Sunday, December 14, 2008

Kanye West -- 808's & Heartbreak

Rating: 4/5 stars

Pros: The eclectic mash-up of T-Pain and Phil Collins works.

Cons: When does the auto-tune backlash begin?

Bottom Line: Kanye's creative gamble pays off in a big way.

Recommended Tracks:

Love Lockdown

So Amazing


After defeating 50 Cent during last-year's same-day album
"showdown", Kanye West was at the top of his game. Graduation
pulled off a delicate balancing act -- on critic's top 10 lists while
producing top 10 hits.

But after a tumultuous year personally, his latest album 808's
& Heartbreaks
differs drastically from his previous work. While
Graduation
and Later Registration re-used songs and concepts
from his days as an underground rapper, 808's was completed
within the span of a few weeks. It's the rare album from a rapper
released sooner than expected, perhaps because Kanye isn't
rapping anymore.

For someone who rapped before he produced, his Andre
3000-like turn towards musical experimentation is surprising.
As is his decision to make a break-up album that sounds like a
mash-up of Phil Collins and T-Pain. Most surprising of all, he
manages to pull it off.

Lately Auto-Tune, the computerized synthesization of vocal
melodies, has become inescapable. So if you've become weary
of it, be forewarned. 808's is an Auto-Tune overload, with the
vast majority of Kanye's lyrics sung through it. It's a good decision
-- Andre 3000 can carry a tune while Kanye largely can't.

The album beautifully merges the main song archetypes of modern R&B -- the up-tempo club songs and the melodramatic personal ones. He varies the instrumentals, moving seamlessly from the violin ("RoboCop") to the piano ("Welcome to Heartbreak"). Instantly catchy melodies abound; singles "Love Lockdown" and "Heartless" have several different refrains.

The one lesson he learned from his previous work is brevity; 808's clocks in at only 11 songs. It's aiming to be larger-than-life, with music meant to be blared from stadium speakers. As Kanye noted in an interview, he spends the majority of his time touring the world in stadiums and auditoriums.

He's become one of the rare rap stars -- like Eminem, Jay-Z and Snoop -- so successful they're bigger than rap. 808's is a reaction to the absurdity of pop stardom: "Chased the "Good Life" my whole life long / Looked back on my life and my life gone." It echoes many of the same themes of Britney Spears prescient hit "Lucky", where she bemoans how unsatisfying fame is and how it overwhelmed her previous identity.

His lyrical meltdown was triggered by personal tragedy -- the untimely death of his mother and a broken engagement. The result is a string of break-up songs that wouldn't be out-of-place on an emo album, as Kanye swings from triumph ("I'm not loving you the way I wanted too / Where I'm going I don't need you") to heartbreak ("lost his soul to a women so heartless").

Such vulnerability is unusual in the macho world of rap, where the perils of fame and heartbreak are often ignored. The genre’s roots in the lower class make it harder for rappers to complain about their success. And while Kanye’s raps on a bonus track don’t vary lyrically from the rest of the album; they come across as more petulant and self-absorbed.


Where he goes musically after 808’s is unclear, but the album ensures the spotlight won’t be leaving him anytime soon.

TI -- Paper Trail

Rating: 4/5 stars

Pros: T.I. and his producers are at the top of their game.

Cons: First three gangsta rap songs don't fit with rest of album.

Bottom Line: T.I. finds creative inspiration from stark legal trouble.

Recommended Tracks:

No Matter What

On Top of the World


Four hours before he was supposed to perform at the 2007 BET Hip-Hop Awards, T.I. was arrested trying to buy machine guns. A convicted felon caught violating multiple federal laws, his life was basically over. He went from sitting "On Top of the World" to possible being "in jail until 2027." His new album Paper Trail tells how he got there.

He established his artistic identity on his breakthrough 2003 album Trap Muzik. The fiery swagger he brought from his time as a drug-dealer fueled his anthemic singles, while his introspective lyrics dissected the downsides of that lifestyle.

His combination of star-power and lyrical ability made him an industry superstar. But as his fame grew he faced a dilemma of many successful gangsta rappers -- his best came music came from the contradictions of the gangster lifestyle, a lifestyle increasingly incompatible with the success his music brought. So he began staying "in trouble just to let these suckers know I was serious."

On one hand, he was rap royalty (see "Swagger Like Us" with features from Jay-Z, Kanye West and Lil' Wayne) starring in Hollywood movies. On the other, he was constantly violating probation, culminating in a 2006 shoot-out after a club performance that left his best friend dead.

He tried to square the circle with 2007's "TI vs. TIP". There were two sides to his personality: TI (the mature businessman) and TIP (the hot-headed gangster). Throughout the album, they had to accept that they needed each other. But as he found out, the resolution to his existential conflict ended up being quite a bit messier.

Recorded during house arrest, Paper Trail is a sober reflection of the consequences of his decisions. He defiantly defends his need for protection while recognizing "how much better life would have been if I had slowed down / Maybe I'd have been Kanye / instead of seeing gunplay."

The album's title refers to his return to writing down his lyrics, instead of just putting them together in his head. By his own admission, writing helped him "concentrate" and the improvement is dramatic -- every song has a clear concept and each line pushes it forward.

Another welcome return is DJ Toomp, his longtime producer whose absence was sorely felt on TI vs. TIP. Paper Trail is chock full of big-budget faux-epic synthesizer jams ("Whatever You Like", "Live Your Life") modeled after the Toomp-produced "What You Know".

Several times in the album, T.I. compares himself to Tupac -- another superstar rapper whose reckless lifestyle fueled his rise and contributed to his fall. Soon after he released Paper Trail, T.I. will go to jail for a year, a situation Tupac faced after Me Against The World. But after he got out, Tupac doubled-down on his behavior -- joining Death Row Records and recording two legendary albums that cemented his legend. If T.I. really is a "changed man" than Paper Trail may be his last great album.

John Legend -- Evolver

Rating: 2/5 stars

Pros: Legend begins to modify signature piano-based sound.

Cons: Andre 3000's guest appearance highlights Legend's charisma deficit.

Bottom Line: Legend fails to live up to his potential with mediocre album.

