Baby Fox A Normal Family Malawi COB 5899-2

Studio trio Baby Fox brandish their piratical leanings upfront, opening this fine debut with a sampled scratch and what appears to be someone suffering seasickness. It's only the first of several occasions when they make playful sport with ambient expectations. The hum of insect noise on "Ladybird" makes it seem as if the lone piano is tiptoeing through the jungle, while "Our Face Is Not a Jacket" and "Gloria Graham" blend soothing rainfall and meditative instruction into a downpour philosophy. Oddest of all, a cover of Marc Bolan's "Girl" buzzes the ballad with bursts of sample-noise and, towards its end, sheep.

There's always a warm pop sensibility to Baby Fox's reggae-infused trip- hop, especially in the bubbly dub-pop of "Za Za (Get Ready)" and the slinky cover of Junior Byles's "Curly Locks", which mutates, via much hubble- bubble pipe-sucking, through "Police and Thieves" and what sounds like a loop of "Pet Sounds" before being brought up short with a bouncy burst of jazz. Singer Christine Ann Leach infuses the songs with a firm but gentle spirit, like a more determined Julee Cruise, while Alex Gray works the grooves and Dwight Clarke adds a slightly sinister edge with his downbeat, murmured raps. It's an unusually warm, relaxed take on the trip-hop style, and at 41 minutes, A Normal Family doesn't outstay its welcome. A summer breeze. Nas It Was Written Columbia CK 67015 Don't be fooled by the comically unconvincing slavery vignette - "Damn these chains, these damn chitlins every day and night!" - which opens It Was Written: there's precious little to laugh about on this, the most intense foray into the gangsta-rap milieu in some time.

For track after track, Nas uncoils the tightly wound gangsta paranoia, torn between the glamour and the horror of this lifestyle. It's a chilling drama, not least due to Nas's numb rap style, which involves little character by way of inflection or delivery, just a deadpan torrent of verbiage, a "verbal AK spray" of hustler vignettes and revenge tragedies, full of crack-dealer slang, Benzes and Beamers (BMWs), brutal sexual metaphors, and an arsenal of firepower. Even by the verbose standards of rap, the lyric-sheet here is a monster of fine-point print, most of it unprintable.

Nas is especially good with numbers, rattling off the devil's arithmetic of .45s, AK 47s and 9mms with 17 in the clip and one in the chamber; and in one verse of the dealer rap "Affirmative Action", he offers a thumbnail Business Studies course in coke-cutting: "... 32 grams raw chopped in half get 16, double it times three we got 48 which mean a whole lot of cream, divide the prophet (sic) by 4 subtract it by 8, we back to 16, now add the other two..." This cold, mathematical manner gives the raps their brittle, documentary punch, even on the more imaginative tracks like "I Gave You Power", the autobiography of a gun which rebels by jamming on its owner in a shoot-out. Death stalks these raps constantly, an over-burdened reaper on overtime, and life is lived at its sharpest intensity, with each day a potential final chapter. As Nas acknowledges, "Life's a bitch/ But God forbid the bitch divorce me". New Kingdom Paradise Don't Come Cheap Gee Street GEECD 18 Jason Furlow and Sebastian Laws, the duo known as New Kingdom, are like cartoon versions of Sly Stone, with sunshades, afros, and sideburns the size of small Central American republics. Their raps, though, are less recognisable: freewheeling streams of consciousness strung together with apparent disregard for sense and sensibility alike, they're growled out with baffling fury over big floppy-boot-stomp grooves, Furlow and Laws coming across uncomfortably like those poor unfortunates you sometimes encounter on public transport, suffering attacks of Tourette's. When Furlow starts repeating the line "Don't remember us, remember Mars!" over and over in "Animal", it sounds like nothing so much as a Rainman mantra.

As with so many rap releases, the words come a very poor second to the grooves, constructed by New Kingdom with The Lumberjacks and Scott Harding. Here, many hands for once make heavy work: slow and dense, this is the sound of countless samples compacted together like wadding. Harking back to "old skool" rap, the group chisel their grooves out of big, fuzzy power- chords, cavernous drums and distorted slabs of musique concrete, all put through a variety of studio blenders. It's a spectacular, domineering sound, though spoilt time and again by the roars and growls of the two principals. But what could be more quintessentially Nineties than care- in-the-community rap?

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