**** SLICK RICK “The Ruler’s Back” <i> Def Jam</i> : <i> Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to five (a classic). : </i>

In a scenario that might have come out of one of his more surreal hip-hop narratives, earlier this year rapper Slick Rick shot and wounded a relative in New York who had allegedly been embezzling from him. He was convicted and sentenced to a 3- to 10-year term. His manager sprung him for six weeks--on reported $800,000 bail--and Slick Rick recorded two albums before going to prison to serve his time. The first, “The Ruler’s Back,” is by far the most compelling rap LP of the year so far, a fevered compendium of hip-hop memory and desire.

This is clearly the work of a man who’s spent a lot of time alone in a cell. Two tracks of Slick Rick’s soft, crooning, vaguely British-inflected voice talk to each other, telling intimate stories over weird, flitting Slick Rick whispers and massed Slick Rick moans and hard-core hip-hop beats that sound as if they were recorded through three feet of felt. Snatches of Slick Rick’s early work with Doug E. Fresh repeat so often that they serve almost as refrains.

Afterward, there’s the eerie feeling that you’ve experienced something but you’re not sure what, as you might after reading a Denis Johnson novel or seeing an old Cocteau film late at night on public TV. “The Ruler’s Back” moves along at the speed of thought.