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The Boston Phoenix Puffy's New Boys

The Lox join the Bad Boy roster.

By Franklin Soults

JANUARY 26, 1998:  On the first of several short skits on the Lox's debut album, Money, Power & Respect (Bad Boy/Arista), these three tough young rappers from Yonkers explain to an interviewer that, right now, they've got only a little bit of power and money, but "from the underground to the mainstream," they've already earned "heavy respect." True to their word, they created a buzz strong enough to make Arista run out of promo CDs trying to match all the press requests that came in before the disc was released last week. And there's a good chance the album will fly out of the stores just as fast, possibly even premiering at #1 in the next issue of Billboard.

But if that's proof of "respect," it's the automatic kind that comes with connections and family names, not the hard kind that's earned through a display of skills or creativity. Although it's not mentioned anywhere in their official bio, the Lox have drawn so much attention because they used to throw down with Mase, the cute, languid-voiced bad boy who was the best-selling new rapper of 1997. Mase, in turn, earned his shot at the top because of his connection with the baddest boy of all, Sean "Puffy" Combs, the founder and CEO of Bad Boy Records and the single most important figure in all pop music right now. And where Puffy's concerned, connections are more than just a family affair, they're an affair of the Family, the gangland name under which his entire roster from Mase to Lil' Kim tours and records.

Of course, that cornball Mafia concept runs rampant in hip-hop, a form that by and large has given up its struggle to establish Afrocentric pride, worshipping instead the gifts for close-knit criminal organization demonstrated by other cultures (Chinese triads, Japanese ninjas, Sicilian dons). In Puffy's case, though, the concept actually serves a higher purpose: as the man well knows, he simply isn't big enough to fill his own shoes. They were designed, after all, for the largest rapper of our day (both physically and metaphorically): the late Notorious B.I.G., a small-time drug dealer turned big-time rhyme innovator whose matter-of-fact hardness was only reinforced by the self-depreciating humor, sensual candor, and jaded defeatism that helped him reach an audience beyond the confines of his subculture. Backed by Puffy's democratic knack for recycling an array of R&B and pop hits from the early to mid '80s -- the last time pop and R&B reached a truly diverse audience -- the Notorious B.I.G reminded the world that rap can be the most powerful genre of this generation, an idea that seemed in real danger of being lost.

Now that Biggie is gone, Puffy has maintained the breadth of that breakthrough -- the reunion of the 'hood and the world -- only by working overtime to cover every base. The skillful, cold-hearted Mase was served up as a natural Biggie inheritor, but even though he racked up the sales figures, he got dissed by the cognoscenti as an East Coast Warren G (remember him?). Now, to patch things up with the hardcore faithful, Puffy gives us David Styles, Sean "Sheek" Jacobs, and Jason "Jadakiss" Phillips writing and rapping as rough as they can as the Lox (it's not about bagels; it used to be the Warlocks but got shortened to serve as an acronym for Lovin' Our LeXuses, or something).

At first listen, they fit the bill perfectly, offering up rote, professional hardcore, and nothing more -- at least nothing that would make the boys in the 'hood think they were getting uppity. But listen close and you'll hear how subtle and deep the Bad Boy formula has become. Without the benefit of any obvious crossover samples, the Bad Boy hitmen -- producers Nashiem Myrick, Carlos Broady, and Deric "D-Dot" Angelettie, among others -- still reach out. On the title track, the production team simplify the Wu-Tang Clan's dark, orchestral sound for full hook effect; on "Get This $" they squeeze one more good-time groove from the Isleys' oft-sampled classic "It's Your Thing." The three toughs on the mikes match these moves, boasting about the strength of their style more than the size of their gats, indulging in touches of soft regret, even leavening the requisite Fatal Attraction misogyny with a shot of sympathy for a girl who charges with their Visa only because she needs "food for her freeza." It's not enough to put the album over, but if it hadn't been for Puff's previous achievements, who would have dared any of these small gestures? And if anyone had, who would have noticed? Puffy's breakthrough hasn't broken down yet.

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