By Tom Sinclair
November 19, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

The late ’80s were a dizzying time to be a hip-hop fan. Seemingly overnight, rap had gotten as complicated as rock with its array of hyphenated sub-genres. New groups kept popping up, each with distinct ideological worldviews. It was an era when politically conscious militants (Public Enemy), freewheeling bohemians (De La Soul), ardent Afrocentrists (X Clan), and white punks on dope (Beastie Boys) all vied for listeners’ allegiance and disposable income.

But the future would be in the extremes. In retrospect, it’s telling that two of 1988’s defining rap songs were N.W.A’s ”F — – tha Police” and D.J. Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince’s ”Parents Just Don’t Understand.” The N.W.A tune was perhaps the most brutal blast of undiluted urban rage up to that point, while the latter was a squeaky-clean, catchy trifle that Disney could sanction.

As former N.W.A member Dr. Dre raps on Dr. Dre 2001, the long-delayed follow-up to his 1992 masterwork, The Chronic, ”Ain’t too much changed” since those days. The gangsta style that Dre pioneered is still going great guns—and so is the feel-good, pop-hop approach exemplified by the erstwhile Fresh Prince, today better known as screen idol-rapper Will Smith. While their audiences have always been radically different, both are bona fide elder statesmen at the top of their respective games.

As might be inferred from titles like ”Bitch Niggas” and ”Let’s Get High,” Dre has forsworn his attempt to clean up his act (cf. his 1996 single ”Been There Done That”), and his sex, drugs, and Uzi fixations are firmly back in place. Anyone who assumed that the uncharacteristically sparse sound of Dre’s recent production effort, Eminem’s The Slim Shady LP, bespoke a diminution of talent will find the symphonic sweep of 2001 reassuring. Chilly keyboard motifs gliding across gut-punching bass lines, strings and synths swooping in and out of the mix, naggingly familiar guitar licks providing visceral punctuation — it’s Dre’s patented G-funk, as addictive as it was back when over 3 million record buyers got hooked on The Chronic and Snoop Dogg’s Dre-produced Doggystyle.

Ol’ faithful Snoop is on board, as is Dre’s new main man, Eminem. Of course, 2001 is filthy, filled with sexist skits, simulated orgies, and much phallic boasting—none of which should diminish Dre’s achievement. If any rap producer deserves the title ”composer,” it’s he. One gets the feeling he wanted to reestablish his mastery of the form, to show the current crop of youngbloods (Juvenile and Young Bleed) how it’s done. ”Give me one more platinum plaque and f — – rap—you can have it all back,” Dre spits at one point. If this is truly, as he has implied, Dre’s last will and testament as a solo artist, it’s a hell of a way to go out.

In contrast to Dre’s G-funk, Smith’s aesthetic is still G-rated (just like that of fellow Philly homey Bill Cosby). ”Smart folks don’t need to put no cursin’ in their rhymes,” he raps on ”I’m Comin’,” the opening track on Willennium, the follow-up to 1997’s multi-platinum Big Willie Style. He’s as good as his word, even reining in the normally foulmouthed Lil’ Kim, who guests on ”Da Butta.”

It’s no secret that since rekindling his rap career, Smith has opted to go the MC Hammer/Puff Daddy route, building his hits on other artists’ hooks. It may not be classy, but it’s effective. Willennium’s first single, ”Will 2K,” samples the Clash’s ”Rock the Casbah,” while ”Freakin’ It” recycles Diana Ross’ ”Love Hangover” for the umpteenth time. (Of course, it’s entirely possible many 14-year-old Smith fans have never heard either song, so complaints from disapproving old coots may well be moot.)

Covering all bases, the Jiggy One essays a Latin number (”La Fiesta”), shares mic time with ’80s contemporaries Biz Markie and Slick Rick (”So Fresh”), duets with newcomer EVE (”Can You Feel Me?”), and kicks it old-school style with his not-exactly-equal former partner D.J. Jazzy Jeff (”Pump Me Up”). ”Eclecticism is a virtue,” he declares on ”Uuhhh,” and, in truth, Willennium is far more sonically diverse than, for instance, the latest No Limit release. Hardcore types may dismiss him as a lightweight, but only a fool would deny Will’s skills. No, he’s not ”the hip-hop Moses” he calls himself here, but he is a lyrically fluid rapper with deep roots in hip-hop culture and a clearly defined artistic vision. Not unlike, say, Dr. Dre. 2001: A- Willennium: B+

Dr. Dre
Dr. Dre 2001

Will Smith