Recommended Tracks:

Green Light



If You're Out There



John Legend’s debut album Get Lifted seemed like the start of something big. It had an inventive new sound (a fusion of neo-soul, gospel and hip-hop) backed by both critical acclaim (three Grammy’s including Best New Artist) and commercial success (2 million records sold). Most importantly, it had “Ordinary People,” a star-making turn that featured only a piano and rightly became his signature song.

But in the years since Legend hasn’t quite lived up to his name. After his debut’s success, he branched out on his own, leaning less on mentor and producer Kanye West. His last album, 2006’s Once Again, came and went with little fanfare and even fewer memorable moments.

His new album Evolver is more of the same. It has all the trademarks of a John Legend album - the understated ballads, the earnestly soulful voice and, of course, the ever-present piano. There are a lot of impressive musical moments; yet somehow “Evolver” is less than the sum of its parts.

He tries to incorporate a more uptempo and less piano-reliant sound, most notably on first single “Green Light.” His smooth vocals give it a danceable melody, but as soon as Andre 3000 starts rapping, Legend’s vocals are pushed into the background. 3000 adds the star-power and charisma largely missing from Legend’s recent work: One thing you ain't consider / I heard you when you told your girl he could get it / Admit it, you did it."

Legend said Evolver is a collection of good songs without any over-arching lyrical theme. It’d be a shame if his career turns out the same way.

Ne-Yo -- Year of the Gentleman

Rating: 3/5 stars

Pros: Great song-writing: almost every song is vividly written with a clear melody.

Cons: Feels like a collection of cover songs -- very little of Ne-Yo is ever revealed.

Bottom Line: Very well-done and by-the-book modern R&B album.

Recommended Tracks:

Closer

Single


Ne-Yo's new album Year of the Gentleman opens with a burst of energy. An unnamed girl catches his eye on two up-tempo club songs, one of which is stand-out single "Closer."

Then on "Single" he reveals her identity -- she's every single woman listening to his music. He comforts them: "You don't got to be alone, I'll be your boyfriend / I'll be your boyfriend until the song goes out." Like any good romantic comedy, Year of the Gentleman is about feminine wish-fulfillment.

So over the next nine melodramatic and earnest ballads, Ne-Yo plays the part of the apologietc boyfriend. He's a stand in for every man whose wronged the listener, every man who made "her come by herself tonight, because he wouldn't pick up the phone."


He doesn't care that she's been cheating on him ("Lie to Me") or that she's marrying someone else ("Fade Into the Background"). He misses "her funny little laugh or the way you smile or the way we kissed."

So what has done to deserve this self-inflicted misery? The best answer he comes up with is not helping around the house on "Why Does She Stay". But that's not really the point. He's an idealized creature, and actually admitting to any real wrong would ruin the illusion.

He wrote hits for artists like Beyonce and Rihanna before he became a star himself. His strengths as a songwriter are no surprise -- each song is vividly written with a clear melody. But as a performer he never stretches himself vocally, sticking to the same gentle baritone throughout.

As a professional songwriter, he is so used to writing in the voice of another singer that even when he writes for himself, there is still a layer of artifice. "Year of the Gentleman" doesn't pretend otherwise. It's a good act, but after the song ends, we don't know if any of it is real.

Young Jeezy -- The Recession

Rating: 3/5 stars

Pros: Sounds exactly like his last two albums.

Cons: Sounds exactly like his last two albums.

Bottom Line: If Jeezy wants to become a great rapper, he'll eventually have to stop re-making Thug Motivation 101.

Recommended Tracks:

Put On

My President


The introduction of Young Jeezy’s new album “The Recession” features newscasters talking about gas prices and the economy. The album ends with a song about Barack Obama (“My President”) featuring Nas. Otherwise, it’s basically indistinguishable from his first two albums.

He still raps about crack dealing as self-actualization (“I can show you how to make a mil right now”). He sticks to the same dark, epic orchestrations of his previous hits (“Soul Survivor”). And he faithfully uses his trademark flow - raspy, slow and ad-lib heavy - throughout.

The rare track that varies at all from this formula, like the soul-sampling “Circulate,” stands out as a result. “The Recession” is an 18-track album that seems to contain less than half-a-dozen distinct songs.

But specialization has its benefits. He only makes one type of song, but he makes that song very well, and the customer can count on that same level of quality every time. So if you like the ubiquitous lead single “Put On” you’ll like “The Recession.”

The chorus to his Obama song sums up his philosophy pretty well: “My president is black, my Lambo is blue / And I’ll be (expletive) if my rims ain’t too / My money’s light green, and my Jordan’s light grey/ And they love to see white, now how much you trying to pay.”

He sees the prospect of a black president as inspirational, not to change society, but to make more money. It’s the album’s underlying theme: Times may be bad, but the bills still have to be paid. He may not know Obama’s message very well, but he sure knows America’s.

The Game -- L.A.X.

Rating: 3/5 stars

Pros: Game's commanding mic presence along with A-list producers and guests make L.A.X. feel like a big album.

Cons: He still struggles to rap about things outside of his favorite rappers.

Bottom Line: Game hasn't yet found niche in rap outside of his relationships with 50 and Dre.

Recommended Tracks:

My Life

Game's Pain


The Game’s debut “The Documentary” could have been a 50 Cent album. 50 was its biggest star - the co-executive producer featured on the first three singles. Game name-dropped G Unit incessantly, while bragging about a past (Compton gang-banger, five bullet holes) suspiciously 50-like.

His second album “Doctor’s Advocate” revolved around Dr. Dre, who had chosen 50 over him after a feud between the two Dre proteges. It was a conflicted album, both defiant (full of Dre-sounding beats that screamed “I don’t need you”) and plaintive (with lyrics that begged for forgiveness).

So who exactly is he without 50 and Dre? That’s the question he faces on his third album “L.A.X.”

Even without his mentors, the record doesn’t lack in star-power. The endless guest-list (Nas, Lil’ Wayne, Ne-Yo, Ludacris, Ice Cube and Common, just to name a few) leaves room for only three solo tracks. An equally impressive group of producers keep the G-Unit meets West Coast sound of his first two albums.

