2PAC "Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.AZ . . ." Interscope

** 1/2 Demonized by law enforcement associations, vilified by Quayle, endorsed by First Amendment crusaders everywhere, rapper-actor 2Pac entered the front rank of gangsta hip-hop a year or so ago when a Texan allegedly killed a police officer while listening to a 2Pac tape . . . which included a song about killing police officers. In all the discussion of black rage, police insensitivity and artistic freedom that followed, some people lost sight of the fact that rhyming about cop-killing isn't a particularly redemptive act.

On his new one, 2Pac raps about black struggle and oppression, about babies having babies, about the invisible bars of the prison they call a ghetto. He also raps about expressing his dissatisfaction with a 9mm repeating pistol, a machine gun, and his genitals. It's all sort of entertaining, but 2Pac is not an especially deep thinker.

2Pac is a gifted mimic but has no discernible style of his own. His phrasing is remarkably similar to Ice Cube's, except when it veers toward that of Ice Cube's former N.W.A. teammate MC Ren, but smoother, slicker, with the edges rounded off--and buried lower in the mix than on any hip-hop album in memory. The album is produced by people like L.A. rap veteran Bobcat and various members of the Digital Underground team, all professionally chosen samples and well-constructed beats, and it sounds like a major-label rap album.

New albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to four (excellent).

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