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JAY-Z, Vol. 3... Life and Times of S. Carter, Roc-A-Fella
Thank God for Jay-Z. The man up above took Biggie, but left us with hip-hop's savior, Jay-Hova, and Vol. 3... Life and Times of S. Carter. Unlike most hip-hop albums, Vol. 3 is not a collection of 10 mediocre songs held together by two strong songs. Instead, Jay-Z spreads the lyrical wealth around, and like Maxwell House coffee -- Vol. 3 is good to the last drop. To keep things fresh, Jay uses at least eight producers, including DJ Premier, Timbaland, Clue and DURO, Rockwilder and Swizz Beatz, so all the songs sound distinctly different. However, while some artists disrupt the continuity on their albums when a number of producers are used, Jay manages to hold everything together with his lyrical content and flow. In fact, Jay's flow is so sick that he turns the oddest sounding production and samples into hits. Labelmates and protégés Amil, Beanie Sigel and Memphis Bleek all get a chance to shine on Vol. 3, but only Beanie Sigel really distinguishes himself as "the reason Jay feels comfortable retiring." Big names like Mariah Carey, Dre and Juvenile lend their voices to a few hooks, but surprisingly UGK makes the biggest splash of all the guest stars on "Big Pimpin'." Every song on this album stands on its own merits, but my favorites are probably "Dope Man," "Come and Get Me" and "NYMP." The bonus tracks "Jigga" and "Girls' Best Friend" are both hits we've already heard but are nice additions to the album. Song for song, Jay-Z is the greatest rapper alive and with Vol. 3, Jigga tightens his grasp on the title he already held. "Jigga been cold as f--- before ice, not before Christ, but a long f---in' time, get your mind right, n-----." With lines like that Shawn Carter deserves a $100, but since I only got $50... Do you believe?
Click here to find out how to buy this album.

-- Cvere

DMX, And Then There Was X, Def Jam
Ah, the rewards of hard work. After patiently building serious anticipation for his debut album by ripping numerous guest spots almost two years ago, DMX has ascended to near the top of the rap game, helping to change the industry in the process. Since It's Dark And Hell Is Hot dropped in '98, X has achieved both commercial and critical acclaim while remaining in the streets and down for his dogs. He has become the first artist to have his first two albums reach No. 1 in less than a year (seven months to be exact), landed a starring role in the major motion picture "Belly," and was co-headliner (along with Jay-Z) of the most successful rap tour ever. Along the way Earl Simmons helped take the rap industry from the flossy, neon-lighted club scene back to the streets, all with resounding success. With his third effort, And Then There Was X, DMX picks up right where Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood left off. Production-wise this album is more similar to his first effort in that the production is pretty evenly distributed among the in-house Ruff Ryder talent. While Swizz Beats handled most of the production on Flesh of My Flesh (10 of the 14 cuts), he has more help on this. He produced four of the 14 tracks, as did P. Killer Tracks, while Shok did one. Outside production came in the form of Dame Grease, who did two (he did seven of 14 tracks on X's first album), as did Irv Gotti. Nokio of Dru Hill even produced one with Sisqo singing the hook. Lyrically this album is somewhat similar to X's first two albums in that he carries nearly all of the verbal weight; he does very few collaborations on his albums. The Lox and Drag-On are featured (as they are on the first two albums) but that is pretty much it. Out of the 42 tracks that comprise X's first three albums, only seven feature guest rappers. And Then There Was X is a distinctly X-flavored album. It contains 14 songs, three skits and his third prayer (one was featured on each of his first two albums). The album overall is extremely tight, although a few tracks do stand out slightly from the rest. The Swizz Beats-produced "One More Road to Cross" is the perfect example of the famed combination of Swizz's frenetic, up-tempo beats with DMX's fiery, stop-and-go lyrics. "Comin' For Ya" showcases the same teamwork only on a slower track. The Dame Grease-produced "Fame" is another hard-driving track with the theme from the television show "Fame" being worked to fit X's purpose. (It is on this track that "Damien" makes his only short-lived cameo. The omission of a full-length track featuring him is one of the only "flaws" I found on this album.) "Here We Go Again" is a tale of DMX schooling a youngster in the ways of the game and what happens when he messes up. This track is more laid back than most DMX songs but turns out extremely well. "More To A Song" speaks on the tendency some artists have to speak only on their material possessions and how they floss. The lead single, "What's My Name," is another classic DMX track where his lyrics mesh perfectly with the beat. And Then There Was X should further serve to establish Earl Simmons' place near the top of the rap echelon. His third album in less than three years hits just as hard as his first two. He continues to be one artist you can tell puts his all into every song and performance (there are numerous stories of him rapping and performing himself to the point of exhaustion); you can really feel his work. As I said earlier, this entire album is tight, probably just one or two songs away from obtaining a $50. I really hate to give it a $20 because I feel it deserves more, but that's all the scale allows. So And Then There Was X earns probably one of the highest twenties possible.
Click here to find out how to buy this album.