Game isn’t overshadowed, thanks to his commanding and self-assured baritone straight out of gangsta rap central casting. But for someone from Compton, the birthplace of gangsta rap, his ghetto tales are so unimaginative they could be a parody: “Come to my hood / Look at my block / That’s my project building / Yea, that’s where I got shot.”

He’s interested not in gangsta rap but gangsta rappers; he’s more fan than rapper. He incorporates other musicians into every subject imaginable - from civil rights to sex. They’re signposts in both time (“Everybody’s first bootleg was Boyz ‘n the Hood”) and place (“I’m from a block close to where Biggie was crucified”).

On “Never Can Say Goodbye”, the album’s most ambitious track, he raps as Biggie, Tupac and Eazy-E on the eve of their deaths. It’s expert mimicry, but if he wants to join the ranks of his idols, he’ll have to find a voice of his own.

Nas -- Untitled

Rating: 4/5 stars

Pros: His most-consistent and best-produced album since Stillmatic.

Cons: Political talk occasionally veers into pseudo-intellectual and ill-informed ramblings.

Bottom Line: Album lives up to its controversial title.

Recommended Tracks:

Hero

NI**ER (Slave and the Master)


With “Hip Hop is Dead,” Nas cynically used a controversial title to sell an inconsistent album. So when he named his new album the “N” word, many were skeptical. He was eventually forced to leave it untitled, but the challenge of living up to such a bold title clearly motivated Nas. “Untitled” is one of the best and most cohesive concept albums in years.

A meditation on his life as a successful black man in 21rst century America, it traces the history of racism to the psychic burdens of today’s ghettos. It’s better than the sum of its parts - almost every song pushes the album forward, musically and lyrically.

As much poet as musician, Nas never lets the beats overshadow his lyrics. But since mainstream rap is made primarily for cars and clubs, he has often struggled to find producers who can make brilliant and understated beats.

His debut Illmatic managed this balancing act perfectly; it’s arguably the greatest rap album of all-time. While nothing could live up to that standard, “Untitled” is his best work since Stillmatic. It’s no coincidence the album’s best moments feature two of rap’s best up-and-coming producers - Polow da Don ("Hero") and DJ Toomp ("Slave and the Master").

In the cutthroat and fickle world of rap, where careers age in dog years, Nas’ 14-year and nine-album career is astonishing. In that time, he has simultaneously become a legendary figure while also squandering much of the goodwill he generated with Illmatic.

And after a lifetime’s worth of accomplishments and setbacks, Untitled has a valedictory feeling: “Nas the only true rebel since the beginning / Still in musical prison, in jail for the flow / Try telling Bob Dylan, Bruce or Billy Joel / They can’t sing what’s in their soul!”

It’s a tribute to the album that these comparisons don’t seem too ridiculous.

David Banner -- Greatest Story Ever Told

Rating: 2/5 stars

Pros: Banner establishes himself as a more militant Kanye West.

Cons: Attempts to recreate previous hits ruin album's flow.

Bottom Line: Album won't give Banner the commercial success he so craves.

Recommended Tracks:

Faith

B.A.N.


Since releasing “Like A Pimp” in 2003, David Banner has been on the cusp of stardom. He became a big-time producer, with hits for T.I., Lil Wayne and Nelly under his belt. As a rapper, he’s a militant Kanye West - balancing crass pop songs like “Play” with pointed social commentary.

He raps with a country snarl, pouring so much emotion into each word that he’s almost yelling. His new album Greatest Story Ever Told matches this Hulk-like persona - it’s loud and visceral music, complete with booming, bass-heavy beats.

And where Kanye uses light-hearted humor to explain his contradictory music, Banner uses anger to tie together wildly different subject matter. He directs it at an indifferent government and the self-loathing ghettos: “We so quick to kill each other in the hood where we from / But we hide the AK’s when the Fed’s come.” Eventually it spirals into anger at nothing in particular: "I'm filthy rich and going to continue to ball / I'm going to punch you in your throat, and make you piss all in your drawers."

But in today’s climate, record labels won’t release an album without a song for the radio. Greatest Story Ever Told was slated for release last year, but without a big-lead single, the label kept pushing it back. And the harder Banner tried to re-capture his previous magic, the more he lost his way.

He shamelessly jumped on the hottest trends. The first single “9MM” features Lil’ Wayne, Snoop Dogg and Akon. The second single, “Get Like Me” has a chorus from Yung Joc’s “It’s Goin Down” and a rap verse from Chris Brown.

Then there are the blatant rip-offs of original songs - “Shawty Say” (“Lollipop” Part II) and “A Girl” (“Play” Part II). Eventually, he quits the pretense and just names a song “Cadillac on 22’s Part II”.

Greatest Story Ever Told proves that even someone as talented as Banner can’t take short-cuts to success.

G Unit -- Terminate on Sight

Rating: 1/5 stars

Pros: 50 & co. haven't lost confidence and swagger of their underground days.

Cons: Decision to only use cheap producers backfires spectacularly.

Bottom Line: Every one associated with album -- 50, Banks, Yayo, producers -- disappoints.

Recommended Tracks:

Rider Part 2


An underground smash in 1999, “How to Rob” introduced the world to 50 Cent. It humorously described robbing rap’s biggest stars, mocking the disconnect between their lyrics and their lifestyle: “You better recognize, I’m straight from the street / these industry cats starting to look like something to eat / What Jigga just sold, like 4 mil? He got something to live for / don’t want no one putting four through that Bentley door.”

Authenticity became 50’s main calling card. You could trust what he said; he had nine bullet holes to prove it. His debut Get Rich or Die Tryin perfected this formula, mixing glitzy beats and catchy hooks with super-aggressive, violent lyrics.

G-Unit, his rap crew, soon followed - Lloyd Banks, the lyricist/ladies-man, Young Buck, the raw Southerner, and Tony Yayo, the hype-man. Their debut Beg for Mercy went multi-platinum, and it seemed 50 could do no wrong.

But success was a double-edged sword. He left behind his musical roots, while his music never changed. The end-result was 2007’s Curtis, a stale reprise of his debut and his first commercial failure. G-Unit’s new album Terminate on Sight sticks to the same out-of-date blueprint.

