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Now That's What I Call Music! 3

(Universal)

Totally Hits

(Arista)

Best of Rap City

(Virgin)

MTV Party to Go 2000

(Tommy Boy)

The Source Presents Hip Hop Hits Volume 3

(Def Jam)

By Douglas Wolk

Year-end hit compilations are meant to be stocking stuffers, but as annual summaries of American mass musical taste, they make amazing anthropological documents. Arista's Totally Hits includes 12 of Billboard's Hot 100 singles for the year, including the top four and number nine--Deborah Cox's gospel/aerobics wonder "Nobody's Supposed to Be Here," which got a big push from Arista's Ultimate Dance Party 1999 a year ago. Universal's Now That's What I Call Music! 3, which has gone top ten in its own right, includes eight more from the Hot 100, plus a handful of touchstones like Blink-182's "What's My Age Again?" and Limp Bizkit's "Nookie." And together Virgin's Best of Rap City and Def Jam's The Source Presents Hip Hop Hits Volume 3 include seven of the year's top ten rap singles.

The clearest message future historians will glean from these quick and dirty anthologies is that 1999 was a ghastly year for progress in hit songwriting. All the nonrap hit comps put together include just one formally original tune with a 1999 copyright: TLC's "No Scrubs," a post-Aphex Twin sing-along that floats like a butterfly and stings like a truck. They've also got two decent songs with tremendous production, "Nookie" and Cher's "Believe"; LFO's weirdly compelling "Summer Girls," in which the group builds a bridge between the Backstreet Boys and Beck; and a whole lot of gunk by earnest guys with guitars and silicone-pumped fembots that could've been recorded anytime in the last ten years. The pop discs also reach back a year or two for ringers like Madonna's "Ray of Light" and Fatboy Slim's "The Rockafeller Skank"; it improves their batting average, but it feels like cheating somehow.

Beyond the songs themselves, though, the hit comps suggest broader trends in the pop landscape. Totally Hits, for instance, indicates that a lot of secularized religion has crept into the musical mainstream: it includes two songs about angels (one by Monica, one by Sarah McLachlan), plus 'N Sync's "(God Must Have Spent) A Little More Time on You," Cher's ode to belief, Madonna singing about a ray of light, and that gut-busting choir behind Deborah Cox. Now That's What I Call Music argues that the road to success in '99 was paved with understated quotes from familiar hits: the Sam Cooke figure that R. Kelly slips into "If I Could Turn Back the Hands of Time," the multiple Pretenders allusions in Garbage's "Special," the rewritten "Heart-Shaped Box" riff of Oleander's "Why I'm Here."

More significant, they demonstrate that even while black and white pop, and dance and nondance music, have become thoroughly integrated, the rift between hip-hop and the rest of popular music is widening. Totally Hits and Now That's What I Call Music have Brandy and Fastball and Sarah McLachlan and Usher rubbing shoulders, but no rap--though hip-hop's influence is there, in "Nookie," the scratching-intensive "Summer Girls," Kid Rock's loathsome "Bawitdaba," and Barenaked Ladies' dancehall goof "One Week." Meanwhile MTV, whose previous Party to Go volume was more than half hip-hop, has banished rap from the 2000 edition. The sizable gaps have been filled with the painful likes of a dance edit of LeAnn Rimes's "How Do I Live" and well-chewed bubblegum from the Backstreet Boys, 'N Sync, Steps, 98 Degrees, Joey McIntyre, and Britney Spears--and not her sexy-creepy masochist's anthem "...Baby One More Time" but its blander cousin "Thinkin' About You." In fact, the collection includes only one of 1999's club-play top 50: Amber's "Sexual," which is functionally identical to all other workout music from the last three years.

The problem with these songs isn't that they're written and performed by anonymous studio hacks--Lord knows that's never been an obstacle to pop greatness. It's that, with the possible exception of Steps' deranged Eurodisco-rodeo fantasia "5, 6, 7, 8," the hacks aren't willing to stick their heads up above the pack and do anything weird or risky or new--and bubblegum without the novelty loses its flavor quickly.

Most of the pop innovation going on in 1999 belonged to hip-hop--though the tracks on Hip Hop Hits and Best of Rap City are stamped out like gangsta action figures, they don't sound like the previous year's action figures. Full-length rap albums these days have more filler than your average futon, but hearing their advances distilled to a couple of discs is a blast. The brass swagger behind Pharoahe Monch's "Simon Says," the flute and Latin percussion groove of the Beatnuts' "Watch Out Now," and the withhold-and-snap of Busta Rhymes's "What's It Gonna Be?!" are all weirder and more bracing than anything on the pop comps.

Rap, it appears, has a heavier southern accent than ever before. Juvenile's brilliant, marble-mouthed "Ha" (the original flavor is on Best of Rap City; a more comprehensible remix with Jay-Z is on Hip Hot Hits) actually came out in 1998, but it set the agenda for 1999. For one thing, it blew up producer Manny Fresh's bounce beat and its "Dirty South" cousins nationwide: roughly half the tracks on both compilations belong to that lineage.

"Ha" also underscored the fact that rappers' flow is way more important than lyrical content right now. That's part of why the guest-star system has become so thoroughly entrenched: if the voice is the payoff, two voices are better than one. Of the 17 tracks on Hip Hop Hits, seven have "featuring" in the title, and that's not counting the Redman and Method Man duet, Eminem's "Guilty Conscience" (which features Dr. Dre prominently), or the duos Mobb Deep and Beatnuts. A lot of this material seems to have hit on flow alone; in particular, the "fast talking" style first put on record by the Treacherous Three in the early days of hip-hop and later refined by Bone Thugs-n-Harmony has become a signature vocal trick of the Dirty South, and last year it reached improbable heights and speeds.

Take Cool Breeze's fabulous "Watch for the Hook," number eight on the Billboard rap chart for the year and the seventh track on Hip Hop Hits. The music hardly seems finished--a chopped-up old record with the edges still jagged and bleeding--and the lyrics don't have any particular theme. Even the title hook doesn't turn up until the last 30 seconds or so. The real hook, you see, is eight MCs drag-racing their respective flows. The ten-second, 75-syllable verse Khujo takes in the middle is so fast it's impossible to make out almost anything he's saying until his final airless yelp: "I withdraw!" (Even the transcribers at the usually reliable Original Hip-Hop Lyrics Archive, www.ohhla.com, had to insert question marks in a few places.) Five years from now, like the rest of last year's hip-hop hits, it'll scream 1999--but at least it'll scream.

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