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Death can be a highly overrated experience. Just ask rapper Everlast. There were no brilliant shafts of light, no trumpets sounding, no beating of wings, none of the spectacular revelations that Hollywood films and Oprah segments have conditioned us to expect along the passage to the other side. When Everlast suffered a coronary two years ago at age 29, it was lights out—fade to black. His doctors saved him by putting him into a deep freeze—a kind of virtual death—so they could stop his damaged heart and repair it. He awoke in a hospital three days later with a new heart valve and almost no memory of his ordeal. "Sometimes a spotlight can remind me of the lights above the operating table," he says, "but I only recall bits and pieces."

The ordeal's aftermath gave him a new artistic life. As he lay in a hospital bed recovering from the surgery, Everlast found himself filled with a wealth of new ideas, many of which he explores on his captivating new CD, "Eat at Whitey's" (Tommy Boy). The album grapples in a smart, nonpreachy way with heavy issues—love, death, faith—that usually don't spend much time on the radar screen of hip-hop.

Everlast (born Erik Schrody) is already well known as the writer of the Santana hit "Put Your Lights On." Hip-hop followers probably remember him from the 1990s as the frontman of the proudly uncouth, roughneck trio House of Pain. After four years with that group, he quit, dropped out of music, changed gears and then scored a surprise hit with his 1998 solo debut, "Whitey Ford Sings the Blues." That record broke all the rules, using acoustic guitars, rapping, blues riffs and elements borrowed from Johnny Cash and Neil Young to create a striking hip-hop offshoot that sounded tough and folksy at the same time. The songs were about working people and the small struggles of their lives, all delivered with a surprisingly sensitive touch by the former hard-core rapper.

On "Eat at Whitey's," Everlast works the same musical vein but makes the focus of his storytelling almost exclusively the rush of feelings that coursed through him as he recovered from surgery—his own postcards from the edge. On "I Can't Move," he tells how a part of him flirted with death, almost welcoming it: "Want to get near it, close enough to fear it, close enough to hear it," he sings. In the marvelous, bouncing "Babylon Feeling," he regrets that his own obsession with materialism may have led him straight to a hospital bed: "My heart is broke, my will is gone." And on "Mercy on My Soul," he contemplates the afterlife: "Standing up tall on top of the wall, hoping I can fly."

Everlast is careful to say his experience gave him new directions and new questions, not the sudden clarity that has become a pop-culture cliché. "I'm not saying I have all the answers," he says. "I made this record to help me understand what happened. Some of the changes I went through haven't defined themselves yet."

Only a few years ago, it would have been difficult to imagine hip-hop fans' paying attention to a cd that philosophizes about mortality, at least not without a good shoot-out at the end. A purist mentality kept the genre loaded down with hard-core rappers, most of whom stuck with traditional formulas: shunning live instruments and embracing gangsta bravado. "I love hip-hop, so what I do is done with respect," says Everlast, "but there was a very closed-minded attitude toward live instruments and music that wasn't hard core. I wanted to get out of that box."

And that is just what he's done. Although Eminem's sensationalist rapping still rides high on the charts, that old consensus may at last be showing signs of breaking down. In searching for a little meaning in his own heart, Everlast may have touched on something that will make hip-hop reconsider its own.