Pop: This Week's Album Releases

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The Independent Culture
RZA

as Bobby Digital

Gee Street/V2

THE WU-TANG Clan is the Nineties equivalent of the Parliament/Funkadelic family, a ceaseless blizzard of solo albums, side-projects and pseudonyms; that it all somehow coagulates into a coherent whole is thanks largely to the unifying force of chief producer The , whose solo debut this is.

In general, the less sense Clan albums make, the better they are, and this one is utterly incomprehensible. Featuring as the "hip-hop cyborg" Bobby Digital, it follows the familiar Wu-Tang course, with pulp-action scenarios, spooky loops, impenetrable verbiage and a vast cast of guest rappers passing the mic.

The results are intermittently brilliant - the duet with Method Man on "NYC Everything" (or "an' I see everything...", as puts it) is a classic Wu-Tang abstract groove, its flights of wordplay spiralling dizzily off into the further reaches of poetic licence.

Sadly, not all 's guests are of that calibre, and the latter reaches of the album are spoilt by some immature and badly delivered contributions from neophytes such as 9th Prince and Islord Of Killarmy, most of whose mental agility appears to have been expended thinking up their names. But himself is on top form.

Even the mandatory boudoir postcard, "Love Jones", features a more inventive interplay than usual between allegory and pornography.

Throughout, all and sundry pepper their raps with references to the eponymous cyborg, though no clear plot or even character profile emerges. Indeed, as each guest rattles out their standard freestyle routine, it gradually becomes clear that The has simply asked them to mention Bobby Digital somewhere along the way, giving the impression of thematic unity, if not of narrative continuity. If it ultimately makes no more sense than the concept albums of prog-rockers such as Yes, Rush and Jethro Tull, following it proves much more fun. One awaits the mooted movie with interest.

SEAL

Human Being

Warner Bros

"WE'RE MERE human beings, we die, it's destined," sings Seal on the title-track of his third album, the first not to be called just Seal. It is a harsher, more fatalistic outlook than we are used to from the statuesque crooner, reflecting a sleeve image that presents him as a kind of nude Nosferatu; but as ever, Trevor Horn's sumptuous production both softens and elevates the sentiment.

There is a lingering sense of non-specific emotional turmoil about the album as a whole: it is obvious that Seal is perturbed by something, but it is never clear exactly what - though judging by songs such as "State Of Grace" and "Lost My Faith", his troubles would seem to be more spiritual than sexual. It is appropriate, then, that on tracks such as "No Easy Way", Seal should adopt soul preacher Bobby Womack's dark-brown timbre and sermonising style.

The grandiose arrangements veer dangerously close at times to the bland musical argot of television commercials, impressively crafted but oddly characterless - though Seal's appeal ultimately rests in the skilful resolution of the contrast between the sophisticated settings and his earthier presence.

KIRK FRANKLIN

The Nu Nation Project

Gospo Centric/Universal

COMPARED WITH the threats and gunfire that make up most other hip-hop intro skits, the "charges" levelled against Christian rapper Kirk Franklin here - "trying to take the gospel to the world... tearing down the walls of religion" - seem rather tame.

As leader of The Nu Nation, Franklin has been instrumental in modernising gospel music, rescuing it from the tired routines of old-time Bible-punchers such as James Cleveland by the judicious injection of the hip-hop and swingbeat elements that have hoisted his records into the charts. This long and sometimes arduous offering is a typical mix of gospel choirs, low funk grinds, impassioned testifying and smooth balladry, as Franklin seeks to re-establish the link between latter-day rappers and their preacher antecedents.

Kirk is in smart company here, with Mary J Blige, R Kelly and Bono guesting on "Lean On Me", though the album's best moment comes early on, with the chunky breakbeat groove and syncopated gospel whoops of "Revolution", yet another winner from the hottest R&B producer of the year, Rodney Jerkins.

VARIOUS ARTISTS

Chef Aid: The South Park Album

Columbia

CARTOON TIE-INS such as The Simpsons and Beavis & Butthead albums are invariably let-downs, but this South Park affair makes a more decent fist of things by ensuring that most tracks are both funny and pertinent to the album's theme, which takes the form of a benefit for some unspecified transgression by the Chef (Isaac Hayes).

Hayes gets to lampoon himself through such double entendres as "Chocolate Salty Balls" ("Hey everybody, did you see my balls, they're big and salty and brown," etc), while other artists have fun following the show's mad logic - most notably rapper Master P, who adapts Curtis Mayfield's "Freddie's Dead" as "Kenny's Dead", in the style of 2Pac: "We gotta ride tonight/My homeboy Kenny died tonight".

Other acts are pushed to new heights - the Ozzy/Ol' Dirty Bastard/Crystal Method collaboration "Nowhere To Run" is a satisfying slab of Prodigy- style rap-rock, while the funky "Wake Up Wendy" is the best thing Elton John has done in years. Most impressive of all is Cartman himself, who gets to treat pomp-rockers Styx's UFOlogical epic "Come Sail Away" with all the infantile passion it deserves.

GOLDIE

Ring Of Saturn

ffrr

IT MAY be called Ring Of Saturn, but Goldie's new mini-album is somewhat closer, I fear, to the ring of Uranus. Following the lukewarm reception for this February's overblown Saturnz Return double-album, this mini-album features just five new tracks alongside a mercifully abbreviated, seven- minute version of that album's hour-long orchestral indulgence "Mother". Though undoubtedly more appealing than the original, there is still an insurmountable incongruity to the track's combination of drum'n'bass rhythms and more classically derived vocal and orchestral parts.

The new pieces, meanwhile, are virtually indistinguishable from either of Goldie's previous albums. Indeed, liberally spread with the aimless soul cooing of Diane Charlemagne, "What You Won't Do For Love" could actually be an out-take from 1995's Timeless.

The harsher, more visceral approach of "Hyena 1" and the industrial grind of "Judged By Colour, Heard By Sound, Seen By Blind" bring Goldie as close as he has ever been to hardcore, but without any real danger of innovation. Ultimately, beneath the hyperactive surface, there is precious little of interest going on.

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