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Divine Styler

Divine Styler is a name from way back, and in the short-memoried rap culture, he is all but forgotten. Styler was an early cohort of Ice-T and dropped the original Wordpower in 1989, an eon ago in hip-hop years. In the time that's passed between that album and this, Divine completed one more full-length (the unsung Spiral Walls), got dropped from his label, then vanished from sight altogether. Meanwhile, MCs like Wu-Tang's GZA adopted pieces of Divine's dense, convoluted rap style. A fanzine bearing his name, In Search of Divine Styler, even appeared.

Just as suddenly, he surfaced in 1997 with a 12-inch titled "Before Mecca." He also contributed to last year's Spectrum compilation from the Quannum collective, teaming his packed raps with sounds by DJ Shadow. Suddenly, Divine's flow made sense coming out of a hip-hop underground that embraced the same literate, scientific and Islamic concepts Divine had tried to push more than 10 years earlier. An album was announced, then the giant label shakeup came, and Divine Styler's follow-up was lost in the chaos. Finally, pioneering U.K. label Mo' Wax has graced 2000 with Wordpower 2: Directrix.

Appropriately, the Styler makes you wait four tracks in to hear his voice. An a cappella Arabic vocal, a spoken-word piece and minimal beat set the stage for Divine's entrance on "Satan Dynasty Killa I," chanting his "I refine the myth" mantra over thunderous bass. Divine's conversion to Islam and pilgrimage to Mecca deeply inform Directrix, but rather than preach, he simply empties out the inner workings of his mind. The amazing two-fer of "Before Mecca" and "Hajji," recorded before and after his pilgrimage, respectively, are unparalleled in their thought and reflection.

Musically and lyrically, Directrix mirrors the darkness Styler witnesses around him, even inside the soul, as on "Oneself Duel." The arrangements are driven by mechanized drum patterns, digitally altered voices, occasional string samples and sound effects, as Divine expertly keeps the music sparse yet engaging. The slew of words over nervous keyboard figures in "Directrix" serve each other -- searing lyrics and music together -- to get the message across.

When most albums are saturated with guest vocalists and producers, Divine Styler writes, raps and produces nearly this entire disc. A few like-minded friends help out: Styles of Beyond appears, as does DJ Rhettmatic. But what shine through are the words of a man with the confidence and creativity to power an album himself. With the benefit of several decades of hip-hop to observe, it seems that Divine Styler's once-misunderstood lyrical philosophy and sci-fi sound belong to the tradition of African American retro-futurism from Sun Ra and John Coltrane to George Clinton and modern rappers like Kool Keith. Wordpower 2: Directrix is a worthy contribution to that line.