He learned the wrong lesson from “I Get Money,” the only honest moment on Curtis. Since it was produced by a relative nobody, he figured T.O.S. wouldn’t need any big-name producers or collaborators either. Eminem and Dre are nowhere to be found, and their presence is sorely missed. The album has almost no memorable beats or melodies.

50 has always used beef for publicity — from “How to Rob” to last-year’s “showdown” with Kanye. This time around, he excommunicated Young Buck, easily the group’s second most accomplished rapper, for disloyalty. But not only are Buck’s four verses some of the album’s best, the whole situation is eerily similar to Game’s banishment in 2005.

That’s the album’s fundamental problem — we’ve heard it all before. 50 is a gangster with a heart of gold. Lloyd Banks, dubbed the Punch line King, is reduced to a dispenser of bland similes: “Drink like an uncle, smoke like a Rasta / ball like a superstar, tough like a boxer.” And the less said about Tony Yayo’s rapping the better.

In reality, 50 can’t be a gangster anymore - he’s worth nine figures. Somewhere a hungry rapper is thinking he might be something to eat.

50 Cent -- How to Rob

Lil' Wayne -- Carter III

Rating: 3/5 stars

Pros: Rap's biggest producers give Wayne "monumental" beats for his moment in the sun.

Cons: Seemingly inexhaustible lyricists running out of steam after more than a year of leaks and features.

Bottom Line: Wayne's best work remains scattered over mixtape scene.

Recommended Tracks:

Mr. Carter

Tie My Hands


On “Phone Home,” between calling himself a Martian and comparing himself to E.T., Lil’ Wayne declares “they don’t make ‘em like me no more / matter fact, they never made it like me before.” He’s right.

While many rappers freestyle their lyrics and even more abuse drugs, few take it to the extremes Wayne does. Throughout most of Tha Carter III he is rapping without a safety net — even he’s not sure what he’ll say next. He laughs at his own jokes, as if he’s just realizing what he said; occasionally, he loses his train of thought and starts rapping about something else.

On songs like “Got Money,” an auto-tune duet with T-Pain destined to be a club smash, his random boasting fits perfectly. Other times, the result is a mess — on “Let the Beat Build” he wastes a great beat with absolutely nonsensical rhymes. Many critics have praised his unique style as post-modern “free association” rapping. Less charitably, he’s babbling drug-induced nonsense.

But his recent work on the mix-tape scene blurred the line between these two distinctions — mixing his lyrical insanity with strong and powerful songwriting. It was these songs, along with his numerous feature appearances, that made the buzz for Tha Carter III so deafening. It’s been XXL’s most anticipated album since January 2007, and in the meanwhile, several of his mix tapes made it onto critical top 10 lists.

He’s had hundreds of songs released in the past few years, and the addition of any number of them would have greatly improved Tha Carter III. Instead, by the end of the album, a rapper with a seemingly endless amount of lyrical creativity has a song about sleeping with a female police officer who pulls him over (“Mrs. Officer”).

The production, mostly from A-list producers David Banner, Just Blaze, Swizz Beatz and Kanye West, carries the album. On the suitably epic “Mr. Carter,” Jay-Z drops by for a passing of the torch, telling Wayne “that I took so much money from the rap game, now it’s your go.”

But even in the digital age, albums are still an artist’s ultimate proving ground. For Wayne to claim the throne, he’ll have to leave the mix-tape game behind and do like Kanye: keep all his best stuff for himself.

Usher -- Here I Stand

Rating: 3/5 stars

Pros: Married with a newborn, Usher is all grown up.

Cons: To0 many songs that sound like American-Idol standards.

Bottom Line: Forgettable album aims for the bedroom, ends up with elevator music.

Recommended Tracks:

Love in This Club

Moving Mountains


It's hard to believe Usher's Confessions was released only four years ago. No album since has matched its chart dominance — four No. 1 hits ("Yeah," "Burn," "Confessions II" and "My Boo") that spent more than half of 2004 atop Billboard. At the time, its commercial success (9 million records sold) was merely remarkable; in today's climate, it's unfathomable.

With the emergence of the digital download and the fracturing of the pop culture scene, the days of the mega album may be gone forever. Since 2004, album sales have plummeted. 2007's top-seller (Josh Groban's Noel) barely sold 3 million copies. Over the past year, artists used to going platinum their opening weekend (Mariah Carey, 50 Cent) have found themselves struggling to reach that mark at all. Many of the industry's top stars, such as Eminem and Shania Twain, have simply stopped releasing new music.

So how do you top an album the rest of the industry couldn't? The question looms over Usher's latest Here I Stand. Every pop artist dreams of musical success, but few chased fame as single-mindedly as Usher. Since signing a record deal as a teenager in the early '90s, he methodically worked himself toward stardom. The musical experimentation of his contemporaries (Justin Timberlake, Andre 3000) never interested him; Usher always stayed safely within the confines of modern R&B.

The ideal R&B singer would look very much like Usher — more seasoned then younger singers such as Chris Brown, more versatile than current hit makers like Akon and T-Pain, all the while maintaining an image acceptable to both corporate America and the club scene. You'd have to go all the way back to the original King of Pop to find a comparable artist, no surprise considering how heavily Usher borrows from the Thriller-era Michael Jackson.

And while he's had his brushes with the tabloids, Usher's been careful to avoid the seedier aspects of modern stardom. Here I Stand emphasizes this wholesomeness; he's now a newly married father. Where Confessions revolved around him cheating on the woman he loves, Here I Stand is full of earnestly delivered lines about love and commitment: "I was a hustler and a player girl before I met you / But how you made a difference, look what I've been missing / You got my life together, and I thank you forever."

The difference is that great art is inspired more by pain than joy. Usher's imperfections on Confessions made him more relatable and gave songs like "Burn" an edge. Aside from the standout Young Jeezy-assisted lead single ("Love in This Club") and an R. Kelly-like plunge into lyrical absurdity ("Trading Places"), "Here I Stand" is full of generic R&B standards. They're well sung, but they're songs a choir-boy type like "American Idol's" David Archuleta would be comfortable with. It's music for the elevator, not the bedroom.

