• Ghostface Killah, 'More Fish' (Def Jam)

    Though its title suggests a bunch of extras and alternate takes, More Fish is anything but an only-for-Ghostface-nerds toss-off. Released just nine months after the splatter-paint beauty of Fishscale, Tony Starks' second album of 2006 is as lean and compact as its predecessor was expansive. It's another dimension of Ghost's genius and arguably his most consistent collection since 2000's Supreme Clientele. More Fish is, for the most part, an omnibus of story-songs, with the Wu-Tang MC spinning ornately plotted but tightly delivered tales about everything from global drug-pushing ("Miguel Sanchez") to the glories of card playing (the Rounders-sampling "Pokerface").

  • Ludacris, 'Release Therapy' (DTP)

    Last year millions of people took Crash's message of racial understanding through coincidence to heart, but Ludacris, one of that Oscar-winning film's many stars, was not among them. Release Therapy, his fifth album, sees the usually ebullient Atlanta MC/actor/label boss throwing 'bows not in the club but rather in his analyst's office. Luda's turns in Crash and Hustle & Flow, along with his successful Disturbing Tha Peace label, haven't put him in a celebratory mood. And while he intermittently boasts about living the good life on Release Therapy ("I could fit four of your houses into my daughter's room"), he's mostly venting. The album's structure mimics that schism -- he hates MCs, Katrina, and child abuse (the moving "Runaway Love"), but he also haunts clubs and boudoirs. It's rare that a rapper stays relevant, or even popular, after five albums.

  • T-Pain, 'Rappa Ternt Sanga' (Konvict/Jive)

    A long, long time ago (say the '90s), R&B and hip-hop were like The Odd Couple's Felix and Oscar, often grouped together even though they were at odds. But nothing erodes mutual prejudice like money, so when Nelly started putting up multi-multiplatinum numbers with singsongy rap, MCs who had just rechristened R&B "rhythm and bullshit" started calling the crooners of the day to hook their slow jams. Florida young'un T-Pain is the result of this tension, a self-proclaimed "rappa ternt sanga." After doing a bid with the rap clique Nappy Heads -- you'll need Soulseek and a spelunking helmet to find their brief claim to fame, "Robbery" -- T-Pain struck out on his own, taking rap's brash attitude (in press photos, he rocks dreads and camo) and combining it with church harmonies and bedroom eyes.

  • Styles P, 'Time Is Money' (Ruff Ryders/Interscope)

    Styles P is a character actor. Which isn't to say the man they call the Ghost is faking his guns-'n'-drugs talk; his iron vacation at the Valhalla Correctional Facility ensures that no one has to check his résumé. Rather, he's something of a throwback, the rap equivalent to film vets like Warren Oates or Robert Ryan -- a weather-beaten dude who conveys a deeply troubled, overwhelmingly masculine experience through a minimum of gestures. As the heavy for the Yonkers, New York gun club D-Block (a.k.a. LOX), Styles dropped in on songs like "Wild Out," telling candy-ass rappers he was going to make coffins out of their plaques, then receding behind Jadakiss. But something happened to Styles on the way to being a second-tier MC: People noticed his first solo album, A Gangster and a Gentleman.

  • Young Jeezy, 'Let's Get It: Thug Motivation 101' (Def Jam) Boyz N Da Hood, 'Boyz N Da Hood' (Bad Boy)

    Young Jeezy, 'Let's Get It: Thug Motivation 101' (Def Jam) Boyz N Da Hood, 'Boyz N Da Hood' (Bad Boy)

    Young Jeezy doesn't need anyone to give him the best of both worlds. Behind door number one, the Atlanta native has President Hova and Def Jam, who are capitalizing on his underground mix-tape success by releasing Jeezy's major-label debut, Let's Get It. Behind door number two, he has P. Diddy, who chose Jeezy for his prefab Southern rap supergroup, Boyz N Da Hood. Either way, this hustler-turned rapper wins out. The Snowman, as he's known ("They call me residue / I leave blow on these beats"), follows in the footsteps of A-Town selfmade men such as T.I., though he sounds like a Dixie-fried, slow-motion Jadakiss -- a hulking MC who's equipped with both darkly comic punch lines and the street cred to prove he's earned his name.

