Firm Believers in the Party Line

Soren Baker is a regular contributor to Calendar

Many of rap's chart-topping artists --from Eminem to Nelly, Dr. Dre to Ja Rule--push materialism, drugs and violence in their lyrics, enraging parents and selling millions of records in the process.

But at least one group that's likely to near the top of the pop charts will be campaigning on a substantially different platform this summer. With the July 10 release of their fourth album, "X.O. Experience," Tha Liks make partying and having fun the focus of their work.

The Los Angeles-based trio, formerly known as Tha Alkaholiks, has been making musical waves since debuting on its mentor King Tee's "Tha Triflin' Album" in 1993. The group's first three albums (1993's "21 & Over," 1995's "Coast II Coast" and 1997's "Likwidation") were critically acclaimed collections that pushed the boundaries of the music as they described good times and pondered the future of rap and the commercialization of the genre. Each album included ample doses of tongue-in-cheek humor and innovation, two ingredients also showcased on "X.O. Experience."

"Most rappers that come out now are just going along with the formula," says J-Ro, who joins Tash and E-Swift in Tha Liks. "We've had our same style since we came out, which is the party vibe. That gives people something extra to listen to. A lot of people like to listen to the thugged-out stuff and about the jewels, but then they want to hear something else too."

Tha Liks definitely have something different with the album's first single, "The Best U Can," a jittery ditty with an otherworldly, synthesized feel. J-Ro and Tash tell mini-tales of fun and full-figured females in their raps, which arrive without the sting and bite of many other top-tier acts. It's as if they captured the "Animal House" ethos on record.

The song has the potential to become Tha Liks' biggest hit. Its festive energy comes courtesy of high-profile producers the Neptunes, who have also supplied supercharged hits for Ol' Dirty Bastard, Mystikal, Ludacris and others.

"The Neptunes came with a sound, just like a Dr. Dre, a Jermaine Dupri or a Rockwilder," Tash says. "They latched onto their sound and the world fell in love with it. It sounds so different, like something from 2006. They're the sound that people are going to be sampling years from now. It basically gets the party pumping."

The rest of the album turns the same trick, as the always animated Busta Rhymes appears on "Bully Foot" and Liks protege Shea Fiol adds some coy crooning on "Run Wild." Tha Liks also showcase longtime friends King T and Xzibit, who delivers a fiery round of his high-intensity rapping on "151."

It adds up to what may be one of the best rap albums of 2001. In order to promote it, Tha Liks will probably go on tour with Xzibit and/or Kurupt this summer. By the end of the year, Tha Liks will also release a DVD that's a companion piece to the album. J-Ro will also release a Roger Troutman tribute album in October on his Wolfpack Records, featuring such hip-hop luminaries as Snoop Dogg, Ice-T and Tha Liks doing their renditions of the funk master's work.

"At this point in our careers, we could make an album that sounds like everybody else that's out," Tash says. "We could do something where I'm rapping like Jay-Z, J-Ro is rapping like DMX. But instead, we just kept the same chemistry that we've had since day one."

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APOLITICAL: While Tha Liks are staying consistent with their earlier work, Queens, N.Y.-based rap group Screwball is changing its musical course somewhat with its second album, "Loyalty," which comes out Tuesday. The group received loads of publicity in 1999 for its controversial single "Who Shot Rudy?," a fantasy that imagined the death of New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. Despite enormous buzz for the song and subsequent "Y2K" album, Screwball was released from its contract with Tommy Boy Records last year. Now signed to the independent LandSpeed, the group--Solo, KL, Poet and Hostyle--has abandoned the political route for now, instead focusing on the mean streets of the Big Apple. Noreaga, M.O.P. and Kool G. Rap add to the album's aural assault.

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