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BONE THUGS-N-HARMONY (Buy CDs by this artist)
Creepin on ah Come Up (Ruthless) 1994
E. 1999 Eternal (Ruthless) 1995
The Art of War (Ruthless) 1998
BTNH Resurrection (Epic) 2000
KRAYZIE BONE
Thug on da Line (Ruthless/Loud/Columbia) 2001

It may have taken Cleveland a while to make its mark on the national hip-hop scene (an ironic development, given its R&B heritage stretching back through the Dazz Band to the O'Jays and Screamin' Jay Hawkins), but this quintet broke the city's drought with one of the 1990s' most distinctive takes on hardcore rap. It's easy to see why Eazy-E took Bone under his wing: the unapologetic (but braggadocio-free) gangsta parables are authentic enough that you can practically smell the sulfurous aftermath of the gun battles they chronicle. But what's really fascinating is the group's close-harmony melodic flow. Jazzily scatting, fluid and mercurial, Bone Thugs — Bizzy Bone, Wish Bone, Krayzie Bone, Flesh-n-Bone and Layzie Bone — are capable of braking from breakneck vocal sprints to lissome stalking without so much as a backward glance. On the tracks where they croon handsomely about murderous brutality, Bone Thugs set up a daring dichotomy that actually works.

The eight-track Creepin on ah Come Up is an extremely impressive debut, although it's difficult to assess how much of its three-million-selling stature springs from the songs — which are certainly colorful enough — and how much from the guest turns taken by folks like Eazy himself (who drops in for "For tha Love of $"). The selection of producers is likewise wide, although DJ Uneek's contributions (particularly to the tongue-twisting "Thuggish Ruggish Bone") are the freshest.

E. 1999 Eternal (which knocked Michael Jackson's HIStory from the top spot on the pop album chart upon its release) is considerably stronger. Loosely tied with a linear narrative thread, the rambling set kicks off on a spooky note with the muezzin-like wailing of "Da Introduction," which dovetails into the sepulchral "East 1999." Uneek, who handles the controls on all seventeen tracks, outdoes himself on "Budsmokers Only" (which spirals off a breezy Earth Wind & Fire sample) and the jarring "Mo' Murda." The body count (not to mention the bud count) may be high enough to induce dizziness, but the terpsichorean grace with which Bone rolls out such morsels as "1st of tha Month" — an advisory on dubious uses for welfare checks — keeps indignation from setting in. A native's note: the band's map of its Cleve-town 'hood is most assuredly not AAA-authorized.

[David Sprague]