In December, M.C. Hammer was named top rap artist of 1989 by Billboard. And last month, he won two American Music Awards, for Best Rap Artist and Best Rap Album. All that was for his first album. Now — as he basks in his glory — his second album is released. With the usual rap swagger, he calls it Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em. But why should he hurt anyone?

True, on stage — and even vocally — the man exudes menace. And the first track here hits hard, with lots of bragging and a hammer-like beat.

But by track three we’re bathing in a soft rap ballad, actually a bewitching 1971 hit by the Chi-Lites — ”Have You Seen Her” — with Hammer (sounding almost like a tongue-tied suitor) rapping over it.

Much of the rest sounds forbiddingly sparse. Understand, though, that only the background of the songs — an urban landscape of drugs and violence — is truly forbidding. Hammer’s raps are pointed and compassionate, especially in a song called ”Crime Story,” in which he warns ”brothers out there” engaged in crime that, very likely, they themselves are going to die. (Or, as he puts it, get a bullet in the mouth.) So they should stop. But if they can’t — if they’re going to keep on doing ”what they think they have to do” — then at least they ought to leave children alone. This, of course, is about drug dealers who recruit 10-year-olds to sell crack. It’s hard to know which is more striking, Hammer’s concern or his realism.

There’s one grossly sexist song, ”She’s Soft and Wet” (”that’s how we like ’em”), for which no grade could be low enough. But — at least when Hammer’s not bragging — the rest of the album tells important truths. A-

Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'em
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