The unfortunately titled El Niño is the first album from Def Squad, a supergroup consisting of EPMD's Erick Sermon and protégés Keith Murray and Redman. While all three Def Squad MCs have devoted cult followings, crossover hits had mostly eluded them until the fluke success of their fun but disposable collaborative cover of The Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight." But despite the newfound commercial success, El Niño is defiantly hardcore. "I'm too underground to dance with that shiny shit on," Redman boasts, and El Niño steers clear of Puff Daddy's new-wave-derived tracks in favor of the sort of minimalist funk that has been producer Sermon's trademark since the early days of EPMD. Sermon's proficient if unremarkable production work puts the emphasis on the rapping here, which is a wise move considering that the three MCs have styles that are similar enough to be cohesive but distinctive enough to keep things from getting monotonous. Redman's malevolent stoner-funk perfectly complements Murray's urgent, high-pitched flow and Sermon's authoritarian lisp. Of course, the subject matter seldom strays from such time-tested lyrical staples as competitors (bad) and the Def Squad (good). El Niño's monomaniacal focus would probably grow tedious were it not for the twisted humor of Redman, who pretty much steals the album from mentor Sermon and relative newcomer Murray. El Niño has its flaws, chief among them a persistent strain of homophobia, but for the most part, it's a surprisingly consistent and enjoyable album that bodes well for future releases.