• Jadakiss - Kiss of Death

    JadakissKiss of DeathRuff Ryders/Interscope Letthis be known from the jump: Listening to Jadakiss will not stamp yourticket to heaven. His second solo album offers little in the way ofsocial commentary, colorful storytelling, playful humor--all thehallmarks that make albums by your average God's son or college dropoutcompelling. Straight outta Yonkers with a Lox/D-Block membership cardin his wallet, Jada's an East Coast alpha male who deals exclusively inthreats and boasts, shifting gears only to flex a catalog-likeknowledge of guns, ammo, and fine automobiles. That said, he's one ofthe four or five best MCs breathing. He knows it too: "Fuckriding a beat, I parallel-park on the track." With all due respect tothe recently "retired" Jay-Z, Jada is rap's preeminent formalist: It'snot what he says, but how he says it.

  • The Roots, 'The Tipping Point' (Geffen)

    We ask a lot of the Roots. Straddling mainstream gun claps, underground knapsacks, and jam-band woodsheds, they're equally at home backing Eminem at the Grammys, sharing the mic with Common, or finding the pocket with Medeski, Martin & Wood.Hip-hop's de facto house band have never been just a rap group. Philly's finest are the bridge between indie artists looking for shine and fat cats looking for cred.

  • The Roots - The Tipping Point

    The RootsThe Tipping PointGeffen We ask a lot of the Roots. Straddling mainstream gun claps,underground knapsacks, and jam-band woodsheds, they're equally at homebacking Eminem at the Grammys, sharing the mic with Common, or findingthe pocket with Medeski, Martin & Wood. Hip-hop's de facto houseband have never been just a rap group. Philly's finest are the bridgebetween indie artists looking for shine and fat cats looking for cred.And by sharing stages with everyone from Moby to 311, they'venormalized hip-hop for white alt-audiences. There have alsobeen times when the Roots asked a lot of us. They've often sailed theuncharted seas of prog rap, meandering into spoken word, wanky solos,and fusion indulgences. But if their early Native Tongues-tingedoutings--1995's Do You Want More?!!!??!

  • Young Gunz, 'Tough Luv' (Roc-a-Fella)

    Jay-Z's retirement and Dame Dash's extracurricular activities have dominated Roc-A-Fella-related headlines during the last year. But under the radar, the label has been developing a strong farm system of Philadelphia rappers–most under the tutelage of Beanie Sigel and loosely united in the Philly "supergroup" State Property–who are preparing for the day when Hov retires to his yacht and Memphis Bleek goes back to work at Best Buy. Last year, neck-bearded, newcomer Freeway made a splash with an album that fused Muslim ideals and street-corner steel. This time, it's Young Gunz (postadolescent Philadelphians Young Chris and Neef). The lads scored a summer hit with the club banger,"Can't Stop, Won't Stop," a testament to their luck with the ladies delivered over an infectious, minimal electro beat.

  • Danger Mouse, 'The Grey Album' (www.djdangermouse.com)

    The initial advertising campaign for Jay-Z's (alleged) swansong, 2003's The Black Album, featured a picture of a tape box with the names of 12 of hip-hop's greatest producers scribbled on it. Chalk it up to a two-way malfunction, but the name of famed Beatles knob-adjuster George Martin was conspicuously absent. Nomadic producer/DJ Danger Mouse corrects that oversight onThe Grey Album, which fuses the a cappella vocals from Hova's last will and testament with new music sample-sourced from the Beatles' sprawling psychedelic classic, The Beatles, better known as "the White Album." Remixing The Black Album has become something of a cottage industry. DJ Lt. Dan's The Black Remixes: Back to Basics mates Jay-Z's verses with classic Brand Nubian and Notorious B.I.G. beats; producers Kno and Kev Brown set Jigga's words to beats of their own creation.

