We tell ourselves stories to survive," Joan Didion once wrote. She could have been remarking on the rise of hip-hop's Big Willie, that felonious, diamond-drenched Versace vision clamping a fat cigar between gold teeth.

Brooklyn, N.Y., rapper Jay-Z and the Brooklyn-Queens conglomerate the Firm - made up of Nas, Foxy Brown, AZ and newcomer Nature - tell Big Willie stories to survive. At their best, these MCs conjure a whole world and shoot it up with all the tragedy and comedy it can hold. But those stories also have a flip side: Often, the rappers' fantastic, blaxploitation-style adventures have all the spirit of an empty film canister.

Such is the promise and letdown of In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 and The Firm - The Album. Both records take Nas' years-old observation "Sometimes this rap game reminds me of the crack game" (sampled on Lifetime's "Rap Game/Crack Game") and blow it up cinemasize. The Firm use a wide-angle lens, loosely following the group as it pulls heists and ducks the heat in a world full of gangstas, guns and ho's. GoodFellas is The Firm's biggest movie inspiration, from the good-times cool of "Firm Fiasco" (which samples the film) to the jig's-up resignation of "I'm Leaving." Dr. Dre produced most of the tracks, providing Nas and company a haunted backdrop filled with longing strings and silky-funk samples that steam like summer asphalt.

In My Lifetime pumps with more raw practicality, bumping with ominous synths, scratches and sweet '70s samples. A highlight is "I Know What Girls Like," which sets the sound of sharpening knives over a "We Will Rock You" backbeat while Jay-Z trades sex notes with Lil' Kim. Where the Firm get theatrical, Jay-Z telescopes, zooming in on the grainy details of his hustler's world. In the midst of the Cristal popping, he lets himself get lost in the ambiguities - the stress of street life and stardom. "If I shoot you, I'm brainless," he raps on "Streets Is Watching." "But if you shoot me, you're famous."

But like the Firm, he's usually locked in an impossible character - just waving his muthafuckin' guns in the air. And then the stories don't sound so much like triumphs of imagination but rather like tired inventories of gangster clichés. (RS 775)




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