For most of his career, Usher has been fortunate to be matched with equally talented producers (Diddy, Jermaine Dupri and LA Reid). This time he's not similarly challenged as the few big-name collaborations that do appear (Will.i.am, Jay-Z, Beyonce and Lil' Wayne) seem more for name value than musical chemistry.

Usher never has been afraid to follow a trend (Lil' Jon's "Yeah"), and it might be no coincidence that Here I Stand feels so much like "American Idol," a show that appeals to the blandest elements of pop culture and is one of Hollywood's last reliable blockbusters. The crowd who danced to "Yeah" and sang along to "Burn"? They don't buy CDs anymore.

Bun B -- II Trill

Rating: 3/5 stars

Pros: Bun brings out the best in many of his A-list guests.

Cons: Pimp C's mic presence is sorely missed.

Bottom Line: UGK was more than the sum of its parts; Bun's career may have died in that Hollywood hotel room too.

Recommended Tracks:

Damn, I'm Cold

Swang on 'Em


Childhood friends from Port Arthur, Bun B and Pimp C formed the rap duo UGK in 1987. While they never achieved the commercial success of contemporaries like Outkast, they were just as influential.

Over the ensuing two decades, they were joined at the hip. When Pimp C was incarcerated in 2002, Bun B did innumerable feature yelling "Free Pimp C" to keep his memory alive. He released one solo album (2005's Trill) while Pimp was in jail, but otherwise steadfastly refused to rap without his partner.

Tragically, Pimp died of a mix of sleep apnea and a drug overdose in Hollywood hotel last year. And for the first time, Bun is releasing a new album (II Trill) without his life-long partner to lean on. It's Mick Jagger releasing a record without Keith Richards.

II Trill leans heavily on the UGK template that birthed a generation of Houston rappers -- songs about cars, girls and gangstas over laid-back bass-heavy beats. But Bun was always the more thoughtful and lyrical of the duo, and pointed social commentary emerges throughout.

He's become on of rap's elder statesman, the sheer length of his career giving him an air of wisdom and gravitas: "On these cold and black streets hunting / And a young black man can lose his life over nothing / If I got to go, please let it be for something real / cuz this bullshit hood shit is getting people killed."

What's missing is the energy and charisma Pimp brought to UGK; Bun's monotone delivery wears over 16 tracks. To compensate, the album is flooded with guest appearances from seemingly every Southern rapper. It's no coincidence that Bun sounds best when trading bars with energetic rappers like Lil' Wanye ("Damn I'm Cold") and Young Buck ("If I Die II Night").

But there's never a doubt about who his real partner will always be, as Bun delivers a sad refrain that rap fans have become all too familiar with: "I guess I just assumed we had more time / for us to make more music and write more rhymes."

Live Show -- DAM at Scoot Inn

Thirty years after hip-hop began in the streets of New York, it has become the soundtrack for youthful discontent worldwide. As one of the members of DAM, a rap group from the Palestinian city of Lod, declared: “We wrote these songs for the ghettos all over the world: the ghettos in Asia, in Europe, in Palestine and the U.S.”

DAM, one of the biggest names in Arabic rap, made their first appearance in Texas at Scoot Inn on Thursday. Fresh off an intercontinental flight, they gave a brief but energetic performance to an enthusiastic crowd of around 100.

DAM is made up of three Palestinian rappers — Tamer Nafer, his younger brother Suhell and their childhood friend Mahmoud Jreri. Their music is a multicultural mix — Arabic lyrics with rapid-fire American-inspired flows over sample-heavy Middle-Eastern sounding beats. Think Jay-Z’s “Big Pimpin” in Arabic. Since being founded in 1999, they’ve been on the forefront of a growing Palestinian rap scene.

The crowd was a mix of Arabic speakers familiar with the group and merely curious non-Arabic speakers. And despite rapping in Arabic, DAM did a good job of involving the English-speaking section. Tamer talked to the audience in English between songs as well as free-styling over more familiar beats like Busta Rhymes “Touch It.” Hip-hop became a bridge between different cultures, and by the end of the show, the whole crowd was chanting for them to do an encore.

They saved their biggest and most controversial song for the finale: “Min Irhabi” (Who’s The Terrorist). It’s music with a message - DAM’s hope is that sympathy for the Palestinian cause will follow appreciation for their music. Social criticism has always inspired great music, and when DAM talked about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the anger was palpable.

DAM -- Min Irhabi

Gnarls Barkley -- The Odd Couple

Rating: 2/5 stars

Pros: Cee-lo's emotion-rich and genre-bending voice.

Cons: Sounds like the b-side of their great debut St. Elsewhere.

Bottom Line: Might be time for two music industry vagabonds to disband this odd couple.

Recommended Tracks:

Who's Gonna Save My Soul

Blind Mary


The odd couple, from "Grumpy Old Men" to "Lethal Weapon," is as old as show business. Two mismatched characters are forced together, personalities clash and wackiness ensues. Before "Rush Hour," Jackie Chan had been a Hong Kong martial-arts legend for 20 years without crossing over, while Chris Tucker was known more as a comedian than an actor. But together, the wise-cracking, fast-talking black guy and no-nonsense Asian martial arts expert grossed more than $100 million.

Gnarls Barkley had similarly humble beginnings. The core of their debut album St. Elsewhere was recorded when Southern rap veteran Cee-Lo met underground Gorillaz producer Danger Mouse on tour. Both men had long existed on the mainstream fringe, and they poured their frustrations into their new side project.

From the odd name to the wacky costumes, the group was supposed to be a lark. That was, until "Crazy" happened. Cee-Lo's plaintive wailing blended perfectly with the darkly hypnotic neo-soul/R&B beat, and "Crazy" became one 2006's biggest songs.

St. Elsewhere sounded like nothing else on the charts, and both artists earned some long-deserved commercial success. Of course, a sequel was inevitable. But The Odd Couple is more "Rush Hour II" than "Empire Strikes Back."

Everything about the original is back, from Cee-Lo's dark lyrics ("I know I'm out of control now / Tired enough to lay my own soul down") to the fast-paced "Crazy" remake ("Run"). While his soulful anguish felt genuine the first time around, it just seems forced now. The Odd Couple plays like a b-side of St. Elsewhere — a collection of tracks that couldn't make the cut the first time. Creatively, it's an album that didn't need to be made.

