De La Soul, Kool Keith: Bitchers’ Brew

The flip side of a rapper boasting about himself is him bitching about the rest of the world. And over the course of hip-hop’s cranky lifetime, no two acts have mouthed off more bitterly than De La Soul and Kool Keith Thornton.

For the trio De La Soul, griping was not always the order of the day. For its Prince Paul-co-produced first album, 1989’s 3 Feet High and Rising (Tommy Boy), De La Soul adopted a blissed-out hip-hop hippie persona that it spent the last 10 years abnegating. 3 Feet is, quite arguably, the most influential full-length album in the history of rap–partly because it led to a lawsuit that pretty much killed off creative sampling–but it didn’t go platinum until this April, and De La Soul has spent much of its subsequent work attacking the rap world’s materialism, even as it wondered when the gravy train would arrive.

On the other hand, Mr. Thornton–late of both the Ultramagnetic MC’s and the Dr. Octagon project–has never enjoyed more than artistic success, and one suspects his disposition would remain unchanged if he were to luck into a hit. It would have to be luck, as Mr. Thornton is known for his obsessive control, unwillingness to compromise and erratic behavior. He is also, quite arguably, hip-hop’s greatest M.C., someone who had mastered the art of the internal rhyme back when Eminem was discovering Meister Brau. None of Mr. Thornton’s albums have ever gone gold, despite an indulgent critical class that tries mightily to tease another masterpiece out of him.

If they do, it will be one of contempt. On the new Matthew (Funky Ass Records/Threshold Recordings), Kool Keith doesn’t have a kind word for anyone.

He even hates you, his legion. On “Back Stage Passes,” Mr. Thornton brushes off a groupie with “I’m totally attracted to you / But you turn me off as a fan / Approaching me backstage with a guy that’s not your friend / Lying to get a laminate / Is that your man? / Some weird guy staring at me like Peter Pan.” “I Don’t Believe You” starts off with “Yo, you’re lying. He’s lying. And she’s lying. My man over there, he’s lying,” etc.

Mr. Thornton makes a lot of lists, just like Richard Nixon, and is obsessed with the idea of having to work at 7-Eleven. And then there are the hidden tracks, one of which, titled “Test Press,” details his falling out with Sony Music, which dumped his Black Elvis/Lost in Space album into the marketplace last year like a teenage mother giving birth at her prom. Mr. Thornton is not an easy man to work with, but when I was getting my review together for Black Elvis , the label’s flack all but begged me not to review it.

If you accidentally skip the track, don’t worry, as most of the album seems concerned with this period of his life. I’m assuming the rapper referenced in the track “Operation Extortion,” who goes around “trying to be like Bob Marley and Lenny Kravitz,” is Sony recording artist Wyclef Jean. Also on Mr. Thornton’s enemies’ list is Mr. Jean’s Sony-blessed protégé, singer-producer John Forte, whose college-boy image withered when he was arrested earlier this month at Newark International Airport for allegedly conspiring to distribute almost 31 pounds of cocaine.

Mr. Thornton has a tendency to depend on dark but static sound loops, which, coupled with his constant complaining, can make his work sound monotonous. It’s one of the reasons early reviewers have been cool to Matthew , but the album confirms Mr. Thornton’s status as hip-hop’s Lenny Bruce–its greatest ranter. For better or worse, Matthew shows real integrity from someone too prickly to ever be on the inside. But as long as Mr. Thornton keeps bashing his head against the safety glass partition, who can forget that he’s out there?

There’s been no lack of veneration or respect for De La Soul, which has created a weird phantom currency for the group. Now in their 30’s, the current headliners of the overboard, underground Spitkicker tour are not content to settle in as elder statesmen, and this means that every few years they sand an edge here, rope in a guest star there, put out the record and hope for a hit. Prince Paul was jettisoned mid-decade for a bumpier sound, and they have three albums planned for the next year under the rubric Art Official Intelligence .

The first of that trilogy, Mosaic Thump , is the bumpiest yet. There are cooing background singers, lots of cameos from the Beastie Boys, Busta Rhymes and Redman, among others, and hit-of-the-moment guest producers, particularly Jay Dee.

With this cast of thousands, De La Soul risks playing second banana on its own album, but Mosaic Thump is pretty good. Musically, it’s streamlined, with the beats up front, but there’s a lot of detail underneath. And, thankfully, the trio’s lyrics remain as inscrutable as the Wu-Tang Clan’s. Between the puns, all you can make out is the bitterness.

Once the group jettisoned the Daisy-age trappings of 3 Feet, it never adopted another personality. So now in order to know what De La Soul is for, you have to look at what it’s against. As the group repeatedly (and defensively) complains in “My Writes”: “What you know about my writes? / Yo, what you know about what’s weak and what’s tight?”