  • Slim Thug, 'Already Platinum' (Star Trak/Geffen)

    Slim Thug already had his name in the credits of two mix-tape heatseekers (his own "3 Kings" and Mike Jones' "Still Tippin'") by the time he signed with Geffen. And for his major-label debut, the hulking Texas MC could have kept pouring the same old syrup -- painkilling fonk, flossing lyrics -- that started his buzz in the first place. But that wouldn't really be the Houston way. One of the reasons H-town has become the most talked-about locale in hip-hop is that its artists confound expectations. Far from the glare of industry scrutiny, they've developed a thriving mix-tape culture that frees artists from boardroom tinkering. With Jones' repetitive flow, Devin the Dude's alien R&B, and tracks that prefer getting screwed and chopped to getting up in da club, this scene marches to a different drum machine. So it's fitting that Slim Thug has partnered with the Neptunes.

  • Young Buck, 'Straight Outta Cashville' (G Unit/Interscope)

    On "Let Me In," the first single from Nashville rapper Young Buck's debut album, concealed weapons, underage drinking, and brazen flossing are the order of the day. Foes are shouted down; diamond-encrusted burners are waved. Even Buck's G-Unit boss, 50 Cent, goes back to the well, intoning"Go shorty / We back up in this bitch again." As the beat-part J-Kwon's "Tipsy," part the Clipse's "Grindin'"-thumps along,you're thinking, Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Then, out of nowhere, Buck exclaims, "My daddy's a dope fiend / And I don't really miss him /Ain't seen him in ten years!" Then, as punctuation, he drops in a barbaric yawp of an ad-lib: "Fuck him!"Buck, born David Brown, possesses a delivery that's a voodoo stew of Tupac and Screamin' Jay Hawkins, and that unhinged growl powers Straight Outta Cashville.

  • Young Buck - Straight Outta Cashville

    Young BuckStraight Outta CashvilleG Unit/Interscope On "Let Me In," the first single from Nashville rapper Young Buck's debut album, concealed weapons, underage drinking, and brazen flossing are the order of the day. Foes are shouted down; diamond-encrusted burners are waved. Even Buck's G-Unit boss, 50 Cent, goes back to the well, intoning "Go shorty / We back up in this bitch again." As the beat-part J-Kwon's "Tipsy," part the Clipse's "Grindin'"-thumps along, you're thinking, Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Then, out of nowhere, Buck exclaims, "My daddy's a dope fiend / And I don't really miss him / Ain't seen him in ten years!" Then, as punctuation, he drops in a barbaric yawp of an ad-lib: "Fuck him!" Buck, born David Brown, possesses a delivery that's a voodoo stew of Tupac and Screamin' Jay Hawkins, and that unhinged growl powers Straight Outta Cashville.

  • Comets on Fire, 'Blue Cathedral' (Sub Pop)

    It seems almost tragic to think about a record as cosmically righteous as Comets on Fire's Blue Cathedral in terms of terrestrial numbers. But let's do the math. This is the Bay Area combo's third full-length (not counting a slew of one-sided, limited-edition 12-inches). They have two guitar players, one of whom is Ben Chasny, who also records acid-folk vision-quests under the moniker Six Organs of Admittance. There is one person in the band who does nothing but man the Echoplex, an effects box that makes things sound "psychedelic"--you'd think he could double as a guitar player or pick up a tambourine, but apparently he's too busy plotting our jump to hyperspace. Cathedral features four songs that are over five minutes long, and two that have the word whiskey in the title.

  • Jadakiss, 'Kiss of Death' (Ruff Ryders/Interscope)

    Let this be known from the jump: Listening to Jadakiss will not stamp your ticket to heaven. His second solo album offers little in the way of social commentary, colorful storytelling, playful humor--all the hallmarks that make albums by your average God's son or college dropout compelling. Straight outta Yonkers with a Lox/D-Block membership card in his wallet,Jada's an East Coast alpha male who deals exclusively in threats and boasts, shifting gears only to flex a catalog-like knowledge of guns, ammo, and fine automobiles. That said,he's one of the four or five best MCs breathing. He knows it too: "Fuck riding a beat, I parallel-park on the track." With all due respect to the recently "retired" Jay-Z, Jada is rap's preeminent formalist: It's not what he says, but how he says it.

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