WHO WOULD'VE THOUGHT DEF JAM would be the next Death Row? Mass-market rap has certainly taken a curious twist, after establishing itself as the soundtrack to drive-bys and, on a good day, "Thug Life." But it can hardly be said that the transition from gangsta to playa hegemony was not foreseen. The evidence is this package tour--brought to you by the label that holds all four co-headliners' contracts like a fistful of aces.

JAY-Z is perhaps best described as a neo-playa. Puff Daddy shifted--through some delicate image play and the musical power of sheer imitation (Dr. Dre might call it flattery)--gangsta rap's emphasis from street-smart ruthlessness to business-smart cynicism. Jay-Z was just a hustla (sort of an East Coast answer to gangsta, a hustla is more independent and--whaddaya know!--business-savvy) who simply caught the playa bus. His synthesis of these three criminal mentalities lets Jay-Z aim his lyrics at 10-year-olds, narrow his subject matter to the view from a back alley, and recite his words over a snappy show tune. It's a good thing black wealth is the antidote to institutional racism, or else "Hard Knock Life" would have no redeeming social value.

Jay-Z's album, named Vol. 2 in case you thought he was a new jack, succeeds along the same lines. High-profile guests (Foxy Brown, Kid Capri, Too $hort, etc.) support almost every track. Jay's duet with DMX, titled "Money, Cash, Hoes," features this encapsulation of our man's artistic philosophy: "I know they're gonna criticize the hook on this song/Think I give a fuck?/I'm just a crook on this song." Yes, it's hard to criticize it more than that.

Like that song title, DMX's style wouldn't have sounded fresh had it first appeared at the dawn of the Clinton era. (DMX, by the way, was an outspoken supporter of the President during the impeachment crisis, using a forum in Rolling Stone to elucidate an intriguing "All Men Are Dawgs" theory.) But he proves more willing and able than Jay-Z to provide the pop audience with the goodies it seeks, releasing two albums in as many years, and consistently going for that sing-along chorus with gusto. On "Rough Ryders Anthem" he finally got it--a maddeningly catchy chorus original enough to put DMX's name in the big book of hiphop indelibles. They'll be singing that one long after the masses realize that the plight of ghetto hoods is not really comparable to that of the characters in Annie.

"Money, Cash, Hoes" contains an outrageous piece of criticism--something about New York being soft since Snoop blew up. That Wu-Tang member METHOD MAN plays third banana to this pair of Big Willies despite such a brazen statement of disrespect for the monumentally influential Clan testifies to Meth's fabled amiability--and to the "all in the same gang" mentality that finally caught on in hiphop once its total profits approached that even-more-fabled ninth-figure.

Method Man's Tical 2000 is a sprawling, tag-team-produced extended high-def video of an album. Even Donald Trump, Chris Rock, and Janet Jackson join the circus. Meth's absurd, market-minded variety showed him straying from the organized chaos and unleashed discipline of Wu-Tang, while Erick Sermon-produced tracks from 2000 (like "Big Dogs," featuring REDMAN) found him having more fun on record, it seemed, than has been heard since his 1993 theme song. Now firmly on the Funk Doctor's Squad (together, Meth and Redman are billed as "America's Most Blunted") with a Wu-education, expect Method Man to slip a few subliminal messages from the hardcore into this fleeting, pop-life party.

Redman, too, converges on this flag-raising moment from out of left field. An indomitable solo presence launched by Sermon and proven unique during the grunge era, when coming out as a pot smoker was still considered a rock star's move, Redman's got the kind of cred that doesn't need huge sales. But Redman knows big numbers don't hurt: he's currently riding high on the strength of his hilarious, playa-deflating single "I'll Be Dat." His team-ups with Method Man may just be the artier equivalent of the tackiness at the top of the bill, but in the context of a total hiphop victory, you either playa along or you take your toys and stomp back home to the basement. And Redman's already done his time there.

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