Both men are immensely talented solo artists, but if they're not careful, they're going to be marginalized as parts of a one-trick pony. Chris Tucker made $20 million for each "Rush Hour" movie, but they're all he's done in the last decade.

Fat Joe -- Elephant in the Room

Rating: 4/5 stars

Pros: He continues surprising late-career improvement.

Cons: He has been making the same album for over a decade.

Bottom Line: Possibly Fat Joe's best album.

Recommended Tracks:

300

That White


During the mid-'90s, New York produced a legion of rappers who had come of age during the crack cocaine epidemic. In that context, Fat Joe's forgettable 1993 debut Represent hardly foretold greatness. There was already one fat Puerto Rican rapper from the Bronx, Big Pun, a gifted lyricists with all-time great talent.

Joe achieved some success with 1998's Don Cartagena, but Pun's death soon afterward cast a shadow over his career, while the violent shootings of Biggie and Tupac chastened the rap community. The market for crack rap quickly dried up. As rap shifted South and returned to its party roots, Joe, a consummate survivor, leveraged his industry connections to stay relevant, a relic of a bygone era.

The Murder Inc-assisted "What's Luv" made him a mainstream star in 2001. Three years later "Lean Back", a No. 1 record with stunningly low album sales, ushered in the era of the ringtone rapper. Recently he has survived independent label banishment and a running WWE-style feud with 50 Cent to appear on hit after hit — from "Make It Rain" to "We Takin Over."

Elephant in The Room stays strictly within his wheelhouse: a refreshingly concise mix of 12 tracks of unrepentant gangsta lyrics over hard-hitting commercial beats. His brand of lyrics hasn't changed much: "I done did some things that made some killers drop they jaws / I done been on boats in Colombia shipping raw (cocaine)."

What keeps them fresh is his steadily improving flow, sharper and more on-beat than ever before. As a result, he has rightly started calling himself one of the most improved rappers ever.

The production is pitch-perfect for his style — featuring both rejuvenated old-school producers like Gangstarr's DJ Premier ("That White") and Puff Daddy's Hitmen ("I Won't Tell") and a roster of modern-day hit makers (Cool & Dre, Scott Storch).

Throughout his career, Joe has made the same album over and over again, each time improving from the same formula. Elephant in the Room sounds like the best album of 1998. Will anyone still care ten years later?

Rick Ross -- Trilla

Rating: 3/5 stars

Pros: Big budget album sounds like a million bucks.

Cons: Ross is frequently out-shined by his big-name guests.

Bottom Line: Ross' one-dimensional ode to Suge Knight wears over a whole album.

Recommended Tracks:

Maybach Music

Luxury Tax


Rick Ross certainly isn't afraid of thinking big. From his music to his persona, everything about him is over the top. Even his stage name is a tribute to Freeway Ricky Ross, one of crack cocaine's pioneers. And if you listen to his lyrics, the comparison seems appropriate. He hasn't just sold drugs; he "made a couple million dollars last year dealing weight."

While such outsized boasts aren't unusual in rap, what makes Ross unique is the utter sincerity with which he delivers them: "It ain't nothing to do 100 in the Maybach, throwing money out the roof." He's "The Boss," an almost direct copy of Death Row founder Suge Knight — a cigar-chomping and sunglass-wearing former college football lineman, complete with a gravelly, bass-heavy delivery and a tattooed, menacing frame.

Aside from the obligatory uplifting closing track "I'm Only Human," there's little else on Trilla that makes "The Boss" seem human and not cartoonish.

"Trilla" fits this persona. On first listen, everything about the album seems big. Every box on a mainstream hip-hop album is checked – there's the remake of Ross' first hit "Hustlin" ("Speedin") complete with the R. Kelly chorus, the T-Pain song ("The Boss"), "Luxury Tax," the posse cut with all his A-list friends (Jeezy, Wayne, Trick Daddy) and the Nelly club song for the ladies ("Here I Am"). Jay-Z even drops in on "Maybach Music," an apt description of the album — something meant to be played at full volume in the cars and clubs.

But underneath all the theatrics, it becomes clear why the album follows the same formula as his debut, Port of Miami. While other rappers use charisma and talent to get away with one-dimensional lyrics, Ross is neither a particularly clever nor able word-smith. His inability to master even elementary breath control forces him to use the same flow the entire album, stopping for breath at the end of nearly every line.

Like any blockbuster, big-budget release, "Trilla" packs enough visceral thrills to be enjoyable. But is it anything that will stick with you past the opening weekend? Probably not.

Snoop Dogg -- Ego Trippin

Rating: 4/5 stars

Pros: Snoop and production team dabble successfully in wide range of genres.

Cons: Bloated tracklist could be shortened significantly.

Bottom Line: Snoop displays star-power and charisma that made him a star.

Recommended Tracks:

Sensual Seduction

Can't Say Goodbye

In the opening scene of the "Sensual Seduction" video, Snoop wails on talk box under flashing disco lights while shimmying in flamboyant 70's-era outfit. It's a classic Snoop moment -- ridiculous yet still captivating. He called it a mix of Prince, Roger Troutman, Rick James and Michael Jackson. Add some rapping and you have a good description of his new album Ego Trippin.

And while his trademark laid-back rapping is still sharp, Snoop is more entertainer than rapper these days. Freely admitting to no longer writing his own lyrics, he's a rapper whose transcended rap. Ego Trippin is a fearless album that finds Snoop signing over a remake of the 80's hit "Cool" and dedicating "My Medicine", a country song about a dope fiend, to his "main man Johnny Cash".

He has reason to celebrate, as he explains on the darkly nostalgic "Never Have to Worry": "15 years in the game and I'm still relevant, it's a blessing." There's been enough drama for 5 careers -- from debuting on Death Row, the 'most dangerous label in rap' through a widely publicized murder trial, a stint with Master P and a long-running feud with Suge Knight.

His care-free attitude extends to the genre-bending production, masterminded by 80's maestro Teddy Riley. It blurs the line between rap, soul, g-funk and 80's pop, while still leaving room for gems like the Irish-melody "Why Did You Leave Me" and the gospel-tinged "Can't Say Goodbye".

