By David Browne
Updated April 24, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

The B-Boys are back in town, and it was only a matter of time. In the current pop-culture climate, nothing is safe from nostalgia — not even hip-hop, apparently, as it approaches its 20th anniversary. Rap’s early days can now be relived through reissues of old-school records and airings of landmark movies and videos on MTV and VH1. This renewed interest in the culture of scratching, break dancing, and graffiti is also an unwitting comment on the state of rap now. Watching a replay of a film like Wild Style or a Run-DMC clip, one is struck not just by the venting of Reagan-era frustrations, but by the glimmer of hope in the music and the message. They brought the noise and a sense of joyful defiance and insouciant humor.

Comparatively, much contemporary rap feels spiritually dead or ailing. ”I’m C-Murder, but that don’t mean s— to a bullet,” sings the rapper on I Got the Hook-Up!, the latest release from Master P’s phenomenally successful No Limit factory. Just when everyone assumed gangsta had run its course, P (ne Percy Miller) has built an empire via a relentless series of low-rent, low-down ghetto-saga albums by himself and his siblings (like his chart-scaling brothers C-Murder and Silkk the Shocker). Master P’s 1997 feature-film debut, I’m Bout It, was a huge video hit, and his second, I Got the Hook-Up!, which he wrote and codirected, arrives May 27. His supply is in demand by an audience with an insatiable gangsta appetite, and for whom the genre’s stars have either dimmed or died.

The business saga of No Limit is fascinating, yet the same can’t be said of its music. Nearly every No Limit album has been hampered by plodding beats and shoot-first-rap-later rhymes. The only distinctive element of the label’s sound has been P’s trademark ”Uhhnnh!” bray. Hook-Up! works overtime to tinker with that formula. With contributions by post-new-jack crooners (Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Master P proteges Sons of Funk), still-charismatic veterans (Snoop Doggy Dogg, Ice Cube), and various producers, the album is more diverse than most of No Limit’s cranked-out sausages. Montell Jordan slurps through ”Down With You”; C-Murder’s ”Would You Hesitate” boasts a chilling harpsichord and strings. The gruff-and-tumble ”Who Rock This,” produced with typical flair by the Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA, teams No Limit star Mystikal with Wu-Tanger Ol’ Dirty Bastard.

That said, the album still suffers from No Limit’s limitations and those of much current rap. Cuts like Cube’s ”Ghetto Vet” are little more than rote rehashes of gangsta’s heyday. These hardcore tales, many about black-on-black crime, do ring true, especially given that one of Master P’s brothers was killed by a junkie in 1988. Even so, there’s something depressing about the pride the No Limit posse takes in its no-future stance.

Is Warren Beatty a B-boy at heart? Bulworth, his upcoming film about a senator’s late-life crisis, is partly set in South Central L.A. With an ear to the streets and an eye on the rap-heavy pop charts, Beatty helped assemble an all-star hip-hop companion album, — and a credible one at that. The best tracks tap into the anti-gangsta positivity that’s slowly flowering again in hip hip-hop. Canibus and Senegalese world-music man Youssou N’Dour intertwine beautifully in ”How Come,” which offers up a series of questions on the economic state of urban life. ”Ghetto Supastar (That Is What You Are)” features a member of the Fugees (Pras) recycling yet another oldie (”Islands in the Stream”) but with sharp, pumping results. Black Eyed Peas’ ”Joints & Jams” has A Tribe Called Quest’s light, jazzy groove, plus a snippet of Frankie Valli’s ”Grease.” (Both those tracks make you wonder if a secret founding father of rap is…Barry Gibb?)

It’s too bad the old-timers Beatty recruited — like KRS-One (with Method Man) and a reunited Public Enemy — sound so grumpy. And while a collaboration between Dr. Dre and LL Cool J sounds enticing, their idea of innovation is to swipe the hook from Wreckx-N-Effect’s ”Rump Shaker.” ”All them new niggas poppin’ new s—?/I never fear ’em,” taunts LL. It isn’t the kids you need dread, LL — it’s the sadly debilitating mood that has whipped through hip-hop like a bad flu. C+