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SNOOP DOGG, Tha Last Meal, No Limit
"Hmm, who that n---- that brought you that gangsta s---/ before you motherf------ was even ready for it?/ Showed you how to tie a flag on your head/ and represent your motherf-----' set 'til you're dead?" I think we all know the answer to that, Snoop D-O-double-G, the pimp that rhymes "b----" with "switch" and "doe" with "hoe" repeatedly and still makes it sound tight. Snoop done gone and made some changes for the better, no more "No Limit sound" (besides the sleeper "Back Up Off Me"), and he's gone back to his LBC/DPG roots. Snoop even takes it far enough to sing an entire track. "Leave Me Alone" proves that Snoop actually can do his R&B thing. The one thing that kind of drags down the music value of this CD is too many guest appearances, including Kokane (who appears on 8 tracks), Ice Cube, M.C. Ren, Master P, Butch Cassidy, Eve and countless others. But through all that he proves that he can still lay the pimp game down on tracks like the absolute masterpiece, "Stacey Adams," "True Lies" and "Brake Fluid." The lyrical power of Snoop and the total LBC sound that Scott Storch provides on the last track, "Y'all Gone Miss Me," leaves you knowing that Snoop's gonna be all right. With another great release under his belt and now moving to his own record company, Doggystyle Records, there's no limit to what Snoop can do in the future.
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-- Sam

OUTKAST, Stankonia, LaFace
To say that Dre and Big Boi "take it to the next level" would be cliché... we'd be surprised if they weren't on some elevated plateau. While the Atlanta duo continues to experiment and expand on their previous efforts, their most impressive trait is that they are consistently fresh both lyrically and musically. And although their previous release, Aquemini, garnered a $50 despite one so-so track, Stankonia never misses. Also impressive is their ability to take aggressive songs like "B.O.B." and "Gasoline Dreams;" laid-back tracks like "So Fresh, So Clean" and "Slum Beautiful;" and humorous, somewhat playful cuts like "Call Before I Come" and "We Luv Dez Hoez" and meld them into a cohesive effort that becomes their fourth classic. Skits may appear to take up too much space on the track listings, but most are short enough that they never become a problem. Several guest artists (B-Real, Erykah Badu, Slimm Calhoun, members of the Goodie MOB and others) are sprinkled throughout, but not to the point that this is no longer an Outkast album. In the past, groups have tried to mix a message in with their music, only to come off preachy... Outkast, on the other hand, blends in talk of dashed dreams and hopeful futures without ever losing street credibility. Listen and learn until their next classic.
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-- The W

MASTER P, Ghetto Postage, No Limit
From the brother who told you "how to make crack like this" and made you say "uuuunnnggghh" comes his latest effort, Ghetto Postage. Not surprisingly, it comes as a miss, not a hit. P should just drop the rap thing and stay into the business side of it. As a matter of fact, P kind of reminds me of a down south Puffy. He tries his hardest, but it always comes out flat. The album sounds more like an advertisement for all of the different businesses P owns. The CD leaflet has advertisements for NL Communications and several clothing ads, not to mention all the songs that P raps about his businesses in. All of the annoying skits on this album are one thing, but the one thing I just can't stand is P, yet again, biting a 2Pac-style beat on "Would You," not to mention Krazy rhyming (the embarrassing 2Pac take-off). Even the lead single, "Souljaz," is an absoulute bore -- nothing seems to go well for this album. But wait, there is light at the end of the tunnel. "Poppin' Them Collars" (featuring Snoop) does open a nice introduction for the Doggfather's album that's coming out later this month. It's too bad P couldn't put the effort into his album like he did on his debut, The Ghetto's Tryin' To Kill Me, but money does change things and P has proved that he's got a lot of that.
Click here to find out how to buy this album.

-- Sam

MEMPHIS BLEEK, The Understanding, Roc-A-Fella
"N----- say I'm focused now, they notice my style." So said Memphis Bleek on The Dynasty's "Holla." Well, you can add one more voice to that group, because it's true. Over the course of a year, Bleek has transformed from a young MC with a lot of unrealized potential to as worthy an heir to the Roc-A-Fella throne as Beanie Sigel. The knock on his first album was too many guest appearances. This time, Bleek keeps it mostly in the family -- a verbal assist or five from Jay-Z never hurts. It's obvious that Memph has been honing his skills, first on Jay's The Dynasty and now on his sophomore solo joint, and Jigga seems to be giving him every advantage he needs to succeed. The first single, "Is That Your Chick," is basically a remix of a cut we've all heard before, whether you copped the bootleg version of Vol. 3 in the streets or downloaded those extra tracks from Napster in the privacy of your own home. Adding Memph to the song was a better move than putting "Anything" on Beanie's album untouched and releasing it as a single, and an even better idea was to include "the lost verses" on the album version, because Twista straight rips it. Memph is at his best when he spits on a fast-paced track like "Do My..." (featuring Jay-Z) or "We Get Low," but he also takes care of business when things slow down on cuts like "I Get High," "They'll Never Play Me" and "Hustlers" (featuring Beanie Sigel). Fresh off M.O.P.'s "Cold As Ice," Memph brings back another '80s lite-rock Foreigner hit on "In My Life," which closes out the album. With Amil apparently in the doghouse, the Dynasty is positioning itself to be just that, and with proper promotion, Roc-A-Fella might push the Memph Man well past gold this time. Memphis Bleek finally has come of age.
Click here to find out how to buy this album.

