PERHAPS THE finest rap album yet made was last year's relatively unheralded "Silent Assassins." The album was credited to the Jamaican rhythm team of Sly & Robbie, but it was produced by Brooklyn's KRS-1 and featured the raps of M. C. Young, Queen Latifah, Willie D and the Shah of Brooklyn. The rhythm grooves, played by Sly Dunbar, Robbie Shakespeare and friends, were deeper, sexier and more melodic than the usual programmed beats on most rap records, and the sharply etched lyrics recalled Curtis Mayfield's social realism rather than the boasts and bland generalities of most rap.
Many of this year's best rap projects also have a Jamaican connection, giving them the refreshing realism and sensual groove of reggae music. The best of these is "The Real Rock" by Shinehead, who appears Saturday at Kilimanjaro.
Shinehead "The Real Rock" (Elektra). Born in London, raised in Jamaica and now residing in New York, Shinehead (a k a Edmund Carl Aiken Jr.) stands out in the rap field because he can actually sing as well as rap with authority. He shifts from old-fashioned soul singing to Jamaican patois to hard-edged Bronx street talk to hilarious comedy routines without a hitch on his third album. He plays keyboards in a band of Jamaican and American musicians who add some welcome melody to the beat.
Shinehead shines as a legitimate singer on the bouncy reggae tune, "Dance Down the Road" and the Everly Brothers' "Till I Kissed You." He breaks with rap's prevailing macho ethic by praising "Love and Marriage" with a Jamaican toast set atop a dub version of the old Frank Sinatra standard. The album's highlight, though, is an inspired remake of Sly Stone's "Family Affair," which mixes slap bass, scratching, soul singing and speed-rapping into an inspiring defense of black music, black neighborhoods and black families.
Frighty & Colonel Mite "Life" (Profile). This duo (born in London to Jamaican parents) is one of the best examples of "combination- style" dancehall reggae -- that is, alternating a verse of sweetly sung melody with a verse of rougher rapping. Frighty -- a soul crooner in the classic Motown tradition -- is the singer and Colonel Mite -- a master of rhythmic, sing-song Jamaican-style toasting -- is the rapper.
Their first import single, "Life (Is What You Make It)," was a surprise hit in New York dance clubs last winter, and the combination of Frighty's relaxing, seductive melody and Mite's hopped-up staccato rhymes is hard to resist. All 10 tunes on the album -- from the Smokey Robinson-like ballad, "I Know You Know" to the jagged rhythms of "Ragamuffin Girl" -- have a similar appeal, making this one of the year's best rap projects.
Junior Reid "One Blood" (Big Life/Mercury). In 1985, Reid replaced lead singer Michael Rose in the legendary reggae trio, Black Uhuru. Reid's debut solo album, "One Blood," was a number-one hit in Jamaica in 1988, and now it has been remixed for international release. Recorded in Kingston with the island's best musicians, the beat-heavy arrangements recall Black Uhuru's dub hits.
Whether rapping out the ghetto protest of "Searching for Better" or singing the homeless man's lament, "When It Snows," Reid's political conscience and vocal authority come across quite powerfully. The Tamlins and Sly & Robbie join him for a straightforward version of the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby." On the title tune, Reid rhythmically raps a long list of different kinds of people and then lyrically sings the conclusion that we're all "One Blood."
Frankie Paul "Get Closer" (Profile). Paul is one of the most appealing romantic crooners in Jamaica today, but his new album, recorded in New York, incorporates rap elements into his sensual love songs. The result is an appealing mix of loping reggae rhythms and machine-gun beats, of relaxed singing and agitated chants. It works because Sir Raphael's arrangements are minimalist but sensual, giving plenty of room for Paul to ease his ever-so-seductive voice into the hypnotic grooves.
Maxi Priest "Bonafide" (Charisma). This London singer has pursued an ambitious mix of reggae, soul, rock, rap and pop in the past, but his new album emphasizes the pop over everything else. Priest has a strong, smooth voice that recalls Jeffrey Osborne or James Ingram, but on this album the smoothness is more likely to lull the listener to sleep than inspire desire.
In contrast to his sharp-edged earlier work, these new songs are built on the safe cliches of sexual attraction and universal brotherhood. Jazzie B of Soul II Soul produced two of the tracks, but like the other cuts, these feature Priest's bland, undramatic crooning over a tame reggae beat with just enough rap to seem hip.