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Nappy Roots, ‘Wooden Leather’ (Atlantic)

Near the midpoint of this follow-up to Nappy Roots’ 2002 surprise hit, Watermelon, Chicken & Gritz, the group’s B. Stille drawls perhaps the most outlandish pop-music statement of 2003. Over a doleful, Geto Boyish funk stroll–scruffy snare, bluesy guitar, piano, flute–he proclaims:”Even when I’m rich / I’ma pretend to be poor.”

Jigga what? It’s a perverse throwdown, breaking even Eminem’s chutzpah meter, especially since today’s pinnacle of rap cred is a millionaire, faux-pimp, ex-crack dealer who brags about being shot seven times (consider the utter pathos of that). The track, “Work in Progress,” could be read as bohemian slumming–the Kentucky-based Nappys are hip, thriving college alums (Bowling Green, represent!)–but the song has a palpably volatile, don’t-test-me edge. The chorus to their last single, “Po’ Folks,” a Goodie Mob-style ode to enduring the grind, once asserted: “All my life been po’ / But it really don’t matter no mo.'” Now, after a platinum album, worldwide tours, being named honorary “colonels” by Kentucky governor Paul Patton, it clearly matters a lot.

The group know that their emotional core is the skintight empathy coursing through their music–which is a pleasantly PG-13 version of the Dungeon Family’s riskier avant-crunk. The Nappys are beloved because their raucous, yet always sane, multitude of voices–from Skinny Deville’s around-the-way verbals to Big V’s deep growl to R. Prophet’s down-home patois–speaks up for broke-dick hustlers of all shades. Whether you’re a soldier eating dust overseas or a nine-to-five fool fighting off a six-pack hangover at Waffle House, Nappy feels your struggle (check the melancholy bounce of “Roun’ the Globe”). Even if it’s not received as such, this is a bold, political stance, and it’s likely no coincidence that Nappy Roots hail from the South, where social and racial progress (or the lackthereof) is critiqued and negotiated with historic urgency.

This is no party record; the closest thing to a club jam is “Twang,” with its delirious, backward Jew’s-harp loop, and a collabo with crunk wacko Lil’ Jon never flares up. And, as with Watermelon, Chicken, the album drags; still, it’s a compelling ride. As Fish Scales raps amid the convincing paranoia of the Kanye West-produced “These Walls”: “Got a strange way of telling the truth / Most Southerners do.”