When hip-hop rocks -- starting with Run-D.M.C.'s "Rock Box," through Vernon Reid's scrawling guitar solo on Public Enemy's "Sophisticated Bitch," and all the way to the new Outkast album -- it's usually because the genre's producers need to add an extra layer to their aural assault. When the two are brought together for more commercial reasons, as on 1993's soundtrack to Judgment Night, the results feel safe and artificial by comparison.
What's interesting about today's rap-rock hybrids isn't fusion for its own sake but hearing how those who grew up on one genre interpret the other. During the late eighties, hip-hop covered so much musical and lyrical territory -- from De La Soul to N.W.A. -- that even two artists who grew out of the white rap outfit House of Pain can come up with different interpretations. For former front man Everlast, hip-hop is a vehicle for self-examination. For Limp Bizkit, whose D.J. Lethal started in House of Pain, it's just a means to say "Fuck you."
Everlast, born Erik Schrody, brought blues-influenced introspection (and an acoustic guitar) to his 1998 solo debut, Whitey Ford Sings the Blues. A longtime hard partyer who converted to Islam, he wrote ambitiously, if not always eloquently, about death and race on mournful songs like "Ends" and "What It's Like." His second album, Eat at Whitey's (Tommy Boy), explores the same ideas, this time by piling on simplistic race-based imagery ("black Jesus," "black coffee," "white devils") and ponderous musings on death ("We're All Gonna Die," "I Can't Move"). This narrow focus might have worked, if Everlast were a skilled enough storyteller to bring anything new to hip-hop's thinking about race and death. But when he isn't spouting hip-hop clichés ("players playin' ballers ballin' "), he's invoking blues ones ("Angel and the gin and the beast within say I'm gonna die").
The rapper's nicotine-scarred voice does sound bluesy, and his raps are serious without being arch like Beck's. The album's sound -- a marriage of classical string arrangements and sparse drum beats -- makes the guitar stomp of his rap-rock peers seem more one-dimensional than ever. But Everlast's blues are one-shaded -- nothing on Eat at Whitey's approaches the grim fatalism of the Geto Boys' "Mind Playin' Tricks on Me," Eminem's "Rock Bottom," or even Snoop Doggy Dogg's "Murder Was the Case."
Limp Bizkit also get stuck in sameness, but while Everlast tries to tackle big themes, Limp Bizkit settle for hip-hop's simplest trope: the successful rapper surrounded by jealous "haters." Unlike Puff Daddy, however, Limp Bizkit front man Fred Durst has reason to think the world -- or at least rock critics and fellow musicians like Trent Reznor -- are out to get him. Thanks to "Nookie," Durst has become a symbol of rap-rock misogyny, and the band's calamitous performance at Woodstock '99 -- which climaxed in Durst's asking fans to heed the words of "Break Stuff" -- has been blamed for much of what went wrong with the festival, from the riots to the rapes.
Limp Bizkit's new album, Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water (Interscope), begins with Durst's offensive against Reznor ("You wanna fuck me like an animal," he complains, in an interpolation of Nine Inch Nails' "Closer") and continues in the same vein ("My Generation" advises "Don't fuck with this generation"). Elsewhere, Durst offers his piggish take-it-or-leave-it stance on relationships ("It's my way or the highway," he gleefully whines on "My Way"), his fantasies of the hip-hop high life ("Livin' It Up"), and his delight with obscenity ("If I say fuck two more times that's 46 fucks in this fucked-up rhyme"). Limp Bizkit's music is just as predictable, complete with scratches, guitar squalls, and mosh-pit crescendos.
The lie at the center of Durst's music (and to some extent, Eminem's) is that anti-everything outrageousness is what separates the men from the boy bands. But as Durst's duet with Christina Aguilera on the MTV Video Music Awards proved, the line between the two is erasable with a phone call from Viacom.