Rap's Teen Idols Return

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It's hard to remember, and perhaps you tried to forget, but Hammer and Vanilla Ice were the two most popular rappers in America just four years ago. Hammer's album Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em and Ice's To the Extreme each sold more than 15 million copies worldwide. Both albums were pure Top 40, accessorized with rap cliches. But then the kids started listening to low- ridin', gun-totin', allegedly homicide-getaway-car-drivin' rappers like Snoop Doggy Dogg, and Hammer and Ice seemed about as corny as silver medalists at a Disney parade.

Now Hammer has a CD titled The Funky Headhunter, Ice has one called Mind Blowin', and both are presenting themselves as OGs -- Original Gangstas. Where Hammer used to wear harem pants and dancing shoes, he now appears in jeans and combat boots. After all, who's afraid of a guy in puffy pants? Hammer also now indulges in the requisite rapper carnality: in the video for his new song Pumps and a Bump, he wears the briefest of briefs and cavorts with bikini-clad women. Most of the parties involved are slathered in enough body oil to spawn a sequel to On Deadly Ground. As for Ice, his blond pompadour is gone in favor of droopy dreadlocks. Instead of looking like a tour guide for Graceland, he resembles yet another long-lost heir angling for a piece of the Bob Marley estate.

Although Hammer and Ice are both attempting to break with their unthreatening pasts, neither can resist recalling the anodyne megahits of yore. "Twenty-five million records, 20 countries and got love from 100 million," Hammer boasts in a spoken introduction to The Funky Headhunter. "You know you can't fade it." On his album, Ice raps, "My first LP went way over 11 million/ So don't front 'cause I know you were an Ice Fan." Both are also eager to avenge past slights. "Bust 'em in the back of their head," goes the chorus to the title track of Hammer's album, "for those lies that I know that they said." And Ice threatens, "A few suckers need their throat slit/ Jealous 'cause I went multiplatinum/ Now I'm going to blast 'em in the head till they're dead with my Magnum." Don't call it gangsta rap; call it sulking-star, self-pity rap.

Amid all the posturing, though, the two albums actually contain a few good songs. Hammer is a classy guy, businesslike and religious. Although he's trying to act tough, the most successful numbers on The Funky Headhunter -- Clap Yo' Hands and One Mo' Time -- have him riding the current wave of laid-back rap. The two songs grind along at an easy pace and feature sweet melodies that aren't obscured by Hammer's usual rhythmic assault.

Because Vanilla Ice was one of the first white performers in a mostly black genre, he received far more attention than his talent merited; however, it would be unfair to dismiss him totally. On Mind Blowin', his rapping and song- construction skills have improved. Fame deftly slices the main guitar riff out of the David Bowie tune of the same name and builds a rap song around it. All rappers seem to have become marijuana devotees, so Ice has predictably recorded his own ode to weed, but at least Roll 'em Up does have a catchy chanted chorus. Although Hammer and Ice toured together in 1990 (Ice was the opening act), that year Ice's album displaced Hammer's atop the Billboard charts, and there's been bad blood between them ever since. ("He looks like a big fag," was Ice's comment on Hammer's Pumps and a Bump video.) It's ironic that both are trying to mount similar comebacks. "They thought I was down, so they kicked dirt on me," Hammer declares in the April issue of Ebony. "Hammer's back, and he's back in a big way." Ice admitted to TIME, "I'm broke . . . I spent all my money, man; I spent every bit of it." He says he's out not to get rich but to earn respect from rap purists: "I don't want to cross over with this record. That's why I made it a lot harder."

Rap documents and communicates the attitudes of disenfranchised and disenchanted urban blacks, and it appeals to suburban whites who admire the rappers' artistry and who wish to indulge, at a distance, a taste for street life. Rap's genius lies in its authentic evocation of a particular world, but when Hammer and Ice were earning millions, some rap fans believed they had all the authenticity of the Archies. Although only a few songs on either of their new albums succeed, and although their new identities are the product of commercial calculation, both deserve credit for trying to connect with what makes rap potent and not just pop.