Deeper Shades of Pale

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During a recent appearance on Black Entertainment Television, Justin Timberlake underwent a curious vocal transformation. An interviewer asked Timberlake if he was excited to be releasing a solo album. He responded, "Is soooo excitahn'. Fuh me, music is Marvin Gaye an' Stevie Wunda. Thas mah music!"

When white performers work in a traditionally black medium

Barman graduated from Brown University in 1997 and released an independent single called Enter Pan-Man about a kid who gets horn and hoof implants, becomes a rap star and retires to Westchester County. Paullelujah!, Barman's first full-length album, is a 45-min. tour of his id. Barman is sex obsessed ("I would keep a tidy room for Heidi Klum"), a proud Jew, a would-be grad student who name-checks Noam Chomsky. Paullelujah! has a song called Burping & Farting. It also has a track in which Barman dexterously raps, "Who's responsible for the predictable results of our actions/I only know fractions of facts and the interested factions don't use flags/They use logos/We'll know the real rogues by wherever the dough goes."

Barman's chief subject is himself, but his passion is wordplay. As he says on Excuse You, "I'm the ne plus ultra of B+ culture." His voice is high and a little irritating, but in contrast to Eminem, his humor is self-deprecating and his love of rhyme is infectious.

Skinner doesn't rap so much as narrate. He has a jagged baritone and a dramatic Brummy accent that he unfurls quietly, purposefully, as he talks about the sad avenues of the Midlands (thus his handle, the Streets). Skinner's debut, Original Pirate Material, is full of observations that haven't emerged from the Bronx or South Central. His universe has violence and drugs, but the real threat is desperation. On Too Much Brandy, Skinner imitates a series of neighborhood drunks who choose drinking over living; on Stay Positive, he says, "Stop dreaming/People who say that are blaspheming/They're doing 9-to-5 and moaning/And they don't want you succeeding when they've blown it."

There are great lyrical snippets--"We first met through a shared view/She loved me, and I did too"--but the material is as grim as a bbc documentary. What keeps you going is Skinner's voice. Most rappers rhyme on or near the beat; he rambles in the spaces between keyboard samples and drums, emphasizing the most unexpected phrases. Skinner's life may be an ill-favored thing, but it is all his own. --By Josh Tyrangiel