-- J Rough

PHARCYDE, Plain Rap, Delicious Vinyl/Edel America
It's been five long years since their last album, but now the Pharcyde is back with their long-awaited album, Plain Rap. Though the group is minus Fatlip and Slimkid Tre (whose vocals appear on the album), Romeye and Imani try to hold it down on this 12-song album full of moody beats and introspective rhymes. Featuring the production of Showbiz (Showbiz & AG) and former Pharcyde producer, Jay-Swift, Plain Rap does not offer the quirky comics of Bizarre Ride, or the harder edge of LabcabinCalifornia. Instead, Plain shows a more mature Pharcyde in content and sound. However, at times Plain Rap can sound just that. Plain. Though there are a couple of standouts like "Trust" (Remix), "Somethin'," and "Network" featuring Black Thought from the Roots, Plain Rap succeeds in giving it to you undiluted, but it lacks colors.
Click here to find out how to buy this album.

-- Joshua "Fahiym" Ratcliffe

AFU-RA, The Body of The Life Force, KOCH
Known for blessing mics on Jeru the Damaja's first two albums, Afu-Ra decides to step out of the shadow of his protégé and bring forth his debut album, The Body of The Life Force. Afu fuses ancient African mysticism and martial arts with present day lyricism on The Body, an 18-track album backed by high-powered beats from DJ Premier, DJ Muggs, Da Beatminerz and Wu-Tang's True Master. Featuring vocals from the GZA, the Cocoa Brovaz, M.O.P. and Kymani Marley, The Body doesn't disappoint, even though Afu-Ra's flow can be a bit predictable. With joints like "D&D Soundclash," "Defeat" and "Equality," The Body of The Life Force will definitely get mad play on college radio and within underground hip-hop circles worldwide. But commercial success it will evade.
Click here to find out how to buy this album.

-- Joshua "Fahiym" Ratcliffe

TALIB KWELI & DJ HI-TEK, Reflection Eternal: The Train of Thought, Rawkus
Known for his work as one half of the Black Star collective, emcee Talib Kweli is back, but this time on his highly anticipated, debut solo LP, Reflection Eternal: The Train of Thought. Coupled with his producer/DJ, Hi-Tek, Reflection Eternal is a 20-song odyssey of introspective and conscious-raising rhymes, battle rap tested flows and head-knobbing beats that will be sure to please not only underground purists, but may get some of the "jiggafied" heads as well. With appearances from Mos Def, Kool G. Rap, Les Nubians, Rah Digga and Xzibit, and standout tracks such as "Move Something," "The Blast" and "Good Mourning," Kweli & Tek gives listeners a stellar balance of grooves to reflect and party to.
Click here to find out how to buy this album.

-- Joshua "Fahiym" Ratcliffe

EIGHTBALL & MJG, Space Age 4 Eva, JCOR
It seemed as if Eightball & MJG were primed for stardom the last time around, but despite a critically acclaimed album and the backing of a major distribution deal, In Our Lifetime, Vol. 1, fell short of expectations and left the Memphis duo looking elsewhere. For their first outing away from Suave House, Eightball & MJG enlist the talents of DJ Quik, Jazze Pha and Swizz Beats, who stop by to bring the fire behind the boards, and invoke the name of their biggest hit for the album title. The first single, the Pha-produced "Pimp Hard," is classic Eightball & MJG, and in reality sounds more like a sequel to "Space Age Pimpin'" than the title track, which comes off a touch too catchy, almost commercial. MJG handles the production duties for "Alwayz," a mellow dedication to a few female fans that the duo only got to spend one night with, while the next track, "At Tha Club," explains how those close encounters might have come to be. "Jankie," one of Quik's contributions, is yet another reworking of BDP's "Jimmy," complete with somebody mimicking DJ Red Alert in the background. Quik lends his voice as well as his creativity to a simple-yet-addictive "Buck Bounce." One questionable choice is "Boom Boom," which features a hook that sounds similar to one of Will Smith's misses as the Fresh Prince: "Shake the room / boom, boom, ba-boom" (Will's version was "Boom, boom / shake, shake the room" in case you missed that Code Red album). Despite that odd cut, it's clear that Eightball & MJG haven't lost a step as a result of their move to JCOR.
Click here to find out how to buy this album.