At over 80 minutes long with 20 skit-free songs, Ego Trippin could have tightened significantly. It's a credit to Snoop's mic presence and the album's cohesiveness that you don't really mind.

Scarface -- MADE

Rating: 3/5 stars

Pros: Wide-ranging and engaging look at the unglamorous life of Houston's greatest rapper.

Cons: An album more at home in 1997 than 2007.

Bottom Line: Scarface eschews modern rap and puts out "oldies" album.

Recommended Tracks:

Never

Who Do You Believe In

Rap has always been a young man’s game. While the Rolling Stones can still make a fortune touring, hip-hop pioneers like Rakim and KRS-One have long since faded into obscurity. But the teenagers who grew up listening to rap in the early 90’s are almost forty years old now – old enough to be Soulja Boy’s parents.

Scarface brought rap to the South with the Geto Boys 1991 album We Can’t Be Stopped. Nearly two decades later, the Houston legend speaks for many of his fans when he talks about the current rap scene: “If I leave, they won’t respect the South, because n***** soft / Talking bout what’s in they mouth; talking about what’s in they cars and house / And that ain’t what we all about.”

Where his 2002 classic The Fix had appearances from Jay-Z and Kanye West, “M.A.D.E.” is stubbornly old-fashioned – an ‘oldies’ rap album. And with only 10 songs and no mainstream collaborations, there aren’t any attempts at radio play.

It sticks faithfully to his trademark style – dark, uncompromising subject matter over simple-soul tinged beats. It’s an album that could have been released a decade ago.

This doesn’t mean he hasn’t changed artistically, if anything, the ensuing years have made him even more jaded and cynical. M.A.D.E. is certainly not an uplifting testament to the human condition.

The best verse of the year may be on Who Do You Believe In when he focuses on the ghetto “that changed for the worse.” Suicide Note tells a haunting story about a friend’s death and Go doubts his ability to stay faithful. His wry, monotone delivery fits well with album’s world-weary tone; you’ve never heard talk of lesbians and threesomes delivered so dispassionately.

Many rappers of Scarface’s generation have become parodies trying to remain relevant (LL Cool J, Snoop Dogg), while others have tried to chase different entertainment careers (Andre 3000, Ice Cube) or become executives (Dr. Dre, Jay-Z). In returning to his past, M.A.D.E. offers a new blueprint for these aging rappers. It’s a formula that will please his fans, and could see Scarface, like the Rolling Stones, sticking around for a long time.

Cassidy -- BARS: The Barry Adrien Reese Story

Rating: 2/5 stars

Pros: Swizz Beatz and Cassidy remain a great musical tandem.

Cons: Newfound maturity is undercut by gangster posturing on lyrically inconsistent album.

Bottom Line: To live up to his potential, Cassidy needs to finally decide on what type of music he wants to put out.

Recommended Tracks:

My Drink & My Two-Step

Innocent

It’s been two long years since “I’m a Hustler” for Cassidy. Shortly before his 2005 album was released there was a shootout behind his house that left an associate dead. Initially charged with first-degree murder, he served 8 months for involuntary manslaughter. Soon after coming out of jail, a car crash left him in a coma with a fractured skull and a coma.

Rappers have long made artistic hay out of personal tragedy, so it’s no surprise that “B.A.R.S.: The Barry Adrian Reese Story” focuses so heavily on his troubled personal life. “Innocent”, the album’s standout track, gives his side of his legal troubles over a smooth R&B chorus and soulful piano chords. Calling himself a changed man, he credits his faith for his survival on “Leaning on the Lord” and “All by Myself.”

But while leaving the streets behind makes sense for Barry Reese, Cassidy the rapper hasn’t been able to make the same commitment. After all, his biggest hit (“I’m a Hustler”) revolved around drug dealing and bravado. The end result is a silly dichotomy – apologizing for the death of a friend after he cackles that he “beat a murder.”

On “I Miss the Game” he notes that too many rappers follow the same blueprint: “Now every rapper on some ‘bust that gat’ (expletive) / Cut that crack (expletive) / Forget that whack (expletive)”. Yet earlier on the album, he boasts that he “really sold pies” and “can talk that gun stuff / cuz I’ve done that gun stuff.”

Producer Swizz Beatz, the Dr. Dre to his Eminem, has been both good and bad for Cassidy. Club smashes like “My Drink & My 2 Step”, which almost any rapper could have made a hit, come with a burden of commercial expectations. So the punch-line rapper who earned his fame on the brutal Northeast mix tape circuit launched his career with the cheesy R. Kelly ballad “Hotel.”

Three albums into his career, Cassidy probably won’t become the star Swizz wants him to be, but there may be a place in rap for Barry Reese.

Jay-Z -- American Gangster "Soundtrack"

Rating: 4/5 stars

Pros: Movie tie-in gives Jay-Z excuse to rap about drug dealing again.

Cons: Lyrical versatility he tried for on Kingdome Come is out the window.

Bottom Line:
Proves Jay-Z hasn't lost his fastball after widely-panned comeback.

Recommended Tracks:

Ignorant Sh*t

Success

Boil down nine albums’ worth of lyrics and Jay-Z’s career can be summarized in one line: “I sold kilos of coke, so I’m guessing I can sell CDs.” The Armani suits and corporate image gloss over the fact that today’s more violent “hustler/rappers” (50 Cent, Jeezy) merely take his blueprint to its logical conclusion.

He attempted to distance himself from that persona on last year’s comeback album Kingdom Come, only to be met with critical derision and lackluster sales.

So American Gangster is an almost spiteful return to his roots: “Y’all got me really confused out there. I make Big Pimpin … you hail me as the greatest writer of the 21st century. I make some thought-provoking (stuff), you say I fallen off. I’m going to really confuse y’all on this one.”

The more commercial stylings of Kingdom Come are absent. Instead it’s the type of old-school East Coast rap album rarely seen anymore — soul samples on top of hard-hitting bass and dramatic instrumentation. Diddy even brings back the Hitmen (the production team for many of Bad Boy’s early hits) for five songs.

While lines of movie dialogue are occasionally interspersed, American Gangster is really a Jay-Z album with some Frank Lucas packaging. He uses the concept to embrace his inner “bad guy” and vividly detail the rise and fall of a hustler: from the bottom (American Dreamin) to the top (Party Life) and back again (Fallin).

