to the hard-core gangsta sagas of the West Coast school--gradually pushed Rakim down from the position of cutting-edge youngblood to venerated elder.

Now, after sitting out the past five years of hip-hop turbulence, Rakim resurfaces on a billowy cloud of self-congratulation with The 18th Letter. On brief "skits" that connect the album's tracks, Rakim thanks listeners for "embracing" his comeback, before he's even had a chance to see how the comeback is accepted. And before even one note of music is heard on the CD, Rakim is already responding to a phony interviewer's question about what he expects to give back to hip-hop in '97: "I think what I'm giving them back, man, is what they've been waiting for, y'know what I mean? Skills." Such self-love is not unique in rap, but what is unique is that Rakim, like Ali, can back up his boasts. Just check out the way he flows through the album's title track, skipping through mad syncopations and using his sharp tongue like a percussion instrument.

What's most surprising on The 18th Letter is how little the years have changed Rakim. The BPMs are a tad slower, and the verbal gymnastics a bit less flamboyant, but Rakim remains the epitome of smooth. For him, the medium was always the message, and style was always part of his substance. Classic tracks like "Eric B. Is President" and "Paid in Full" were standard rap braggadocio elevated by classy delivery.

Similarly, Rakim relentlessly celebrates himself on The 18th Letter, and somehow makes you care. The title track bristles with smoldering tension, as Rakim sets the new batch of sucker MCs straight on who wrote the book. The theme extends into "It's Been a Long Time" and "Guess Who's Back," as he tries to recast five years of silence as a mere pregnant pause, executed for dramatic effect.

His comeback is confirmed by this set's inclusion of The Book of Life, a supplemental CD filled with highlights from his golden days with Eric B. That Rakim's new stuff flows so naturally into some of hip-hop's most brilliant oldies only proves that this guy is aging with characteristic grace.

--Gilbert Garcia

Bill Laswell
Bob Marley Dreams of Freedom:
Ambient Translations of Bob Marley in Dub
(Island/Axiom Records)

Producer/bassist Bill Laswell, the Ybermensch of the Deep Alternative scene, already has some 200 releases to his credit, working either behind the sound board or cracking off a chunk of blunt low-end on the other side of the studio glass. The upcoming year finds Laswell enlisted for no fewer than eight major projects, including a set of funky Miles Davis remixes called Panthalassa, which may kick it for Davis the way Ambient Translations, the Bob Marley remixes, redefines the hallowed ground staked out by Jamaica's No. 1 musical export. When Laswell remixes, expect uncharted territory to open up.

He's adept at milking nuance from existing material, blending rhythms in unanticipated ways without appropriating either the original or the frequently "exotic" (to American ears) textures he uses to reinterpret that original. Laswell's own work, a cross-pollination of styles culled from geographies as diverse as New York City, North Africa and India, fights against the ghettoization of clear-cut genres. The results aren't always approachable, not without a bullwhip and pistol anyway, but they're very interesting.

Laswell's considered a primogenitor of any number of musical movements, including techno, acid jazz and world beat. His influences are as distant as the sacred trance music of Morocco and as close as P-Funk and Public Image Ltd.--which he basically formed. Not everyone loves his brand of alchemy. Some have faulted Laswell for the way he "collides" electric funk with "African" music; others have accused him of neo-colonialism and collecting specimens for exploitative display. However, even a glimpse of Laswell's work reveals an artist of complexity, commitment and philosophical insight.

His remix of Bob Marley is another example of Laswell's prowess. To attempt to "translate" the Reggae Icon would result, for most, in disaster from the start. For true fans, Marley's work suffers no tinkering. But Laswell succeeds on Ambient Translations because he doesn't obscure Marley's original vision. Instead, he holds up a magnifying glass to the music, drawing out intricacies, pointing to what's so remarkable about it.

The material here is strong and includes "Rebel Music (3 O'Clock Roadblock)," "Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)" and the incomparable "Exodus." The latter pulses along much as it does on the original, but the remix introduces ethereal vocal effects and something that sounds like seagulls ascending into orbit. Laswell's careful to foreground Marley's material without cluttering it or overstepping his role as engineer to muck up the recording's integrity, even though he does transform the songs into ambient dub.

The compositions retain their overall structure, but shift in the details. For the most part, Laswell works in subtle technical ways. There's the haunting murk of "Burnin' and Lootin'" which segues into the bright, dry intro of "Is This Love," dragging the listener across a range of emotions and imaginary scenes; moving from muddy backstreets slick with oil and lighted with the fires of 50-gallon trash drums, into sunshine. Similarly, "Rebel Music" in the hands of Laswell seems inhabited by a ghost choir. The song is creepy, an aftertaste of something almost forgotten, suggesting a rebellion quelled only to reemerge from the ashes unexpectedly. Bob Marley might like that.

--Matt Golosinski


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