-- Brentwood

2PAC + OUTLAWZ, Still I Rise, Interscope
Still I Rise marks the eighth album released by the late Tupac Amaru Shakur (ninth if you count the greatest hits CD). This number by itself is rather impressive for a rap artist, but when you consider all contributing factors it is an even greater testament to this man's work ethic and drive. His first album was released in just 1991 and he passed away in September of 1996. In that short span he became arguably the most well-known and written about rap star of the time, helping rap to reach the status it occupies at this time. Along the way he produced enough material to fill over eight albums (five of which were released during his lifetime), star in six movies and make countless appearances on various soundtracks and other artists' projects. Add to this the sizeable amount of his material which has yet to be released and figure in the time he spent in prison, and I think that it is clear that he will be one of the most prolific and influential rap stars ever. His latest release teams him up with his final crew, the Outlaw Immortals (unlike Thug Life this was a group that was to remain intact for more than just one album). The crew as it appears on this album consists of Young Noble, E.D.I., Kastro, Napoleon, and the late Yafeu Fula (Yaki Kadafi, who was murdered almost two months after Pac's passing). Fatal Hussein was an original member but does not show up on this album. This project is 15 tracks strong and contains no interludes or skits to interfere with the music. The Outlawz appear on every track, with one featuring just them. Production throughout the album is handled by a number of mostly familiar producers (Johnny J has three tracks, QD III did two, Daz and Kurupt did one each and Tupac himself co-produced two). The album is filled with some of Pac's latest recordings, probably done sometime between late 1995 and his death in 1996. The majority of the tracks are laid-back and somewhat soulful, more similar to "Dear Mama" and "So Many Tears" as opposed to "Hit 'Em Up" and "When We Ride." We see a more contemplative, relaxed Pac than most people probably would picture when remembering him. Here you witness the introspective, socially concerned and sensitive side of Tupac, although a couple of the tracks ("Hell 4 A Hustla" and "Homeboyz") do feature the fiery, throaty lyrics he probably became most known for. These songs deal with society's ills and the problems faced on the come-up, and in my opinion nearly every cut deserves to be mentioned (but there are a few that stand out above the rest). The lead single "Baby Don't Cry (Keep Ya Head Up II)" picks up where the original left off. Produced by QD III, it implores women to remain strong and struggle to make it through the various problems they may encounter, from being with the wrong man, to single parenthood, to rape. "As The World Turns" is a piano-driven track where Pac and the Outlawz give us a glimpse into their lives and thoughts on the world around us. On the unfortunately appopriately titled "The Good Die Young," they lament the loss of their partnas and family members as well as the untimely passing of those who die at society's hands over a laid-back, soulful beat. "Teardrops and Closed Caskets" is the story of two friends who come up together only to be driven apart by the game and a woman. As is often the case with great artists, they are not truly appreciated until it is too late. I feel the same will hold true with Tupac. In my opinion this album is solid from beginning to end. This is one you can put in and let play the entire way through. There are no space fillers or skits just in there to fill out the album. We know how hard this is for an artist to put out such an album in the year it is produced, let alone nearly three years after the fact. Yet that is exactly what Tupac and the Outlawz have done. Based on everything that affected and went into this album I strongly believe it deserves a fifty. It is a must-have not only for the true Tupac fan but for anyone who appreciates a well put together, coherent, relevant album.
Click here to find out how to buy this album.

-- Brentwood

VARIOUS ARTISTS, Next Friday Soundtrack, Priority
T.G.I.F. Thank god it's finished is what you'll be thinking after sitting through the Next Friday Soundtrack. You'll be riding high with the first two cuts, "You Can Do It" with Ice Cube, Mack 10 and Ms. Toi, and N.W.A featuring Snoop Dogg with "Chin Check." The Murderers need to be locked up for torturing us with an unimaginative chorus, lame lyrics and lackluster beats on "We Murderers Baby." This soundtrack is saved by the R&B divette Aaliyah, who shines on "I Don't Wanna," produced by J. Austin. The only thing wrong with this song is that it ends and you are forced to deal with sub-par efforts from Eminem and other artists such as the Isley Brothers make you want to skip this Friday completely.
Click here to find out how to buy this album.

