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Three years ago, O.C. dropped his first single, the ominously titled “Time’s Up.” A few listeners knew O.C. from an earlier appearance on Organized Konfusion’s “Fudge Pudge,” but for most, “Time’s Up” was O.C.’s introduction. And it was a rude one. From the belligerent bass loop right down to the tolling guitar riff, “Time’s Up” was pure angst, a lyrical jihad against heathen commercialism.

“Time’s Up” subscribed to the apocalyptic view, popular among hiphopheads, that the golden age was over and in the dark days ahead real MCs would be sacrificed on the altar of greed. By the time his album Word…Life was released, O.C. had become a poster boy for hiphop purism. When heads originated the concept of keeping it real, they thought of O.C. growling in the shadows over a guttural bass line and a raw drum track. The catch phrase from “Time’s Up,” “Rappers are in danger,” became the mantra of purists everywhere. And when O.C.’s album failed to get a toehold on the charts, it only added to his mystique.

But while touting the missionary pronouncements of “Time’s Up,” many a head missed out on the album’s varied landscape. Life was more than a diatribe against lyrical prostitution; its worldview encompassed police brutality, the death of friends, and plain old-school shit-talking. Its production (much of it overseen by the generally unheralded Buckwild) was just as varied. Indeed, its foundation was in wicked bass lines like the one in “Time’s Up.” But equally moving were the lush strings of “Born 2 Live” and the soft melodies of “Ma Dukes.”

Still, it was “Time’s Up” that distilled the chagrin of underground rap fans. Hiphopheads, desperately in search of a Christ figure to rescue rap’s lost generation, latched onto O.C. and hailed him as a market martyr who sacrificed sales for creativity and originality.

O.C. took no comfort in the pose. “My first album still was extraordinary to me. I just didn’t feel so extraordinary when it didn’t sell no units,” he lamented in a recent interview. “I had to really sit down and rethink things.” The result was a three-year hiatus, during which O.C. peeked from behind the shades for a few cameos (most notably on Crooklyn Dodgers ’95’s “Return of the Crooklyn Dodgers”).

O.C. also blessed the compilation album America Is Dying Slowly with the hypnotic gem “What I Represent,” which featured the same melodic production that marked many of his lesser-known tracks. More importantly, O.C. brandished a much more refined flow while remaining sharp lyrically: “Quality is walkin’ through the valley of the reaper/True deceivers are comin’ through your receivers.”

For traditional rap fans, O.C.’s sophomore effort, Jewelz, serves up a plethora of battle rhymes, including the butter-smooth “Far From Yours,” “Dangerous” (a duet with Big L), and the DJ Premier-produced “My World.” These staples were clearly penned for beans-and-rice rap fans. O.C. simply flows for the hell of it; no grand political pronouncements here, he’s just happy to be the traditional game-spitting MC.

But the production on these cuts is anything but traditional. “Dangerous” succeeds despite its barely audible drum track and uncleverly looped sample. On “Far From Yours,” producer Buckwild snatches a page from pop moguls Puff Daddy and the Trackmasters and gives us the hook from the Brothers Johnson’s “Tomorrow.”

The track illustrates how the current debate over sampling cannot be dismissed simply by calling Puff a beat-thief. “Stealing” beats is the very foundation of hiphop. But the difference between Puff and O.C. lies in the latter’s delivery. O.C. exudes sincerity as he bubbles over the whiny strings and dumbed-down drums that lace “Far From Yours.”

Jewelz is as panoramic as its predecessor. O.C. moves through love ballads, apocalyptic premonitions, and introspective spells with unruffled ease. His rhyme style pays homage to the grandmaster of lyricism, Rakim. And like the R, O.C. relegates snappy couplets and witty similes to the back burner. Instead, his ruminations are conveyed via extended metaphors and ponderings that sprawl across bars. The result is a fluid continuity and naturalness that make it appear as if O.C. is conversing with the listener. On “The Chosen One,” it almost seems a coincidence that he rhymes and stays on beat: “Influenced, but not by the ancient ruins of rap/A large percent of y’all fell into a trap…Not for real, no-skill MCs/Mostly all under 20, and I find it funny.”

At his best, O.C. is the Aesop of rap. Enlisting concise descriptions and clever rhyme schemes, he outlines scenarios and lays them bare before the listener. Even the unbelievable “Stronjay,” a tale of hit-and-run with a curvaceous redbone, comes to life. And while “Hypocrite” sports seemingly bland subject matter, O.C. lays down the tale over hypnotic croonings with tight clarity. He becomes the grandfather spinning lies and tall tales that captivate rap fans like schoolchildren.

But the album’s surrealistic centerpiece, “The Crow,” is something much more sinister. The saga is anchored by Buckwild’s minimalist track, a spine-wrenching breakbeat and occasional keys. The lyrics are a wicked hybrid of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” and New World Order conspiracy theories. O.C. sketches a fantastic dreamscape where he’s haunted by Satan in the form of a crow. O.C. initially dismisses the crow as phantom of his imagination, until the bird returns and both blesses and curses him with a series of ill premonitions: “Dead bodies, burned buildings, turned over cars/My eyes seeing visions of an all-out war/Territory factions, picture Escape From New York/Gunfire, bombs blowin’, nerve gas a-flowin’/Just imagine a whole race a holocaust showin’.”

Unfortunately, O.C. steps into griot form on only a few cuts, preferring to dabble in various styles throughout the album. This in no way prevents Jewelz from being one of the tightest albums released this year. To his credit, O.C. enlists production from an underground all-star squad headlined by Premier but also featuring Buckwild, Da Beatminerz, and Lord Finesse. The result is an album devoid of rote rhymes and abundant with nod factor—one of the few gems dropped in a year when the sky over rapdom is raining cobblestones.CP