  • The Twilight Singers, 'Blackberry Belle' (Birdman)

    First line of Blackberry Belle, Greg Dulli's latest dose of pimped-out, bipolar catharsis: "Black out the windows /It's party time." By Dulli's standards, this means everything's peachy. For more than a decade -- first with his band the Afghan Whigs, then with the more-or-less-solo Twilight Singers -- Dulli's M.O. has been pretty much the same: sex, drugs, emotional terrorism, guilt, redemption, repeat. He's one part pagan Anne Rice vampire and one part Catholic Graham Greene hero, and he writes killer songs, too, swiping all the right moves from '80s indie rock and '70s R&B. Blackberry Belle abandons the coffeehouse trip-hop affectations of the Twilight Singers' debut; many of the glistening rock songs here wouldn't have sounded out of place on the Whigs' awesome swan song, 1965.

  • Kanye West, 'The College Dropout' (Roc-A-Fella)

    Ifit's getting tougher to tell the playas from the pontificators in hip-hop today, blame Kanye West. As one of the Roc-A-Fella label's go-to producers, the Chicago-bred West has given Roc slugger Jay-Z some big, fat pitches to hit--"Girls, Girls, Girls" and the Doors-sampling "Takeover" among them. But he's also hung onto his underground cred, working with the thoughtful likes of Talib Kweli (whose first solo hit was the West-produced "Get By"). The self-proclaimed "first nigga with a Benz and a backpack" seems to see little difference between Hova's big pimpin' and Kweli's bully pulpit; it's all part of the magnificent bastard that is hip-hop. West built anticipation for his debut album with a string of stellar mix tapes, on which he displayed his production chops and kicked some surprisingly nimble rhymes.

  • Various Artists, 'Revenge of the Robots' (Definitive Jux)

    Independent hip-hop's preeminent label goes Hollywood with this double-disc CD/DVD package centering on a documentary of its 2002 get-in-the-van Revenge of the Robots tour. An all-you-can-eat multimedia buffet featuring stellar live footage from El-P and Mr.Lif, plus a mega-mix by house turntable whiz RJD2, the collection also shows off the lighter side of a scene often accused of blurring the line between "challenging" and "no fun at all." It's refreshing to watch the Def Juxelites kill time by arguing about the whereabouts of a PlayStation memory card, pondering whether or not to wear rubber gloves when shaking hands with fans, or clowning RJD2 about "being as big as DJ Shadow." This is spinal rap. BUY: Amazon

  • Joe Budden, 'Joe Budden' (Def Jam)

    There is no evidence to suggest that Joe Budden can bend spoons with his mind. But in the hip-hop mix-tape underground, the New Jersey-bred rapper's rubbery voice, acerbic sense of humor (reminiscent of Garden State neighbor Redman), and slurred yet engaging delivery have earned him a rep as "The One." And when Budden held his own in a playful war of words versus Jay-Z this past spring--serving Hova with hoop-dream zingers like "Stand out like Yao Ming / I'm what's sparking now / Like, 'Fall back, Shaq, I'm startin' now'"--people started to believe. Like Philadelphia's Freeway or Atlanta's Killer Mike, Budden seemed poised to give the rap game a much-needed transfusion of youth, energy, and soul. Of course, it's easier to spit slang over no-contest instrumentals like "Grindin'" and "In Da Club" than to craft an album that lives up to the mix-tape hype.

  • Jay-Z, 'The Blueprint 2: The Gift and the Curse' (Roc-a-Fella)

    Tenures at the top are short in hip-hop--short like, say, leprechauns. Native Tongues lose their lucky Africa medallions. Gangstas' colors fade. Those who invented the remix find themselves in reality-show purgatory. But for the better part of a decade, Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter has been a force of nature. And he's done more than keep his pockets lined and his name up in lights; he's actually gotten better. In a neat inversion of standard hip-hop devolution, Jay-Z's commercial success has paved the way for his emergence as an artist. It began with the maturation of his go-to producers, Kanye West and Just Blaze. On last year's The Blueprint, West tugged heartstrings with borrowed Philly-soul arrangements, while Blaze punched up the Stax jam session of his dreams.

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