-- Mason Storm

B.G., Checkmate, Cash Money
Has Cash Money finally run its course? I mean, there's no question that these Hot Boys have put out some sh-- for the ages over the past two years. "Ha," "Back That Thang Up," "I Need a Hot Girl," "Bling, Bling" and others will be playing on urban radio stations near you for years to come thanks in large part to Mannie Fresh's hot beats and the crew's consistently catchy hooks. But it just seems like these guys are repeating themselves instead of taking it to the next level. Even on the advance copy we got of Checkmate, the first two tracks were literally identical, not to mention the guy annoyingly shouting "Cash Money Records" every 20 seconds. Now we can excuse all that, but look at Juvenile. It happened to him on his second solo disc (saying "U Understand" after every line didn't hit like saying "Ha" did), and now the latest track from the Big Tymers just recycles a line from a previous hit. B.G.'s new album is no different. Checkmate will satisfy the die-hard fan from down south, but probably won't hold the attention of anyone else for long. There are some good cuts, starting with "Press One," a tale about phoning his hot girl from jail, and "U Know How We Do," which speaks on his instant fame. "Change The World" and "To My People" also are uplifting tracks about hope and redemption. But there are plenty of dark, street rhymes, like "Running With My Chopper" and "Slinger." B.G. also becomes the latest to jump on the X bandwagon with "Hennessy & XTC," but he pulls it off with a ridiculous chorus and a decent story to go along with it. The first single, "I Know," is no "Bling, Bling," but it might make some noise with its high-speed pace and monotone hook. Cash Money has more going for it than some of its New Orleans counterparts, but unless they step it up soon, Checkmate just might turn out to be a prophetic title.
Click here to find out how to buy this album.

-- Butta Parkay

CAPONE-N-NOREAGA, The Reunion, Tommy Boy
After years of waiting, labels biting the dust and release dates gone sour, Capone-N-Noreaga drop their sophomore album. I, coming into this a big fan of C-N-N, was thoroughly disappointed by the album. Songs like "F--- Wit Us" and "Brothers" are nothing compared to what "T.O.N.Y." and "L.A., L.A." were, street-anthem-wise that is. "Bang Bang" featuring Foxy Brown is the one banger that makes this album luke warm. Foxy delivers nothing but true "b----" lyrics as she verbally spits hot hollow points at Lil' Kim. As a group, Capone-N-Noreaga have drifted apart. They don't click like they did on their classic 1997 album, The War Report. Capone's lengthy incarceration probably played a part in that. "Be EZ" featuring Nas and "Invincible," a DJ Premier production jewel, do nothing for the monotony of the album and actually make it harder to bear. The monotony truely does play a big part in this album. If you need evidence listen to "Gunz In Da Air," "Can't Kill Me," "Don't Know Nobody" and "Y'all Don't Wanna (F--- Around)" and by about the second of those tracks you'll be snoring. C-N-N falls into that sophomore slump that seems to plague all artists and groups. If they'd given it (even) more time it probably would have banged on the same scale as The War Report.
Click here to find out how to buy this album.

-- Sam

It's been three years and numerous solo albums since the Wu dropped their last album, the double disc Wu-Tang Forever, and I was interested to hear what angle the Clan would come from this time out. After about ten listens I still have mixed feelings about this album. The best thing about it is the fact that the RZA has produced every cut on this album, and because he has had a hand in the all the Wu-related albums in some capacity, this disc's sound draws on those for sonic inspiration. Despite the evident Wu feel, it is an album full of variety, which works for the most part, but also contributes to some of its problems. Coming in at only 13 tracks long, the album attempts to spread mic time between all members of the Clan as well as Redman, Snoop, Busta Rhymes and Nas. While the last Wu album might have stretched things too thin, this one doesn't provide enough room for a crew that has been developing for the past eight years and setting oft-imitated trends in the process. That said, I expected a more groundbreaking disc than The W, especially with the RZA overseeing the entire affair. What the disc does accomplish, however, is to find a balance of complexity and simplicity in both its beats and its rhymes. One example is "Conditioner," which takes a stripped-down beat and keys that would be at home on the 36 Chambers disc and uses the odd combo of unique vocal syles in Snoop and ODB to flavor it. The baddest groove on the disc is "Hollow Bones," which has that full-bodied, melancholy soul sound that is amply evident on both of the Ghost solo discs. "Redbull" makes use of an appearence by Redman and some off-tempo drums to nice effect, while "One Blood Under W" is graced by the vocal stylings of Junior Reed. Probably the most innovative track on the disc is "Careful (Click, Click)" which sports a bizzare organic/mechanical hybrid sound that represents a step forward in the development of the signature Wu sound but makes definite references to the sound of the first album as well as work of artists like Tricky. Dirty minimalism is used to beautiful effect on "Let My N----- Live" with Rae, Nas and Deck lacing RZA's sludge-covered creeping bassline spiced with congas and tambourines. In an unexpected move, the Razor jacks the entirety of Isaac Hayes' "Walk on By" to pair with Ghost and Hayes himself to provide an emotional monologue on black-on-black crime as a result of the literal and figurative assassination of the radical social potential of the 1960s and early '70s. It is also like a preface to the final cut on the album, which works like an indirect explanation for the schizophrenic nature of the Clan, hip-hop today and in a larger sense American society. This nature is evidenced by the inclusion of Busta Rhymes, an artist who at times exhibits a creativity and enthusiasm for the medium itself that rap music today lacks in large part. However, his appearance on this disc seems out of place and his performance is uninspired. In addition, "Gravel Pit" is a bouncy reference to the era of park jams that only works because of the talent of the MCs to ride an uptempo beat that in my opinion is just too cheesy on this album. With all the talented MCs that make up the Wu, their experience and the RZA in charge of all the production, I had very high expectations for this disc. The W for most other artists would be a milestone in their career, but for the Clan it is not the step forward that I expected. In general I give this disc a $20, but listening to it in the context of the potential and track record of the group that created it, it really rates as a $10.
Click here to find out how to buy this album.

