Short Cuts :: Record Reviews 

U2 measuredly hopeful; Mos Def and Jean Grae on hip-hop's margins.

How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb

U2 (Interscope) What's so funny about peace, love, and understanding, U2 want to know. On their 11th album, the Irish quartet play unabashedly anthemic crowd-pleasers full of lofty ideas and romantic notions. They've been alternately dismissed as naive and praised as peacekeepers, and How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb has been released to heraldic claims that U2 are the most popular band in the world. Whether of not that's true, they apparently feel no creative pressure in this enviable position but rather thrive as their audience grows and diversifies. On top of the world, they're on top of their game. Atomic Bomb is one of the best albums of their long career.

That long title comes from the riddle "How do you dismantle an atomic bomb? Don't build one," which reveals U2's grand intentions for the album: From its bilingual opener "Vertigo" to its grandiose closer "Yahweh," Atomic Bomb is a piece of unifying foreign policy. Of course, that's an enormous undertaking, and the album doesn't always succeed. For one thing, the lyrics, while unfailingly sincere, are often goofy: "Freedom has a scent," Bono sings on "Miracle Drug," "like the top of a newborn baby's head."

On the other hand, the songs are open-ended and subtly ambiguous, in such a way that a track like "Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own" could be about romantic support, grieving for a loved one or a lost election, or American isolationism. To an extent, Bono writes about large issues while leaving precise meaning for the listeners to determine, which may account for U2's enduring global popularity: Their songs are exactingly calibrated to reach a very large, very diverse audience.

What truly electrifies Atomic Bomb and gives the album its distinctive dynamic is Bono's relationship with the Edge, who plays id to the singer's ego. Bono writes and sings like he still believes a good rock song can change the world and unite humanity, while the guitarist punches up the underlying meanings and implies some ulterior motives. When Bono sings about peace and love on "Peace and Love or Else," the Edge fills in a sinister guitar riff that sounds incredulous. The cumulative effect is a measured hopefulness, a throwback to '90s-era global-village politics, which nowadays, the band acknowledges, sounds both excitingly revolutionary and tragically impractical.

-- Stephen Deusner

Grade: A-

The New Danger

Mos Def

(Geffen)

This Week

Jean Grae

(Babygrande)

Hip-hop now looks a lot like rock did in the late '70s and early '80s: It's the most popular music on the planet, but its success has fed an indulgence and vacancy that have spurred an awful lot of acolytes to head underground. Given the success and/or press of Brits such as Dizzee Rascal and the Streets and paleface indie darlings such as Atmosphere and Northern State, you might think that the music's African-American core was still all on-board. But there are plenty of essential black artists expressing their alienation from hip-hop proper.

For Mos Def, this manifests itself as much in sonics as in words. There's plenty of lyrical dissent on The New Danger. The Kanye West-produced, Hair-sampling "Sunshine" opens with the prickly statement of purpose "I don't hate players/I don't love the game" while the sarcastic anti-anthem "The Rape Over" directly lifts the West production from Jay-Z's "The Takeover" only to flip the script on Hova's lyrical exhortations: "Jay-Z is running this rap shit" becomes "Old white man is running this rap shit." Best of all is "Close Edge," which combines a Grandmaster Flash reference and a stark beat into an irresistible blast of hip-hop basics.

But Mos Def's rejection of hip-hop's commercial present is primarily musical. In turning the bulk of The New Danger over to his blues-metal rock band Black Jack Johnson, Mos Def declares as much affinity with hip-hop-inspired bluesman Corey Harris as any competing MC. On "Rock N Roll" from his last album, Black on Both Sides, Mos Def delivered one of the most wrong-headed bits of rock criticism ever. Here he decides to show instead of tell and that makes all the difference.

By contrast, female indie MC Jean Grae's otherness in relation to mainstream hip-hop is far less willful. It starts with her gender and ends with her uninterest in selling herself sexually. In another era, she might have been a mainstream star à la MC Lyte, which is something you sense she would welcome: "You can still call me conscious/Call me regardless," she pleads over a track smooth enough for BET heavy rotation.

But if all that hip-hop wants right now is another video ho, Grae's here to let the music know just what it's missing. On "Not Like Me," she might be addressing the genre as much as an unnamed guy, starting with the spoken intro "Oh, who's that? Oh, that's your girl? You're with her? She looks like everyone else in here." Then she proceedes to present a dream girl for the thinking hip-hop head: She'll go dutch on the first date and keep the conversation going. She's willing to hang out at the club but would just as soon chill on the stoop arguing the relative merits of Reasonable Doubt and Illmatic. And with "confidence courtesy of mimosas," she might even make the first move.

She prefers to leave something to the imagination when she dresses, but that doesn't mean she never lets lust get the better of her. On "Super Luv," she starts to invite one guy to a party in her pants before catching herself. She begins the song by telling her mom that this might be the one. It's the most swoon-worthy slice of female hip-hop since Eve's "Gotta Man," and if mainstream hip-hop has no room for a woman this real, then it's the genre's loss. •

-- Chris Herrington

Grade (both records): A-

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