Capable if unimaginative rappers, Los Angeles’ Above the Law were primordial gangstas, taking the violence and misogyny pioneered by N.W.A and others another step further down the road to ugly nihilism. Entertaining only in the most dismal sense, Livin’ Like Hustlers (which features Ruthless label boss Eazy-E and lead producer Dr. Dre on “The Last Song”) is less intimidating than it is unpleasant. Over handsome beats constructed from ’70s soul classics (Cameo, Isaac Hayes, James Brown) as well as live guitar, bass and keyboards, self-styled hustlers Cold 187um (Gregory Hutchison), KM.G the Illustrator (Kevin Dulley), Go Mack (Arthur Goodman) and Total K-oss (Anthony Stewart) rhyme about cold-blooded violence (the Mega Side) and coldhearted sex (the Ranching Side).
Vocally Pimpin’ is a lengthy EP of new tracks (the most captivating of which, “Wicked,” reveals an incidental political sensibility), studio chat, remixes — including three dissimilar versions of the non-LP “4 the Funk of It” — and promotional announcements for the then-upcoming second album.
Black Mafia Life, ably produced to an alternately fuzzy and frisk funk bump by Cold 187um, partly defuses the quartet’s anger ad vulgarity, integrating Above the Law into the growing gangsta mainstream with highly styled and obvious playacting (these guys should definitely call their agents about film work) and familiar MC boasts in the “black mafia mindset.” “G-rupies Best Friend” (complete with ecstatic female moans) is as obnoxious as it has to be, but a goodnatured lack of conviction-even on tracks like “Pimp Clinic” and “Pimpology 101”-and cozy grooves soften Black Mafia Life into a relatively appealing party. The guest shot by Eazy-E adds just the right touch of whiny bravado; ragga rapper Kokane freestyles on “Game Wreck-Oniz-Iz Game.”
Exchanging sophisticated finery for casual threads, Above the Law get serious — about racism and oppression — on Uncle Sam’s Curse, blaming the titular malediction for a variety of urban ills. The trio’s political depth doesn’t go much beyond “the system is always trying to keeping us down” (as “Set Free” inarticulates), however, and most of the album is a pernicious return to the gangsta banality of Livin’ Like Hustlers. Cold 187um kicks more good grooves as producer, but he can’t smooth over the lyrical nonsense. “Uncle Sam’s Curse” can hardly be held responsible for the crude booty calls of “Everything Will Be Alright,” the banging of “The ‘G’ in Me” or the multi-purpose sex-and-drugs-and-guns “Who Ryde,” in which Tone-Loc makes an effective guest appearance. Ending off with “Gangsta Madness,” ATL borrows Ice Cube’s vocal inflection for a solemn dedication to dead homies, acknowledging one law even these roughnecks can’t pretend to be above.