as usual, the New York rappers who introduced A Tribe Called Quest and inspired De La Soul can't help but come up with catchy refrains: "Black Man on Track" puts words spat with Chuck D-style muscular definition to a rain-blurred horn, cold vibes and deep bass; the chorus of "Brain" (as in, "I got so much funky shit inside my ...") somehow manages a hybrid of Funkadelic's base soulfulness and the raw frustration of Grand Master Flash's "The Message." Though the samples are spare -- mostly lone saxes, vibes, piano and organ -- and used sparingly, they combine to croon an evocative, chilly street noir. But it's not that the Jungle Brothers' fourth album doesn't swing -- the beats are as slamming as they want to be, which is to say they strut and saunter at will.
Still, for any longtime fan, "Raw Deluxe" must feel like a retrenchment, a sudden amputation excising many of the qualities that originally made the JBs so innovative and delightful. That sense of almost alarming creativity, as if the songs were splintering with ideas, has been lost. The other albums' joyful collage of musical genres -- house cheek-to-jowl with doo-wop on "What 'U' Waitin '4'?" soul with funk, classical and concert LP on "For the Headz at Company Z" -- seems to have been deliberately laid aside in favor of familiar, if efficient, old-school beats. Whereas "Straight Out of the Jungle" and "Done by the Forces of Nature" perpetrated multi-channeled visions of black masculinity -- bawdy, smart, tender, angry, amused -- "Raw Deluxe" for the most part allows only a narrow conduit of aggro, defensiveness and sorrow.
In 1993, the JBs' "J. Beez Wit the Remedy" set the standard as the first out-rap album with its wild-ass, weed-driven distillation of '60s Sun Ra, '70s funk, '80s jeep beats and '90s sampling wizardry; in comparison, "Raw Deluxe" sounds word-heavy and static. Surfacing from the river of words is an explanation of sorts: The rappers variously pledge to "[take] it back to the essence," "try not to get too high-tech," "hook up a fat track without the pop pop fizz fizz" and, yes, "keep it real for the younger generation." What's "real" then is reduction, the crippling of wit and identity, a promise not to fly too high. That admission, given now by all the O.P.s (original pranksters) under the Native Tongue tent, may well be rap's saddest story.
When the hip-hop magazine the Source reviewed "J. Beez," they scolded the Brothers for faulty rhythm and bad attitude. "We're much much fly-er than you may have thought two years ago," pleads Mike G now, at the end of the hopefully titled "Black Man on Track": "Just listen, black man, just listen to me well." You can't blame the Jungle Brothers for wanting to be heard. But it's too bad that here, their fierce imagination never takes flight.