Yet even as he mesmerizes with stories from a life he left a lifetime ago, he can’t resist noting the absurdity of it all: “Don’t fear no rappers / They’re all weirdos, DeNiros and actors / So don’t believe everything your earlobe captures / None of what you hear, even if it’s spat by me / and with that said, I will kill (expletive) dead.” It’s his true genius: in a game where authenticity is everything, he’s made a career out of acting.

Fatlip & Tre Live Show

Long removed from their heyday as members of the West-Coast alt-rap group Pharcyde, Fatlip and Tre performed in front of a small crowd of fewer than 50 inside Emo’s on Thursday. The two have been scratching out solo careers ever since Pharcyde, an underground group that achieved crossover success in the mid-’90’s with hits such as “Runnin” and “Passin Me By,” disintegrated.

As the small turnout suggests, neither has been able to top Pharcyde’s success. And while they were clearly nonplussed by the initially drowsy audience, they still managed to put on an excellent show. It was old-school hip-hop at its finest: two emcees and a DJ moving the crowd with just a turntable and some microphones.

They opened with a medley of Pharcyde classics, but the biggest reaction came when they started playing their more recent work, in particular songs from Fatlip’s 2005 solo album “The Loneliest Punk.” The duo shared the stage well, alternating verses as the crowd sung along to underground hits such as “What’s up Fatlip” and “Today’s Your Day.”

And even though Fatlip had the more popular songs, it was Tre, aka Slimkid3, who stole the show. Wearing a wide-brimmed hat low on his head and a faded Polo shirt, his infectious energy made him seem like the bigger star. Alternately hectoring and praising the crowd, he won them over by bringing various girls on stage to dance and rap his verses: “I know that Fatlip carries a pack to cure the nicotine itch / because the only itch I have is for the indoe or ‘cess.”

The show ended with Tre passionately pleading with the audience not bootleg their music, a particularly widespread problem in underground rap, whose computer savvy fan-base has been on the file-sharing forefront. He told them if they don’t support their favorite artists, one day they’re going to wake up and wonder where those artists went.

After all, no matter how well Tre and Fatlip perform, if no one’s there to see it, his prophecy might come true.

Pharcyde -- Runnin

Fatlip -- What's Up Fatlip

Will.i.am -- Songs About Girls

Rating: 4/5 stars

Pros: Well-produced merging of rap, techno, R&B and house music.

Cons: Lyrical content what you'd expect from Black Eyed Peas front-man.

Bottom Line:
Great party CD full of lyrics meant to be sung along with, not thought about.

Recommended Tracks:

Heartbreaker

Invisible

Over the last few years, will.i.am has aimed for a difficult balance — maintaining artistic credibility while churning out some of the crassest, lowest-common-denominator hits in pop music.

The front man and producer of the Black Eyed Peas, he’s responsible for My Humps, Fergalicious and Let's Get Retarded. Yet he has also produced critically-praised songs for Nas, the Game and Sergio Mendes. This creative flexibility is on full display on his solo album Songs About Girls.

The inane-sounding title belies a surprisingly coherent concept album. It follows the painful dissolution of a long-term relationship — from denial (She's A Star) to pleading (One More Chance) to anger (Fantastic) and finally acceptance. There is some BEP-esque absurdity, with one song comparing a girl's butt to a Donque.

Free from the compromise inherent in the group dynamic, Songs About Girls is the unleashing of his creative id. He merges hip-hop, house, techno and R&B for a distinct sound that feels both futuristic and nostalgic. Conventional song structure is abandoned — raps merge abruptly into melodies, choruses flow on endlessly and beats meander for minutes on end.

But his decision to forgo lyrical structure was probably unavoidable. While he remains nominally a rapper, without the rest of the Peas, his lyrical ability is often so deficient it's distracting. Lead single I Got It From My Mama features gems like "If the girl real pretty, nine times out of 10, she pretty like her mama / And if her mama real ugly, I guarantee ya she goin be ugly like her mama."

At his best he makes irresistibly catchy music like Heartbreaker, the album's high point. There’s no denying his talent; any producer who can make Fergie a superstar is not someone to be taken lightly.

Chamillionaire -- Ultimate Victory

Rating: 4/5 stars

Pros: Good balance of social commentary and gangsta rap.

Cons: No obvious single means album will probably be overlooked.

Bottom Line:
Chamillionaire establishes himself as the best of Houston's new generation of rappers.

Recommended Tracks:

Morning News

Ultimate Victory

Combining a plain beat with lyrics about racial profiling, Ridin was an unlikely No. 1 single. Instead of following a radio formula, it was a song so good, radio had to play it. Chamillionaire became an uncommon rap star — famous not for a big name association or a memorable gimmick but his music.

His follow-up Ultimate Victory is unwilling to chase success. "Tell the world that I'm more than just a grill/If that's all you hearing, then let me just be for real/Take your contract, to hell with a record deal." Eschewing big-name producers and forced collaborations, Chamillionaire sticks with the classic Houston sound: heavy bass lines, dramatic instrumentation and slowed-down beats.

As a result, its the rare mainstream rap album that flows easily from start to finish. It doesn't hurt that he's an incredibly gifted rapper, with a smooth flow that effortlessly harmonizes within the beat. Where rappers often sound silly merging singing and rapping (Ja Rule), his vocal range makes it seem natural on Standing Ovation.

Most impressively, he has the lyrical versatility to rap about hoes (Industry Groupie) and haters (Welcome to the South) while also offering biting social commentary: "Every time I talk about Katrina, they look at me like it's a misdemeanor/Anyways, there's way more important stuff that we can discuss/'N Sync, Makin da Band and Milli Vanilli have broken up." He's so lyrically talented you'll never notice that he doesn't curse once on the entire album.

And though Ultimate Victory might not have another Ridin, it's the type of album that builds a long-term fan base. Blindly following the hottest trends won’t reverse rap’s sales decline. After all, while Still Tippin made his Houston contemporaries (Mike Jones, Paul Wall and Slim Thug) stars first, Chamillionaire seems to be the last one standing.