Royal irony

Politics of the Business, the latest offering from New York-based producer, DJ and sometime-rapper Prince Paul, begins with a skit satirizing what Paul calls today’s “Hip Pop” movement.

Actually, the album starts with two skits before kicking into the music, which is punctuated frequently by successive dramatic interludes as the album unfolds. If the shtick sounds familiar, it’s because Paul’s presence as a producer looms heavily over a myriad of notable rap releases from the past 20 years.

Chances are, even the casual fan has crossed paths with the comedic approach that’s become Paul’s signature, cementing his status as one of hip-hop’s great eccentrics.

Perhaps the most prominent of his efforts is 3 Feet High and Rising (Tommy Boy), the 1989 debut album from De La Soul. But Paul’s list of credits includes groundbreaking output by 3rd Bass, Queen Latifah, Big Daddy Kane and a slew of others, including slightly out-of-context albums with Vernon Reid and Chris Rock (who appears on one of Politics’ interludes).

Because humor factors so prominently in Paul’s work, it’s easy to overlook his musical impact on rap. With his distinctive sonic sensibilities, Paul forged a dense yet bouncy and palatable trademark sound — party music for the more thoughtful (even brooding) partygoer.

Like his last album, A Prince Among Thieves (Tommy Boy, 1999), Politics (Razor & Tie, 2003) revolves around a serious central theme. This batch of songs is a tour through the music industry’s dysfunctions as viewed through the lens of Paul’s frustration.

Rather pointedly, Paul and his array of guests lambaste the industry’s collective obsession with money and commercialism. The songs lament and even itemize the pitfalls that threaten the artist who tries to maintain creative focus in a world driven by artifice.

Ironically, as Paul himself explains in the liner notes, this album represents a conscious effort to take a more commercial approach. Well … sort of.

Critically lauded for covering new ground at every stage in his career, Paul has noted that the desire to innovate has always driven him. He admits to consciously bucking against whatever trends happen to be current.

With this new collection of songs, however, he chose to push against himself — Politics is comprised of pieces that tend towards commercial stylings in spite of Paul’s natural instincts to go the opposite way. The album is literally the sound of an innovator subverting more recognizably mainstream elements by applying his own touches to them — but from the inside out.

Thankfully, Paul can only go so far in smoothing his square edges to fit the round hole of mass appeal. The guy just can’t help himself — what you get is a wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing of a record that verges on satire: The songs may at first sound innocuous and smooth, but on further inspection, reveal gnarled sonic edges.

With biting lyrics atop each track — “These are the cats talkin’ about the jewels they got … I’m talkin’ about the jewels I got from the dudes I shot” — none of these songs is likely to get Paul nominated for a Grammy. Which seems in line with what he expects to happen (or not happen), and also appears to be exactly how he wants to keep things.

In fact, at the end of the liner notes, he declares, “I am now inspired to make my music go even further underground. … See y’all when I resurface to change the world!”

Despite a rather singular focus, Politics does provide subtle shifts in mood, all threaded together by an artist’s desire to be himself. Because the presentation is heavy-handed at times, Paul’s underlying resignation strikes a more poignant — and mature — chord, as if he’s saying, “This is what I am. At this point I can’t be anything else.”

If Politics falls short of being an out-and-out anti-materialist manifesto, it still gets the point across: Rapping about money and your possessions all the time is just plain wack.

The point is made most effectively on “Make Room” and “Original Crhyme Pays,” thanks to mock-obligatory female backing vocals that carry the hook in each tune. Not unlike his producer/performer contemporaries in the group N•E•R•D, Paul sees to it that the vocals are delivered tauntingly, so they brim with irony. The effect is more sultry and full of life than the packaged dreck so common in made-to-order commercial hip-hop.

But Paul also says he’s cautious of sounding bitter about hip-hop authenticity and street cred. He wants fans from all walks to dig into and dig the album. Most of all — and perhaps ironically — he wants you to buy the record, rather than get a bootleg copy.

“Record sales are like votes: It all counts,” he’s preached to potential bootleggers. “Your purchases have the power to change the course of the music being made and sold.”

In order to combat piracy, the final product is different than the advance copies that were sent out and, apparently, leaked. Before Politics’ official release, its songs were sequenced into a new order and hidden tracks were added, as well as additional vocals by Biz Markie (to the aforementioned “Original Crhyme Pays”). The authorized CD also provides access to a “secret” Web site that offers interactive features and bonus material.

On the not-so-secret “,” Gang Starr’s DJ Premiere reassures us that although “hip-hop is wack right now,” 2003 is the year that it will return to its former state of creative glory. In fact, Premiere guarantees it.

Prince Paul comes to the Orange Peel (101 Biltmore Ave.) on Thursday, June 5 with Aceyalone and Ugly Duckling. Showtime is 9 p.m.; tickets cost $15. For more information, call 225-5851.

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