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Love Is the Drug

Always a psychedelic cyberspace cadet, Missy Elliott has made hip-hop's first ecstasy opus; R.E.M. is stuck on Automatic on Reveal.

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Hip-hop's flirtation with ecstasy is nothing new -- think Eminem's cartoonish tales of pill-popping or OutKast's nods to the rave scene on Stankonia. But the genre's unlikely dalliance with the hug drug grows into a full-fledged love affair on Missy Elliott's Miss E . . . So Addictive. If the album's none-too-subtle title recalls the embarrassingly explicit early days of rave when D.J. names like On-E were common on party fliers, the music on Miss E offers a potent future shock, from the wiry guitar and frantic tabla playing on "Get Ur Freak On" to the dizzying house grooves of "4 My People" ("This is for my people / my ecstasy people!" Missy raps, declaring her newfound allegiance to Generation X).

Unlike other rappers who name-drop the hug drug -- mostly narrow-minded gangstas turned empathetic M.C.'s -- Elliott and her production partner Timbaland have never needed psychedelic drugs to tap into their own outré space. On Elliott's earlier albums, Supa Dupa Fly and the experimental (and less commercially successful) Da Real World, they funked up stiff-upper-lipped genres of electronic music with ingenious sampling and weirdly laconic beats. But Elliott was still hemmed in by hip-hop's expectations of women on Da Real World -- she sounded false panting for "Hot Boyz" and oddly mean-spirited dissing women she dubbed "Stickin' Chickens."

Elliott breaks free from such clichés on Miss E. A duet with R&B smoothie Ginuwine mixes the melting vulnerability of Prince's "When 2 R in Love" with robotic vocoder voice-overs and stuttering beats; "Scream a.k.a. Itchin' " jacks up England's two-step style with buzzing electro; the squiggly synths and body-rocking percussion of "Old School Joint" tip their hat to the musically miscegenated essence of hip-hop's block-party past.

What's most exciting about Miss E is its sense of playfulness: It's the rare hip-hop album in which unabashed joy -- rather than acquisitiveness or grimacing gangsterism -- is the main ingredient. Along with Stankonia and the Neptunes' recent productions, Miss E helps give shape to what is beginning to sound like hip-hop's first vanguard movement since the Native Tongues. If anything, these auteurs are even more ambitious: They want to smash all musical orthodoxy, much as the all-encompassing Baleric music that came out of Ibiza did in the late eighties. Perhaps, as the old rave mantra goes, everything does indeed start with an E.

After a series of gloriously shambling, emotionally charged albums in the eighties, R.E.M. has settled into a more functional groove. The group's new album, Reveal, is no exception: It's full of the same monochromatic balladry and hipster references of its recent albums. Perhaps R.E.M. is on Automatic: The pining-for-another-place romanticism of "She Just Wants to Be" is this album's "Drive," "I'll Take the Rain" its "Everybody Hurts." And if "All the Way to Reno (You're Gonna Be a Star)" is the new "Man in the Moon," the Galileo of "Saturn Return" is simply the group's new Andy Kaufman.

The ambient production on Reveal is pretty enough, particularly the Memphis-style horns and sparse beats of the album's closer, "Beachball." But Michael Stipe's once-coy lyrical obliqueness has hardened into a frustratingly impenetrable shell, and the group's approach to music-making has grown impersonal, the likely result of the members residing in different cities. Ultimately, Reveal reveals very little.

In brief: Hip-hop's acknowledged golden ages -- the late-seventies party rhymes on Sugar Hill, the mid-eighties rock-rap on Def Jam -- are well accounted for in books and box sets. Now, two compilations, Wild Pitch Classics (which showcases the intricate musicality of the Wild Pitch label's heyday) and Tommy Boy Essentials: Hip Hop Vol. 1 (which spotlights that label's lesser-known avant-garde samplers like Uptown and Phase N' Rhythm), prove that the canon is in desperate need of updating. Think of them as the first two books of hip-hop's secret history.


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