Reviews

The Lox
Money, Power & Respect
(Bad Boy)

These are the things you need to know about the debut album from the Yonkers-based rap trio the Lox. The song "If You Think I'm Jiggy" borrows heavily from Rod Stewart's "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?" The Lox's "Get This $" is dependent on the Isley Brothers' 1969 hit "It's Your Thing." "So Right" isn't without a big sample from "Encore," the famous Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis song. And so on.

Only the naive reader will be surprised to hear that the Lox are a Puff Daddy production. The song-swiping wouldn't matter if the fish had even halfway decent rap skills. The Fugees, for instance, plunder familiar songs all the time; minus two notable (and it must be admitted, extremely profitable) exceptions, "Killing Me Softly" and "No Woman No Cry," they make them their own. But the Lox lack such creativity. The rhymes are about Yonkers, a hardscrabble town just north of New York City, and what it's like to be suddenly rich -- subject matter that wears out after about five minutes.

The wordplay is rudimentary at best. In "Livin' the Life" one of the members -- Jason "Jadakiss" Phillips, David Styles, and Sean Sheek Jacobs make little effort to announce their individuality -- raps, "The first words in life I learned are 'cock' and 'squeeze.' " Were he not talking about a gun, he'd be original. In "If You Think I'm Jiggy," a ditty about casual sex, one of them rhymes, "They was never mine/ For me to dump 'em/ It was just like checkers/ After they make a move, I jump 'em." If this is the Lox's idea of a rhyme scheme, Rakim isn't losing any sleep.

None of this was a problem when the Lox backed Mariah Carey for a verse on her hit "Honey." With the spotlight on themselves, however, they have very little to offer save some nifty samples. Producer Sean "Puffy" Combs deserves credit for his achievement: Just as it was becoming fashionable to vilify hip hop, Combs revived pop rap. Combs himself has sold many millions of records by rapping over familiar songs, and his videos have established a trademark nouveau riche style. Puffy's welcome to expand his empire by franchising his own success, but there is trouble ahead. Neither the Lox nor young rapper Mase is as talented as Biggie Smalls or former Bad Boy artist Craig Mack. With mags like The Source comparing the imprint to Motown in the '60s, this should be Bad Boy Records' moment in the sun. But Combs has shown that even for a label head he's not much of an artist (compare him to Madonna or Babyface), and as a label head he's not much of a judge of talent. Instead of the start of something big, this could mark the end.

-- Martin Johnson

Fred Hersch
Fred Hersch Plays Monk
(Nonesuch)

In this solo recital, pianist Fred Hersch, who has recently recorded discs dedicated to the compositions of Billy Strayhorn and Rodgers & Hammerstein, turns to Thelonious Monk. He isn't the first to do so. Monk's writing has always fascinated jazz people, even at a time when his straight-fingered, sometimes violently percussive piano playing, with its bandylegged whole-tone scales, fiercely dissonant clusters, and exquisitely eccentric timing, perplexed audiences and prompted musicians to say he had no technique. Monk famously played his own style, and his writing was just as distinctive. He wrote formally unusual, driving compositions based on rhythmic figures such as "I Mean You" and genial stride tunes such as "Let's Cool One" (which sounds like James P. Johnson) and the spare "Evidence," whose melody seems based on a spray of individual notes rather than a shapely phrase. Then there are Monk's straightforward blues and ravishingly romantic ballads, such as "'Round Midnight" and "Crepuscule With Nellie."

Hersch plays all these tunes and others with an elegance of gesture and a rounded sound that may seem incompatible with the Monk mystique. There's nothing to worry about. Hersch substitutes wit and an ample technique for Monk's power and it works. He approaches "Misterioso," a piece based on alternating sixths that walk as stiffly as a character in a low-budget silent film, as a series of variations. Where Monk himself dashed through the melody on this piece, and then largely abandoned what he wrote in the improvisations, Hersch investigates the theme in five variations. He slows the first chorus of "Misterioso" to a dreamy crawl, playing a resonant chord that he sustains while plinking at the alternating sixth. He makes Monk sound as reflective as Debussy. The second chorus is a study in single staccato notes; occasionally one is marked by a startling accent. Then in the next chorus Hersch intones "Misterioso" so that it sounds like faraway bells. The later variations are just as strikingly original.

It's easy to praise Hersch's ballads, the two versions of "'Round Midnight" found here and "Crepuscule With Nellie," but one shouldn't ignore the rhythmic zest and control of the two-handed choruses of "Evidence," the thoughtful swing of "Light Blue," the straightforward power of "In Walked Bud." Hersch may not sound like Monk, but no one else has either. Instead, he has reinterpreted some of Monk's greatest pieces in a manner that makes them live in a new light.

-- Michael Ullman

 
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