• Gucci Mane, 'Writing on da Wall' (So Icey)

    After emerging in 2005 with the novelty hit "Icy" (and then feuding with the song's cowriter, Young Jeezy), Atlanta rapper Gucci Mane has become one of the South's most prolific and beloved MCs, known for outrageously boastful rhymes that constantly flip from sublime to surreal to silly. Writing on da Wall is his first mix tape after a prison stint for a parole violation, and on supremely confident tracks like "Gorgeous" and "Hurry," words tumble out in an intoxicating jumble ("Emergency...currency... ambulance...burglary"), over Fat Boi's hypnotic, chiming, keyboard-based production. It's an ego-trippin' lesson in language arts. BUY:Amazon

  • Raekwon, 'Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II' (EMI)

    Only Built 4 Cuban Linx..., Raekwon's classic 1995 solo debut, was an impressionistic tour through the thrilling highs, the solemn lows, the violent comedy, and the simmering boredom making up the life of a New York City drug dealer. Rae was hungry and at the height of his powers, riding some of the RZA's hardest-knocking, most progressive production. Cuban Linx II -- which features four contributions from the RZA -- is more of a reenactment than a sequel. Production has been handled buffet-style, with a gaggle of contributors (Alchemist, Pete Rock, Dr. Dre) ably providing variations on RZA's creeping, caustic recipe. The late J Dilla, whose strings and bass stabs on "Flying Daggers" will make you miss him all over again, provides the most ear-catching tracks here. Raekwon still rhymes in rapid-fire spurts, on and off the beat, like a jamming machine gun.

  • Method Man & Redman, 'Blackout 2' (Def Jam)

    Officially reuniting their musical partnership after a decade, Meth Red pick up where they stopped puffing. With few exceptions (the Houston-themed, "City Lights," featuring Bun B), Blackout 2 sounds ripped from a time capsule buried in 1999. The pair bring class-clown attitude ("Asshole Academy, I'm the spokesman," declares Red) and drop amusing (if past-their-due-date) references to Atari, Herbie Hancock, and the Funky Four Plus One, over vintage East Coast hard-knock beats from Erick Sermon and Rockwilder. As a sequel, Blackout 2 fails to move things forward; but as a revival, it's a welcome blast. BUY: iTunesAmazon

  • Cam'ron, 'Crime Pays' (Asylum)

    In 2006, Cameron "Cam'ron" Giles released the artistically underwhelming Killa Season to little commercial notice, then fell out with running buddy Jim Jones, abandoned a beef with 50 Cent, and slid off the hip-hop grid. Back with his sixth full-length, Cam mostly eschews lyrical musings on his disappearance or his frenemies, saving the drama for the faux-orchestral/ operatic beats that still back his dizzyingly charismatic coke raps. On "Crime Pays Intro," and "Cookin' Up," he deals references to old-school prop comics (Gallagher) and contemporary point guards (Rajon Rondo), while detailing his life in and out of the drug game. He may have kept his lyrical gift hidden, but he didn't lose it. Watch: Cam'ron, "Get it in Ohio" BUY: iTunesAmazon

  • Ron Browz, 'Etherboy' (Universal Motown)

    This New York–based producer/singer/rapper, who was responsible for Nas' classic 2001 dis track "Ether," is like a hip-hop/R&B Andrew W.K. Take all the immediate feel- good stuff, forget the rest. On his debut album, he kicks off this happy hour with a simple, highly effective cocktail: Add video-game beats that ape Daft Punk ("Pantiez in the Microwave") and the Neptunes ("I Promise"), lyrics that pose eternal questions like "Who drank all the Hennessy?" and "Where the girls at?" and copious amounts of T-Pain-esque Auto-Tune. Then shake, and watchthe dance floor do likewise.

  • Jim Jones, 'Pray IV Reign' (Columbia)

    Whether spitting some of Lauren Conrad's broken language while airing out an ex-homey in the oddly touching "Frienemies" or extolling the healing properties of women's nether regions on "Medicine," New York hustler Jim Jones is, despite his own best efforts, effortlessly charming. Pray IV Reign, Jones' fourth solo album, tries to balance tracks rich in self-mythology with material designed to make him rich. Learning from the template of Diddy, who ascended to solo-artist stardom after the death of the Notorious B.I.G., Jones exploits the inactivity of his Dipset crew and the artistic disappearance of running buddy Cam'ron to push his own brand.

  • Plies, 'Da REAList' (Big Gates/Slip-N-Slide/Atlantic)

    Known for his sparse, thug-and-R&B beats and filthy rasp, this Fort Myers, Florida native has established his own niche as a gangsta pinup with a fleeting street conscience. On the follow-up to his gold album Definition of Real, the beats are largely as punishingly blunt as the rhymes. Things get friskier on the Babyface-sampling "Want It, Need It," where he growls, "I'm the one you call when your body's on E," and the rowdy, Mannie Fresh–helmed "Pants Hang Low," which yanks the proceedings up by the waistband. BUY: iTunesAmazon

  • Prodigy, 'Product of the 80's' (Dirt Class)

    Product of the 80's is the Queens rapper's second release since he's become a product of the New York State Department ofCorrectional Services (where he's serving three and a half years on an illegal weapons charge). Recorded in conjunction with his bleak, keyboard-laden H.N.I.C. Pt. 2 (and aided by MC running mates Un Pacino and Big Twins), this is a trip back to the 808 drum machines and crack rocks of 1980s New York. The production, largely handled by the duo Sid Roams, emphasizes "She Blinded Me With Science" synths and sparse programming, giving Prodigy plenty of room to roam, recalling dangerous forays into Brooklyn ("Cold World") and makeshift weaponry ("Box Cutters") with eerie nostalgia. BUY: iTunesAmazon

  • nas-interview.jpg

    The Inquisition: Nas

    You gotta give Nas points for trying. After a year in which he caught flak from Bill O'Reilly for participating in a benefit, saw his nemesis turned label boss Jay-Z leave Def Jam, and shot a failed reality show with his wife Kelis, the 34-year-old Nasir Jones lost his long, contentious struggle to name his ninth album Nigger, replacing the title at the last minute.

  • Across the Wuniverse

    In 1993, the Wu-Tang Clan emerged as not just another star within the galaxy of East Coast hip-hop, but as their own universe. The nine-man crew arrived from their home base of Shaolin -- a.k.a. Staten Island -- sui generis, with fully formed myths, beliefs, and a cryptic slanguage that took a glossary to parse. (C.R.E.A.M.? "Cash Rules Everything Around Me," naturally.) Fourteen years later, hip-hop's class of '93 is mostly gone or forgotten: Black Moon, A Tribe Called Quest, Brand Nubian. But the Wu? Still recording. Still relevant. No other hip-hop group comes even close to matching the Wu's prolificacy. By a conservative count, there have been 35 Wu-related albums since 1992; include distantly orbiting Clan satellites like Killarmy, Sunz of Man, and Remedy, and that number blooms to well over 50.

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