Earlier in the decade, rap naysayers were blustering that the music was too spare, repetitive, unmelodic and unimaginative to last. Surprise. The form has flourished thanks to the unflagging creativity and energy of its many young practitioners. These records present two of the most intriguing of recent rap stylists. Between scratching and sampling, rappers have become musical magpies, pillaging melodies and beats from all kinds of sources. The 7A3 borrows better than most. The trio, rappers Sean B and Brett B and DJ Grandmixer Muggs, were born in New York but later moved to Southern California. (Brothers Sean and Brett grew up in apartment 7A in Brooklyn’s Linden housing project. Muggs is from Queens.) Their music on Coolin’ in Cali (Geffen) is as much a hybrid as their backgrounds. They combine Sly and the Family Stone’s riffs from Stand!and Thank You (Falettin Me Be Mice Elf Agin) on the title track. They lift Dr. John’s one pop hit, Right Place, Wrong Time, for use in That’s How We’re Livin’. Their most inspired song, a lovely Bahamian cruise called Drums of Steel, is based on the War classic Cisco Kid. Over these borrowed melodic structures, they pump in smooth rhymes and additional instrumentation (including the Hooters’ drummer David Uosikkinen for two songs). The Great Adventures of Slick Rick (Def Jam) is technically a debut, though rapper Rick Walters has been recognized for years for adding the comic element to Doug E. Fresh’s records. Slick Rick’s recitative delivery is a put-on, akin to a square Caucasian doing the most carefully enunciated rap. If you can imagine a cross between funny funkmeister Bootsy Collins and Art Carney as The Honeymooners’ Ed Norton, you get some idea. There’s a playfulness to his style that’s all too rare in rap. In The Ruler’s Back, he casts himself as the hero in a modern sword and sorcery epic, complete with heraldic horn flourishes. The Moment I Feared is a wild, urban morality fable. Slick Rick even updates the legend of Davy Crockett—Fess Parker would hardly recognize the guy—as an X-rated lover man in Indian Girl (An Adult Story). Disturbing facets of both these albums are the unfortunate amount of explicit sexual braggadocio and the performers’ unmitigated contempt for women. If you can put up with that kind of puerile swagger and the men’s club mentality, though, the beats and rhymes here are pretty sharp.