-- Stephanie Taylor

JUVENILE, Tha G-Code, Cash Money
Juvenile..that G-Code. His intro starts off with everything that needs to be said. He says he's done with all the nonsense, no one can break his crew, and he's got cash..BLING BLING! Does anything else matter? Apparently not for this young artist, but why should it? We all know Juvenile's story and he definitely deserves a "congratulations." Not just for his recent success, but for motivating young adults in living their dreams and remaining sincere to their roots. Juvenile definitely comes from a different angle. Instead of complaining about society, he speaks about how to survive in it. One track simply gives advice. He says one has to work for food and learn to survive when one has not a dollar or a meal. It can be taken to the heart when it comes from him, and not some rich white guy trying to conform society. Another track talks about facing the price one has to pay when caught up in the system. He explains that reality is involved when evidence and lawyers and fake friends are involved. The album continues to give positive vibes when he says, "I put my trust in myself first, ya'll second." A lesson in life never too late to learn. Though the lyrics are more unique than other recent albums, the music and beats are simply "okay." He has some newer, high-pitched beats that today's artists often try to incorporate in their albums. One can tell it's definitely produced in today's day and age. However, there is nothing exceptionally unique or smooth about the music. Nothing too fast, but nothing too slow. The entire album sounds the same after the first few tracks. Overall, Juvenile deserves the publicity he has earned. He has decent lyrics and he seems to really enjoy the music industry. Yet will his music stay on top of the charts? He will have to stretch himself more to continue competing with other artists as a respected "musician."
Click here to find out how to buy this album.

-- Monica

I thought Funkmaster Flex was done with mix tapes after Vol. 3. But like most hip-hop artists, I guess he just can't stay away from the game. This time Flex collaborated with Big Kap in a venture that is different from Flex's other discs. On every mix tape I've heard, the DJs yell and scream between and during every song. Thankfully this is not the case here. Also notably absent is the cutting and scratching that Flex has been known for, which I actually miss. The album's first track is a live Biggie/Tupac "freestyle" recorded at Madison Square Garden in October of '93. This disc is probably worth buying just to hear those two rivals dropping science. The Ruff Ryders bust shots on "We In Here," a tight song that is almost ruined by another tired Ruff Ryder hook (they all sound awfully similar), but is saved by an appearance by The Lox. Dre and Eminem split atoms on "If I Get Locked Up," which is produced by Rockwilder, who also laid down a beautiful track for Method Man titled "True." It's no coincidence that two of the best tracks on this disc are produced by Rockwilder, so keep an eye on that stud. Mary J. blows like only she can on "Confrontation," and Redman and Erick Sermon (the Green Eyed Bandit) get straight biz on "Okay." The Raekwon track, "Dem Want War," is bangin' too. Jay-Z and his Roc- A-Fella friends flow "For My Thugs," and you know that track is hot too, with Amil turning in her best verse to date. The Cash Money Millionaires hold it down for the Magnolia Projects and demand "Respect" on a dope Mannie Fresh-produced track, while LL drops the "Ill Bomb" on a laid-back track that is tailor-made for the legend. My favorite song, though, is "Real G's" by Snoop Dogg. Snoop, who has basically underacheived throughout his entire career (when not with Dre), gets ugly over several of Bad Boy's best beats, and shook the hell out of me. The only problem I can see with this album is that it's too short. The Tunnel is definitely worth picking up.
Click here to find out how to buy this album.

-- Keep flossin'

E-40 TKA CHARLIE HUSTLE, The Blueprint of a Self-Made Millionaire, Sick Wid It
After servin' a 3-5 year stint in one of my state's finest facilities, the Maniac is back to drop some lines about E-40's newest release. For 10+ years "The Mailman" has been hustlin' on wax (now fiber-optics) representin' the prolific Bay Area with his family The Click. Throughout the years, 40-watter has stayed true to his abstract running flow of lyrics without copping a plea to the mainstream style of the hour. Specifically in recent years, with the flight of Too Short to Atlanta, 40 and his crew have handled their top-billing as the Bay Area's #1 hustlas with confidence. E-40 has always represented a fine mixture of hardcore raps and laid-back pimp sh--. Similar to his previous solo records and group efforts, this new album does not disappoint. Tracks such as "Ballaholic" and "Get Breaded" flash the 40 as we've known him on previous encounters. The beats are highly influenced by Zapp & Roger as well as George Clinton, making the lyrics easy to drive to. The album also contains a couple of tracks produced by Ant Banks, who in my opinion has never been given proper recognition for the music he has created. "Big Ballin' With My Homies" is a supertight track with additional vocals by The Mossie. Although a solo release, all of the Click family is represented, and other guest shots get their licks as well, including Too Short, Ant Banks, Juvenile, BG, and Lil' Wayne to name a few. Overall, E-40 stays true to his style, and if you are familiar with his game, you will be pleased to hear "Charlie Hustle" spit some fresh sh--. Although some critics claim that E-40 is not for every hip-hopper because of his unique style, I feel that such a claim is the exact reason why you should pick it up -- to hear some sh-- that's not all the same as everything else. So if you're tired of the same ol' raps, I advise you to buy this album for a dose of some sh-- that will not be duplicated. With 40's premier lyrical arsenal, newcomers will need a hustlas dictionary to comprehend his player lingo. This new album is good for anyone's CD collection whether you're a dedicated soldier to hip-hop or just looking for something to make you bob ya head, put your fist in the air, and chuckle at the same time.
Click here to find out how to buy this album.

-- B.J. Maniac

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