POP MUSIC : ***; MC 900 FT JESUS, "One Step Ahead of the Spider" ( American )

Cutting-edge rapper and all-around studio virtuoso MC 900 Ft Jesus (a.k.a. Mark Griffin) kicks his feet up and lays far back for his third album and major-label debut. The record's balmy and organic grooves are far from the electronic dance pulse of previous records, and now he steeps his hip-hop sensibilities in minimal, goatee-stroking jazz.

But "One Step" isn't just another easy-listening attempt at acid-jazz. The album has a sharp, cynical and thinking edge. It's a hybrid sound the 25-year-old Texan--who carries a college degree in trumpet!--has been mutating toward since his professional beginnings.

Griffin delivers lyrics with a cadence that shifts quite fascinatingly between those of a finger-snapping beat poet, a cheap detective novel and a bar-stool storyteller. The subject matter ranges from long, smoky tales (one song clocks in at 11 minutes) to one-shot scenarios. Saxophone, clarinet, flute and, of course, trumpet converge to make seductive and sometimes hyperactive backdrops. Machine-generated beats are extremely minimal, giving way to the more imperfect thump of bongos and drums, while the lone rap number on the album boasts clever wordplay above nifty sampling.

New albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).

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