-- Kawon

JAY-Z, The Dynasty: Roc La Familia, Roc-A-Fella
A dynasty like no other? That's how Jay- Z has been describing his Roc-A-Fella Records crew for the last couple of years, but with mediocre (not meteoric) debuts by DJ Clue, Memphis Bleek, and Amil, Jay-Z and Beanie Sigel were really the only Roc-A-Fella artists holding it down for the label. Even Jay-Z, now with five albums in five years and one of hip-hop's most popular artists, has been receiving criticism for becoming too commercial and buying into the "bling-bling" materialistic type of hip-hop that all too many other artists played out. In fact, after Vol. 3...Life and Times of S. Carter many fans Jay won over because of Reasonable Doubt were screaming for his head. Well, I'm here to let ALL Jay-Z fans know that La Familia may be his best effort yet. Jay-Z seamlessly meshes introspective songs like "This Can't Be Life" and "Where Have You Been" with party joints like "I Just Wanna Love U (Give It to Me)" and "Guilty Until Proven Innocent" while coming up with street anthems like "Holla" and "Change the Game." Jay even has a few songs with a West Coast feel to them. "Change the Game," "Parking Lot Pimpin'," and "Squeeze 1st" are all tracks that Mack 10 or Snoop would drool over. The best tracks, though, are the laid back "Stick 2 The Script," featuring DJ Clue, "1-900-Hustler," and "Soon You’ll Understand." What began as a showcase for Jay-Z's proteges thankfully turned into a full-fledged Jay-Z album with several contributions from the Roc-A-Fella crew. I'm not sure if this is Jay's best album, but La Familia is definitely the best-produced. A rarity in hip-hop, every song on the album is worth listening to. A rapper like no other? Definitely. The best MC ever? Arguably (sorry Biggie, R.I.P.) A dynasty like no other? Maybe.
Click here to find out how to buy this album.

-- Cvere

JA RULE, Rule 3:36, Def Jam
Ja Rule hits a new low on Rule 3:36. As if it ain't bad enough that today's hip-hop albums are riddled with interludes, Ja hits us with two straight on this album. At least one is funny (the first time). But Rule 3:36 ain't all about the skits. In fact, using a hot first single, "Between Me and You," featuring Christina Milian, as a catalyst, the album presents an uneven, but fairly solid, compilation of tracks that more often than not highlight the soft side hiding within Ja's outwardly rough exterior, much like the MCs he's most often accused of emulating -- 2Pac and DMX. A perfect example of this is "I Cry" -- need I say more? On both "Love Me, Hate Me" and "Extasy," Ja decides it's a good idea to sing the hook himself. This just in: It's not. The former survives thanks to some solid production provided by Lil' Rob and Irv Gotti, but the latter collapses under the weight of his crooning. Another track he applies this treatment to is "One of Us," which jacks the concept of God walking among us: "If God was one of us, would he sin and love the lye" and "would he use his name in vain?" On "It's Your Life," Ja enlists the help of Shade Sheist and his partner behind the boards, Damizza, for one of the best cuts on the album. Fellow Murderer Vita adds a woman's touch to "Put It On Me," and "6 Feet Underground" employs a strange sped-up effect to the hook while The D.O.C.'s "The Formula" supplies the underlying beat. The death theme carries through on "Die," featuring Tah Murdah, Black Child and Dave Bing, and the extremely short "The Rule Won't Die." The album is undoubtably listenable, but you might find yourself skipping some tracks (especially the skits) after that first time through.
Click here to find out how to buy this album.

-- J Rough

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