[TRUE SCHOOL HIP-HOP] In hip-hop's long-gone lighthearted days—when the best rappers called themselves the kings of rock—groups like Animal Farm weren't all that unusual. "Ragtime Gal," a song entirely dedicated to using outdated Roaring Twenties vernacular ("Jump in my jalopy, baby, we'll have a ball/ We can stroll down lover's lane if you just give me a call"), would have seemed an intrepid but not entirely atypical fit on a Beastie Boys or Tribe Called Quest record.

But it's 2008. Highly fractured hip-hop shoots in every direction—hardcore, throwback and avant garde groups can all find audiences—but rarely is any of it much fun. That's where Animal Farm comes in: From describing the humble realities of underground hip-hop ("The Show Must Go On") to recounting drinking stories ("Last Call"), the Eugene/Portland four-piece brings the music back to its roots with long-awaited debut The Unknown. The album's first line (from "We Came to Rock") outlines the game plan: "Forget these shiny new rims/ Let the rhyming begin." It's a sentiment that—while well-worn in the underground—is seldom adhered to so religiously in the ringtone age as it is here.

Not that The Unknown is all rapping about rapping. In the genre's purer days, even generally fun-loving groups had to have a political track. Animal Farm brings us two big-picture social consciousness numbers—the somewhat scattered "War" (fascinating because each MC, perhaps unwittingly, divulges his varying level of political commitment via his verses) and its logical follow-up, "Peace," which features an encouragingly sincere and lengthy cameo from the great KRS-One (who quips "Me, I'm a product of the public library/ I can't even count all the rappers I bury").

But a rap album's scope and spirit are still tethered to the strength of the MCs and producers behind it. Not a problem, really, for Animal Farm. The Unknown is all aces in the beats department (despite the somewhat surprising lack of turntable cuts): the fittingly Dixieland horns of the aforementioned "Ragtime Gal," the early B-boy-era Latin percussion behind "Peace," the sharp, Hi Records horns behind "Crying." There's nothing here (much of the album is produced by Animal Farm MC Gen.Erik) that redefines the genre, but again, that's not Animal Farm's mission.

In the rapping category, Animal Farm's four MCs aren't always a united front, but their individual strengths go a long way to counterbalance each other's weaknesses. Where Gen.Erik has a hard time keeping a poker face on his strongest punchlines, Kwill's bars often fly under the radar. And Hanif's occasional singing proves an invaluable reprieve from The Unknown's verse-heavy assault.

If there's a real weakness here, it's that the group has stylistically evolved beyond fan-favorite playground put-down numbers like "Rookie of the Year" and "Mean Streaks." But there are worse fates than outpacing your own personal bests, and I'm already looking forward to Animal Farm's next move.


Animal Farm celebrates the release of

The Unknown

Friday, June 6, with Copacrescent, Mic Crenshaw, Serge Severe and Style Molesters at Berbati's. 9:30 pm. $7 ($12 with CD). 21+.