The least interesting tracks here hew closest to American styles. C.B.V.'s "Art. 158" relies on punchy bass lines, grating strings, keyboard stabs, and ray-gun effects -- hallmarks of lo-fi production that wouldn't be out of place on college radio, although the stutter-step French rapping would have a hard time finding airtime stateside. The songs in regional languages like Wolof or Malinka stand even less chance of being heard, much less understood, by Americans. But even when the tunes' meanings -- usually "conscious" critiques of society's ills, according to the liner notes -- are totally opaque, the unfamiliar cadences of the local tongues carry their own sonic thrill. Gokh-Bi Soundsystem's "Xaesal" inveighs against the skin-bleaching tonic of the same name, and nothing's really lost in translation: The MCs' diatribes spit and spin in insistent circles while a female chorus reels off a mournful counterpoint. The number's background track -- a whirl of hand drums and string cadences reminiscent of traditional West African artists such as Ali Farka Touré -- is barely recognizable as hip-hop, which is precisely what makes it so fascinating.
Likewise, Mali's Tata Pound expands considerably the definition of rap music, winding frenetic, double-time delivery into a dense and joyful mash-up of salsa, electro, and African guitars. Pee Froiss's "Jalgaty," on the other hand, hardly sounds alien; in fact, the track's funky keyboards and auctioneer-paced rapping draw a direct line to Atlanta's OutKast. But that reference alone begs the question of how such a particular, regional American style made its way to West Africa and into an unfamiliar tongue. The success of Africa Raps is the way it traces these weird travels and tradeoffs. Such unimagined mutations are a testament to the way every "margin" creates its own center of gravity.