• biggie-tupac.jpg

    MYTH No. 4: Biggie & Tupac Are Hip-Hop's Pillars

    REALITY: Biggie and Tupac don't matter anymore. For hip-hop, which has always prided itself on origin stories, the intertwining sagas of the Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur are key formative narratives. Together, they've become a collective idea, the culture's most important dyad. And yet, think of everything that's happened in the 12 years since their murders: hip-hop's full immersion into pop, the rise of the South, the reemergence of independent rap, Kanye West. None of these things would have been possible without the footprint Biggie and Pac left upon the collective consciousness, but none rely on their templates or modes for sustenance. Biggie and Pac have emulators, of course, from 50 Cent to Young Jeezy, but they're of an older generation, the first descendents in the ancestral line.

  • Various Artists, 'Through the Wilderness: A Tribute to Madonna' (Manimal Vinyl)

    It's easy to remember Madonna's vivacious side, but she was desperate, too, a theme that the best of this indie tribute captures neatly. Apollo Heights' Bowie-ish "Dress You Up" broods, and Jonathan Wilson's rootsy "La Isla Bonita" positively gasps. "Material Girl," by Mountain Party (featuring Devendra Banhart), feels spacey and standoffish, giving the song a renewed meaning. Some of the reads (by Ariel Pink, the Prayers) are frustratingly glib. But the last 30 seconds of "Crazy for You," from Los Angeles folkies Lion of Panjshir, are chilling -- frontwoman Ariana Delawari and her traditional Afghan backing accelerate feverishly, breaking the sweat Madonna never quite did, or could. Now Hear This: Lavender Diamond - "Like a Prayer" DOWNLOAD MP3 BUY: iTunesAmazon

  • Om, 'Pilgrimage' (Southern Lord)

    Since their days in Sleep, Al Cisneros and Chris Haikus have been making monastery metal, a druggy, often quiet combo of Black Sabbath and Low. Pilgrimage throbs and grinds with hypnotic, almost dubby bass. Aggression arrives, finally, in the second track (of four), "Unitive Knowledge of the Godhead," and is sustained through the ferocious "Bhima's Theme." Cisneros' hazy chanting vocals, though, can be clumsy and spacey, at odds with the band's sonic texture. Pilgrimage impresses, but Om have achieved more before, with less. Now Hear This: Om - "Unitive Knowledge of the Godhead" DOWNLOAD MP3 BUY: Amazon

  • Dashboard Confessional, 'The Shade of Poison Trees' (Vagrant)

    Chris Carrabba's early songs were lovelorn, wussy morsels -- crisp, tautly melodic, and deeply felt. He was concise, and he was heartbroken, and then he was famous, opening for U2 and making Spider-Man, you know, relatable. But Carrabba must not have liked what he saw at the summit, and Shade, his fifth Dashboard Confessional album, is an attempt to reconcile the worlds within and outside his heart. There are new scars here. On "Where There's Gold," he's brutally cynical about a girl who chases the limelight, only to fall short and end up a "gold digger." "Matters of Blood and Connection" nods to class struggle, with the singer scolding a scenester who's slumming on Daddy's money: "Drink well from your bottomless cup," he sneers. This is novel, awkward turf for Carrabba, whose resentment has usually been far more personal. And for the most part, Shade does stay in that comfort zone.

  • Gym Class Heroes, 'As Cruel as School Children' (Decaydance/Fueled By Ramen)

    More Atmosphere than Atmosphere themselves, upstate New York's Gym Class Heroes have finally untangled the emo-rap paradigm, understanding that it's the target demographic first, then the method, not vice versa. Travis McCoy is an intuitive, if not inventive, MC, and the band knows all the nuances of post-frat rock. Their second album sounds alarmingly natural, cornering an oddly under-supplied market. Because what teen party is complete without raps about high school gossip ("Scandalous Scholastics") and, of course, MySpace ("New Friend Request")? Now Watch This: Gym Class Heroes - "The Queen and I" WINDOWS MEDIA | QUICKTIME COMMENT BUY: iTunesAmazon

  • Hawthorne Heights, 'If Only You Were Lonely' (Victory)

