This how we do it in the year the nine-six/Wit this deliberate attack on pointless rap shit—Black Thought, of the Roots

Jeru the Damaja is no stranger to confrontation. His debut, The Sun Rises in the East, was a Brooklyn-based assault on West Coast gangsta rap. He challenged his Cali cousins to “leave ya 9 at home and bring your skills to the battle.” On his sophomore effort, Wrath of the Math, the self-styled prophet wages war on his own turf against the army of Moët-sipping, fake-Versace-sporting, alleged MCs that has invaded rapdom.

The assault begins right in New York on “Tha Bullshit,” a parody of punk-ass purveyors of polyrhythm: “Jump up in my Rolls Royce/Top choice/Make ’em holler/Everything I do is for a dollar.” The cut is spiced with a sparse, chirpy keyboard riff, which along with Jeru’s intentionally wack lyrics, gives it a humorous quality: “I got a lot, so if it gets too hot/Jump in the billion-dollar jet or the million-dollar yacht.”

“Tha Bullshit” injects some juice into a subgenre of hiphop whose usual idea of creativity is to see who can rhyme the most words with “Italiano.” The sad thing about “Tha Bullshit” is that even if it weren’t a parody it would still sound better than most of the player-rap strangling the nation’s airwaves.

The first single from the album, “Ya Playin’ Yaself,” features a driving bass line and drum track that propel Jeru’s verbal projectiles at Cristal-poppers worldwide: “I never knew hustlers confessed in stereo/Or on video, get caught, you know who turned state’s/Evidence, murder weapon, confession, and fingerprints/Mama always said ‘Watch what comes outcha mouth’/Tight case for the D.A. from here to down south.”

But unlike most MCs, who simply criticize in the abstract without attaching names to the dis, Jeru delivers a full exposé of his opponents on “One Day.” The Damaja asserts that hiphop, which is personified, has been kidnapped by Foxy Brown, who has dressed hiphop in a Versace suit, and Puffy Combs, who is getting “him drunk and messing his mind up.” Bump the shady references—the Damaja stares down mike-clutching Moët-sippers, grabs his nuts, and dares any of ’em to step to him.

But the Damaja’s flame-tongue isn’t just licking Big Willie MCs. Setting his lyrical sites on the Fugees, Jeru devotes several bars of “Black Cowboys” to dismissing the refugee crew. The hiphop grapevine says that Fugee Wyclef’s line “No matter who you damage, you still a false prophet” was aimed squarely at the Damaja. Unfortunately, Jeru’s counteroffensive is dulled by a plodding bass line and keyboard riff. “Black Cowboys” is an unmoving exhibition of rhythmic wackness.

What “Black Cowboys” lacks in rhythm “Me or the Papes” lacks in content. The cut is a simplistic, male-centered analysis of sexual politics. Jeru starts off by referring to “The Bitches,” a similar song on his last album, claiming that because he’s been misunderstood he’s gonna drop it again. But he provides no clarification, only a “glass half-empty” look at black women. It’s clear Jeru means well: This isn’t another “bitches ain’t shit but hoes and tricks” rhyme, and Jeru does devote a verse to his “queen.” But “Me or the Papes” is annoyingly paternalistic and sticks out like a Bebe kid in Catholic school.

Still, overall the album is well put-together. Alone, Jeru spews knowledge like Imhotep, but with Premier providing production, the brother’s unstoppable. You gotta admire Jeru’s willingness to challenge the backward elements that have taken hold of hiphop. The forces of Donna Karan are legion, but Jeru is ready, no Mac-10s, no Moët, just lyrics, and plain old-fashioned mike skillz.

Nearly two years ago, the Roots made noise with some mike skills of their own. Appearing in the midst of a flurry of pimp-slappin’, gun-clappin’, nonrappin’ MCs, the Roots’ debut, Do You Want More?!!!??!, helped reroute a genre that was on a swift ride to Cliché Central. Yet for all the plaudits they received from hiphop lovers, the Roots’ album sank down the record charts like a stone. Which is probably why the follow-up, illadelph halflife, lacks the musical experimentation evident on its predecessor.

Unfortunately, much of the music sounds as mechanical as a drum machine, making the live band almost obsolete. But the MCs are another story. Throughout halflife lead rapper Black Thought sustains one of the most incredible lyrical performances this year. And a significantly improved Malik B shows that he’s not to be slept on either.

The album opens with “Respond/React,” an ill-ass track that features quavering keys and an irresistible hook. Throughout the cut, Black Thought and Malik B tag-team: Malik starts it off, saying, “I’m in ya system like glycerin/Fans listenin’, from Michigan to Switzerland/Malik B bliss again, on the station wit the discipline/Solicitin’, sometimes elicit or explicit with it in.” When he tags his partner, Black Thought works the opposition over with a few of his own tongue thrusts: “I’m just a lyricist, a chemist of the hemp/The beat-pimp, the ill Philly resident/That’s far from hesitant/Corrupt like a president/Never benevolent, but poetically prevalent.”

illadelph halflife also has its own critique of microphone macks. On “What They Do” Black Thought raps, “The principles of true hiphop have been forsaken/It’s all contractual and about moneymakin’/Pretend-to-be cats don’t seem to know they limitation.” “What They Do” features vocals from Raphael Saadiq, but while the hook is catchy, the music plods on and on. At the end, Saadiq sings the same hook for a solid minute, and the music displays little variation. The track establishes a hypnotic repetition but fails to hit you with the impulsiveness of cuts like the last album’s “Proceed” and “Mellow My Man.”

The first single, “Clones,” features guest MCs Dice Raw and M.A.R.S. You might remember Dice Raw from when he ripped shit on the last Roots album. This time he returns with another vocal assault: “Dice Raw the juvenile lyricist, corner-store terrorist/Block trooper, connoisseur of fine cannabis.” “Clones” dismisses avant-gardism, and delivers raw hiphop with a pumping drum track and rough-edged ringing keyboard.

While “Clones” flows with the mainstream of established phat-tracks, “The Hypnotic” drifts into calmer waters. The cut features the sensitive croonings of D’Angelo, who sets the scene for Black Thought’s elegiac ballad: “I knew this girl named Elana wit mad persona/She dealt with reality, never fed into the drama/I met her through my nigga named Jermaine comma/Who knew her through his peoples by the Baltimore harbor.” Predictably, Thought falls for her, but she is killed while living the fast life.

For lyrics, though, the cut has gotta be “Concerto of the Desperado.” The track is a graveyard of slain rappers, and Black Thought is the undertaker, accompanied by a howling organ and the banshee wail of guest vocalist Amel Larrieux. “You fold like Japan’s futons, and fans/While I design a plan to make a rapper step like a pedestrian.” For pure poetry, “Desperado” is the tightest cut on the album and one of the most solid I’ve heard this year, “They use the simple back-and-forth, the same/Old rhythm that’s plain/I’d rather ultramagnetize ya brain/It’s the hiphop purist that leaves you lost like a tourist/Inside the chorus/Niggas is bringin’ nothin for us.”

illadelph halflife keeps the Roots on the cutting edge of hiphop. Despite lacking the spontaneity that characterized Do You Want More?!!!??!, halflife still sails above most of today’s hiphop. It expands the borders of the music, moving it beyond the territory of monotonous loops and cheap lyrics. But Black Thought gives his inferiors their props. On “What They Do” he raps, “I dedicate this to the one-dimensional no-imagination/Excuse for perpetration/My man came over and said, ‘Yo, we thought we heard you’/Joke’s on you, you heard a bytin’-ass crew.”CP