So while a good portion of the album is taken up by angry-silly gangsta parodies such as “U Don’t Wanna B.D.S.” (as in “Bust Dat Shit”) that have increasingly crept onto De La Soul’s albums, these songs are evidence of the trio’s clearly mixed feelings about their exclusion from the mainstream (likewise a recurring skit on Mosaic Thump that attacks ghostwritten lyrics and a free-style rap dismissing “fake jiggy niggas”).

Sometimes peer respect isn’t enough: Man doesn’t live on reputation and Rahsaan Roland Kirk samples alone. Both De La Soul and Mr. Thornton maintain the old-school impression that originality and creativity should be rewarded. Silly rappers. There’s no faster ticket to an ulcer. And if one of those guys gets one, we’ll be hearing about it.

– D. Strauss

Dungeons & Dirtbags: Iron Maiden in N.Y.C.

The soundtrack for the film Loser contains a song called “Teenage Dirtbag” by a band named Wheatus. The tune is dull, but I like its conceit: The teenage dirtbag of the title is smitten with a pretty girl, who ignores him at first, but then asks him to go to an Iron Maiden concert.

If you know anything about Iron Maiden, the resolutely unfashionable, 24-year-old London heavy metal institution, you’ll know how improbable it is that a woman would fancy the band. As practitioners of a musical genre that has always catered to the lost-boy crowd, Maiden (true classic metal fans identify their bands strictly by the second half of their monikers–e.g., Priest, Sabbath, Zeppelin) attracts a demographic that, hormonally, is as close to pure testosterone as they come. Who else but alienated, sullen males would be enthralled by multi-part, historically themed musical epics about bloodshed and horror?

On Aug. 5 at Madison Square Garden, Iron Maiden culled a sold-out audience of aging dirtbags–men in their 30’s and 40’s who, at one time, equated heavy metal with feverish nights playing Dungeons and Dragons . Their more current counterparts, the teenage dirtbags who listen to the rap-metal of Limp Bizkit and Korn, were in short supply. So were women, although a smattering of perplexed-looking girlfriends and wives could be seen in the crowd.

Ex-Judas Priest singer Rob Halford and his modern-sounding metal band opened the show. Metal audiences aren’t among the most tolerant subsets of music fans, so I expected to see the openly gay Mr. Halford bear the brunt of some anti-homosexual sentiment. But Mr. Halford’s founder-of-metal status appeared to trump any misgivings that the audience may have had about his sexuality.

Instead, every piercing shriek or full-bodied roar that Mr. Halford unleashed during his set was met by massive cheers from the metropolitan-area metalheads. His decision to reprise such Priest fare as “Hellion,” “Electric Eye,” “Breaking the Law” and “Tyrant” also prompted exuberant response.

Next up was Seattle’s Queensryche. Not even one ungainly fan’s paroxysmic dancing could convince me that the band’s performance was anything but a bore.

Fortunately, it wasn’t long before the members of Maiden bounded onto the stage to the screamed hosannas of their mustache, denim- and leather-clad constituency. Whereas the previous acts had to work with limited stage space, Maiden’s guitar-wielders swaggered, posed and tromped around an enormous set for two hours, and were eventually joined by a giant puppet of the band’s Crypt Keeper-like mascot, Eddie.

At last year’s show at the Hammerstein Ballroom, Maiden’s set focused almost exclusively on the band’s greatest hits. On Aug. 5, the group chose instead to showcase its spotty current album , Brave New World (Portrait/Columbia), which marked the return of vocalist (and world-class fencer) Bruce Dickinson after a six-year absence.

Another band’s fans might be annoyed at such a choice, but Maiden fans are a dedicated lot, and the throng shouted every lyric of “The Wicker Man,” “Ghost of the Navigator,” “Blood Brothers” and “Brave New World” back at Dickinson.

But the place really went bats when Maiden pulled out the likes of “2 Minutes to Midnight” and “The Trooper.” As much as aging Maiden lovers clearly savor the band’s fleet-fingered solos, galloping, martial rhythms, bewildering tempo changes and Mr. Dickinson’s air-raid-siren vocals, I like to think that the fans are really responding to the humanistic subtext of the band’s songs, which decry war, suffering and man’s inhumanity to man. Despite the creepy mascot and the ominous song titles, Maiden has never celebrated evil in the way that, say, Ronnie James Dio has.

The show proper ended with the anthem “Iron Maiden.” Dickinson bellowed the song from the belly of an enormous replica of the namesake medieval torture device while being groped by five women. Then, after a brief pause, Maiden returned with “The Number of the Beast.” An arena full of men cheered a song depicting the horror of satanic human sacrifice. Then they went home .

– Rob Kemp