    Twenty of the best seconds in pop last year belonged to Hawthorne Heights. On the hook from "Ohio Is for Lovers," the Dayton, Ohio quintet's breakthrough single, a Sabbath riff kicks in like a jump-starting engine; frontman JT Woodruff whines, "I can't make it on my own"; and guitarist Casey Calvert echos him back in gruff, barking counterpoint. Soft to hard and back. And then again. A neat trick, but it wasn't enough to sustain a whole song, much less an album of same, which is what their follow-up, If Only You Were Lonely, attempts. Unique only in its monochromatic affect, uniformly unsmiling in its appraisals of Self and Others, Lonely wears its formula -- neatly segmented portions of emo and metal -- like a Scout badge. Lacking the ragged, angsty energy of labelmates Atreyu or the cheery, self-deprecating fun of tourmates Fall Out Boy, Hawthorne Heights shun nuance altogether.

  • Gretchen Wilson, 'All Jacked Up' (Epic Nashville) Big and Rich, 'Comin' to Your City' (Warner Bros. Nashville)

    Gretchen Wilson, 'All Jacked Up' (Epic Nashville) Big and Rich, 'Comin' to Your City' (Warner Bros. Nashville)

    Mainstream country music has always been popular, but last year it got idiosyncratic, with songs that quoted OutKast, video cameos from Kid Rock, and a rapping black cowboy. This was mostly thanks to the MuzikMafia, a tight collective of Nashville insurgents -- Big Kenny, John Rich, Gretchen Wilson, and assorted friends -- who became part of the Music Row machinery by breaking its protocols. But underneath their red-state wisecracking beat the hearts of country purists. Though the Mafia sold their outsider status, they succeeded because they thought like insiders. Gretchen Wilson's "Redneck Woman" was last year's most audacious debut single. The working-class anthem was a blow to country's reductive sheen, but it also camouflaged Wilson's true calling: balladeer. Her best songs were smoky and slow, full of pure country melancholy.

  • Rod Lee, 'Vol. 5: The Official' (Club Kingz/Morphius Urban)

    Hip-hop is such a global juggernaut that it's easy to forget there are still regional black sounds, too. Detroit has its techno and, more recently, its ghetto tech. Chicago has catered to househeads and steppers for decades. Miami's bass music still thrives in obscurity, as did Atlanta's for many years before crunk; and Washington, D.C. go-go remains content not to cross the Maryland line. Just across that border, Baltimore has "club" (or house, or breaks, depending on whom you ask), a refreshingly lewd, jubilant, and pneumatic style. DJ/producer Rod Lee is the biggest name of the sound's third, maybe fourth wave since its late-'80s inception, and he hews tightly to the party line on Vol. 5, the first B-more mix with national distribution (thanks, presumably, to the sound's sudden cachet with baile funk and grime-loving hipsters out for a new fix).

  • The Tippin' Point

    When Bun B and his entourage descend, the block is empty -- a vacant lot on one side, a ramshackle house shy a few windows on the other. The bodega on the corner has glass doors so dirty you can't tell if it's open or closed. But once the rapper's associates begin setting up his album-cover photo shoot -- planting a tripod and lighting rigs in the street, wheeling in a candy-blue '70 Oldsmobile Cutlass with glimmering chrome rims -- the neighborhood begins to awake. Barefoot kids hover tentatively. A young man with gold fangs gawks openly at the amply curved models waiting for instructions. And the house, which had been ghostly quiet, spills a dozen or so occupants onto the street. One guy, lacking a crate or a chair, sinks deep into a creaky baby stroller. Its previous occupant, a young girl with pigtails, snoozes in his lap. This is where it all began, in the Fifth Ward.

  • Kanye West, 'Late Registration' (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam)

    "If you talkin' 'bout classics, do my name get brought up?" This is Kanye West on "Diamonds From Sierra Leone," the single that preceded the release of his second album, inquiring after -- or pleading for -- the adulation he so nakedly craves. No artist in any genre has ever argued so assiduously for his place in the canon, and perhaps no artist has been more oddly equipped for the position. A middle-class kid from Chicago with a prep-hop style and an entitlement complex as wide as Lake Michigan, West made his name behind the boards on Jay-Z's soul-drenched album The Blueprint, then gabbed his way to a Roc-A-Fella chain of his own. Underdogs and dissenters have long thrived at hip-hop's margins, but backpacker love didn't sate him -- West wanted in.

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