A FRIEND OF A FRIEND of mine recently met the Ol' Dirty Bastard in a private detox clinic, where the Wu-Tang rapper, reportedly, spent a few days shaking his habit. Maybe he was there by court order -- Dirty has racked up an infamous list of criminal charges in the last year or so. In any case, my acquaintance claimed that Dirty was indeed unhygienic, wearing the same set of clothes every day. He was also unrepentant, giving my source no indication that his drying-out period initiated a new, cleaner life for the one the Man knows as Russell Jones. He was friendly to those fellow detox clients who spoke to him as they would've to anyone else, but dismissive toward the young men who sweated him.

The salient message conveyed by ODB's new, second solo album, N***a Please, is that the guy can do whatever the hell he wants. The ridiculous intro featuring Chris Rock -- who's gotten a lot of mileage out of a joke about Dirty's string of arrests -- might not tip you to the fact that Dirty takes his absolute freedom to heart, but don't expect to get past track number three with that attitude. It's a cover of Rick James' "Cold Blooded," produced and arranged by the Neptunes -- a duo of instrumentalist-producers who've backed Mase, Total, Maxi Priest, and MC Lyte -- to sound, for some reason, like a Casiotone karaoke number augmented by mutant, elephantine bass notes, over which Dirty, in what sounds like a drunken rapture, ably wails James' dirty lyrics.

I know a guy who told me that one time he found himself "feeling" Dirty's other album, 1995's Return to the 36 Chambers (The Dirty Version), while playing it on his car stereo. Thing was, at the time he was driving an in-law, who was not a rap fan, to the airport. "I had to crank it, even though I felt bad," he confessed, knowing that I'd felt it too and would understand. Life is messy like that.

The Dirty of N***a Please is the messiest version, the one who showed up on RZA's As Bobby Digital in Stereo to deliver a raving freestyle verse, in the song "Kiss of a Black Widow," directed at women who press charges (a vibe the duo revisit on the new "I Want P***y"). It's the Dirty of news broadcasts and tabloid timelines -- an out-of-control jester, possibly dangerous to those around him, but probably mostly just to himself. Any rhymes that turn up in this Dirty's verses sound accidental, to the extent where the fact that he actually recorded a whole album this year seems miraculous. Or, it would if so many of the tracks on it didn't come across like somebody simply put a mic to Dirty's gold-capped mouth as he sang in the shower, cursingly dressed himself, and incoherently testified to all of Bed-Stuy while hoofing it down to the bodega for a 40.

The new album offers at least two unqualified, instant ODB classics: the RZA-produced title track, for which Wu-Tang's first producer spliced together -- from God-knows-how-many takes -- perfect rhyme verses. They carom and ricochet far outside the lines, but remain on time and in tune, like crazy bebop solos, not breaking the rules but gleefully bending them beyond recognition. The other sure-fire winner is "All in Together," produced by Tru Master -- an RZA acolyte who earned his black belt with the 1997 Wu-Tang track "Heaterz" -- and built around a slowed-down loop from Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd St. Rhythm Band's rugged lost classic "65 Bars and a Taste of Soul." "All in Together" opens with Dirty raving, "I'm a Dalmatian! I'm white and I'm black!"

That assertion seems designed to counterbalance one Dirty makes earlier in the album, during the intro to "Rollin' Wit You" -- apparently recorded on a day when the embattled star's feelings about race weren't quite so sanguine. (It probably fell during the period when the album's working title was The Black Man Is God, The White Man Is the Devil -- the same time Eminem was breaking.) He raves: "If y'all colored bitch-ass faggot punk-ass muthafuckas don't see that these white people are trying to take over your shit: Don't worry! Y'all better be happy the Ol' Dirty Bastard is here to beat the shit outta all y'all punk-ass muthafuckas!"

Actually, the very real problems presented by the recent increase in white consumers' de facto control of the hiphop market (e.g., many white kids relate better to white rappers) can't be solved by kicking the crap out of a few Uncle Toms. Dirty seems to be talking about whupping ass on black-music terms, by delivering a product steeped in deep-funk traditions: not just Rick James and Charles Wright and Billie Holiday (the album's other cover is "Good Morning Heartache," a duet with Queen Latifah discovery Lil' Mo), but also an outlaw orientation so coatingly complete that laws glide off him like a comb through pomade ("I'm immune to all viruses/I get the cocaine, it clears out my sinuses," goes a line in "N***a Please"). The black audience's appetite for raw, sweaty, unhinged effort has faded in direct proportion to African American assimilative success: "I'm a project ho!" he shouts on the album's last track, in case you mistook him for an intelligent and talented black artist concerned about certain developments in his medium.

Of course -- and as the presence of Chris Rock suggests -- all this blackity blackness is likely to build Dirty's rep with white punks as much as with whoever would rather keep future executives' well-meaning, yet destructive market demands from influencing ghetto music. That's fine, as N***a Please has nothing to do with what anybody demanded of the ODB. No demographic worth catering to relates to him. Dirty knows that he's loved, anyway, and he also knows why. It's not wholly about music, but if you happen to find yourself willing to go where that voice goes, you can get up, crank the volume, and participate in a little bit of the life Dirty's living. If not, he can still be appreciated, with fewer consequences, from afar.

They say he's the Bastard because there's no father to his style, and in a way that's true. None of Dirty's forerunners, be they historic or from myth, sounded like he sounds or did what he does. Artist, rebel, pop star, petty thief, wife-beater, crackhead, shooting victim, Good Samaritan, heckler, black militant, Dalmatian -- he's been all those in the last couple of years, and it doesn't even begin to add up. He's chosen to play those loaded roles, yet he's bound by none of them. Even to the stock character of hiphop clown, he brings (literally) serious complications. You have to deal with him as a special case. And what, for a young black hero, does that mean? Consider this passage about Muhammad Ali, by the scholar Gerald Early: "Ali, like Armstrong and Ellington, had magnetism, inventiveness, a heroism that did not evade the trickster black of black folklore or the minstrel black of the 19th-century American stage but embodied them as both the antithesis and fulfillment of himself, not as a person but as his own individualized archetype. That is why Ali is loved so much today: He showed us the enormous possibility of the true meaning, the incendiary poetics, of actual self-determination."

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