By Tom Sinclair
Updated September 17, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

Is there a more tragicomic figure in all of rap than Ol’ Dirty Bastard (né Russell Jones)? As a member of the commercially potent Wu-Tang Clan, he enjoys a status somewhere between whacked-out mascot and superstar-by-association — the Clan’s own court jester. But ever since his notorious unscheduled ”speech” at the 1998 Grammys (at which he appeared to be mighty high on something other than life), he seems to have turned into hip-hop’s Sid Vicious — a lovable buffoon with a voracious appetite for self-destruction. Barely a month goes by without word of some new run-in between ODB and the law. Grapevine-disseminated tales of his misadventures are already legendary around the EW watercooler, where each new anecdote is fodder for a few good yuks.

The laughter, however, is usually followed by rueful headshaking. There’s something creepy about getting your jollies watching a performer joyriding down the highway to hell, yet such recklessness is a large element of the appeal of rap and rock stars. Part of us — okay, part of me — envies ODB his oafish hedonism. Yeah, I know better now, having retired from the high life after a youth spent sowing a few acres of wild oats. Still, when I want some cheap, vicarious thrills, I find myself turning to the year’s ultimate guilty pleasure: ODB’s willfully lowbrow sophomore album, Dirty. As comedian Chris Rock (on whose new CD Bigger & Blacker ODB appears) half-jokingly bellows on ”Recognize,” Dirty‘s opening track, ”I’m in the wrong place, at the wrong motherf—in’ time with the wrong motherf—in’ man!”

Dirty was produced by a variety of knob-twirlers, including Wu-Tang mastermind the RZA, and the results are agreeably funky in a Stax/Volt kind of way (samples used include a snatch from Isaac Hayes’ Shaft as well as the ”Theme From T.J. Hooker”). Overall, it sounds as if the star stumbled in off the street and began ranting about whatever popped into his mind. The results are often enjoyably absurd, as on the frantic ”I Can’t Wait,” with its shout-outs to ”Eskimos … submarines … / Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines.” ODB’s wobbly take on Rick James’ ”Cold Blooded” is a hoot, evoking images of a homeless crackhead catcalling women. And his version of Billie Holiday’s ”Good Morning Heartache” — which finds our man actually attempting to sing alongside female vocalist Lil’ Mo — is the novelty cover of the year.

Elsewhere, there are moments that drive home the extent to which you’re laughing to keep from crying. ”Bitch, you obey me/You better not betray me/Don’t be calling no cop/Saying ‘This is his baby,”’ he raps on one track, sounding like an unrepentant serial seed-spreader, the sort of irresponsible black father Shaq O’Neal described in ”Biological Didn’t Bother.” It’s hard not to wince at the bitterness evident in the words ”You white motherf—ers can’t ever take over” in ”Rollin’ Wit You” (although another song finds him announcing he’s ”a dalmatian … I’m white and I’m black”). And ”Cracker Jack” — with its ludicrous assertion ”All girls want to f— me every day” — stands as one of the most virulently misogynistic songs in rap, certainly no mean feat.

Ultimately, Dirty is a fascinating snapshot of a deeply conflicted man. According to recent reports, ODB has entered drug rehab — a move that just might save his life. Exactly what sort of art a clean and sober ODB may make remains to be heard, though perhaps a clue can be found in the cracked Confucianism of a riddle the rapper contributed to Rock’s album: ”If a brick didn’t know how to sit on a wall no more, what would you ask it?” Stay tuned for the answer. C+