• Lateef the Truthspeaker, 'Firewire' (Quannum Projects)

    Lateef the Truthspeaker, 'Firewire' (Quannum Projects)

    Lateef's solo debut feels like an afterthought ?following two decades of collaborations with Quannum homies Lyrics Born (as Latyrx), Chief Xcel (as the underrated Maroons), and DJ Shadow ("Mashin on the Motorway"). Firewire is chaotically sequenced, like the Bay Area rapper scoured his hard drive for usable material without checking whether the songs actually blended together logically. So the album depends ?entirely on Lateef's outsize talents: He sings and raps with equal skill, and earns the spotlight with optimistic electro-pop forays ("So Sexy," "Testimony"). Meanwhile, the unabashed pop-rock of "Only Thought" and "Left Alone" suggests he actually may love Greg Kihn as much as Too Short.

  • Pusha T, 'Fear of God II: Let Us Pray' (G.O.O.D. Music/Decon)

    Pusha T, 'Fear of God II: Let Us Pray' (G.O.O.D. Music/Decon)

    The Clipse's Pusha T doesn't think he's God in the Biblical sense, but he's keenly aware of his greatness. On this revised edition of his solo Internet mixtape Fear of God, he testifies to his block hustle and magical ability to turn heterosexual women into lipstick lesbians. Yes, his coolly devious voice is seductive, even as he adopts a name-checking mannerism reminiscent of the Game ("This is block music / Waka Flock to it," he notes on the appropriately titled "So Obvious"). Let Us Pray offers a familiar Scarface tableau, but Pusha and cast (including a demonic Tyler, the Creator on "Trouble on My Mind") paint his fantasies with requisite fervor.

  • M.E.D., 'Classic' (Stones Throw)

    Nick "Medaphoar" Rodriguez's second album gets the full-blown Stones Throw treatment, with Madlib's zany Sun Ra loops pinging underneath verses from indie notables (Talib Kweli, Planet Asia, and Odd Future's Hodgy Beats). As for the star himself, M.E.D. doesn't try to compete with his more talented collaborators, and seems all too happy to fade into the disco-sampling psychedelics of "Flying High" and "Mystical Magical." But on Classic's standout tracks, including the Oh No–produced G-ride "Where I'm From" and the purp anthem "Medical Card," he offers up West Coast funk that befits his white-teed everyman personality.

  • Freestyle Fellowship, 'The Promise' (Decon)

    "We will never fall the fuck off," Freestyle Fellowship promised us on their 1991 classic To Whom It May Concern, back in an era when rhyming in blunt-filled ciphers was the new avant-garde. The L.A. collective may not have fallen off (though they came close with 2001's musically limited Temptations), but it's been a long and winding road to this glorious comeback album. On songs like "This Write Here" and "Step 2 the Side," the Fellowship remind us that jabberwocky word flows can still induce states of hypnosis, even when the MCs are "up on the gallows with two calico candles."

  • Icebird, 'The Abandoned Lullaby' (RJ's Electrical Connections)

    Icebird, 'The Abandoned Lullaby' (RJ's Electrical Connections)

    RJD2's collaboration with Philly singer Aaron Livingston bears the qualities that have divided the instrumental hip-hop producer's fans since the 2006 misfire The Third Hand -- most prominently, jazz-rock ellipses and thin, expressive vocals (Livingston's are only slightly better than RJ's own efforts). But give Icebird a chance. The arrangements sound dynamic -- no beat loops here -- from the twinkling keyboards and bluesy guitar blasts of "Gun for Hire" to the subtle xylophone plinks on "King Tut." Livingston makes a meandering first impression, but his lyrics quickly move to a clearer, more forceful statement: "Just live," he sings on "Just Love Me." "Forget everything we just did."

  • Tabi Bonney, 'The Summer Years' (Organized Rhyme)

    If you're unfamiliar with D.C. rapper Tabi Bonney, it's not for lack of effort on his part: He owns a clothing line, directs music videos, and floods the Internet with free music. Yet Bonney has always struggled to define himself artistically, until the charming, upbeat Postcard From Abroad, a mixtape released earlier this year. On this official debut album, he lapses into mimicry of blog-rap graduates Wiz Khalifa and Curren$y, but flosses convincingly, braggin' about hangin' with Winona Ryder on "Frontin'" and playing Lothario over Ski Beatz's lush funk groove on "Parachute."

  • Thundercat, 'The Golden Age of Apocalypse' (Brainfeeder)

    Thundercat, 'The Golden Age of Apocalypse' (Brainfeeder)

    Stephen "Thundercat" Bruner's improbable ?journey from thrash ?bassist for Suicidal Tendencies to alt-soul sideman (Erykah Badu, Sa-Ra Creative Partners, J*DaVeY) continues with his solo debut, a valentine to '70s jazz fusion. George Duke's 1975 classic "For Love (I Come Your Friend)" serves as a recurring theme, with Bruner using a similarly light falsetto for "Walkin'," "Boat Cruise," and "Seasons." Save for a short, pessimistic detour on "Mystery Machine," not much here breaks the spell of impressive fretwork, warm arrangements, and New Age musing. Offering a vision more golden age than apocalypse, Thundercat's music sparkles, and the effect is both lovely ?and overwhelming.

  • B, 'Jesus' (Nature Sounds)

    B, 'Jesus' (Nature Sounds)

    Since earning XXL "Top Ten Freshmen" status on the heels of 2007's much-loved Below the Heavens, Blu has reverted to "freelease" material, like this spring's Her Favorite Colo(u)r, and now Jesus, which approximates Madlib's affinity for classic-soul excavations and enigmatic weed hallucination. Blu (a.k.a. B) is a magnificent lyricist, trading darts with Planet Asia and Killa Ben on the Alchemist-helmed "Doowhop." But mostly he doodles, often amid his own odd self-produced tracks. "I was six when I played Jesus / Nowadays I could play a demon," he declares cryptically over the title track's Madlib beat. Blu seems content to continue wandering, leaving fans to wonder if he's got any idea where he's going.

  • The Game, 'The R.E.D. Album' (DGC/Interscope)

    The Game, 'The R.E.D. Album' (DGC/Interscope)

    "Now, blood the fuck up," shouts Lil Wayne on the title track of the Game's fourth album, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard albums chart. As for this long-delayed record's presumed star, the Game still aggressively name-drops in his rhymes, mythologizes his gangbanging youth, and relies on "narrator" and father figure Dr. Dre to give resonance to his meandering update of '90s gangsta rap. Like any other industry-groomed product, the man born Jayceon Taylor has assembled the best collaborators available, from Lil Wayne and fellow provocateur Tyler, the Creator on the outrageous "Martians vs. Goblins" ("Dragging all you fags to the back of the log cabin," spits Tyler) to the ubiquitous Chris Brown on "Pot of Gold." Slick beats from Cool & Dre, Boi-1da, DJ Khalil, Hit-Boy, DJ Premier, and others ensure this will bang in your ride. But that's about it.

  • The Cool Kids, 'When Fish Ride Bicycles' (Green Label Sound)

    The Cool Kids, 'When Fish Ride Bicycles' (Green Label Sound)

    When Fish Ride Bicycles may pay homage to Chicago summers, but this duo rarely break a sweat, rhyming in dulcet tones about designer sneaks and tricked-out GMCs. Chuck Inglish (who also produces) and Mikey Rocks move beyond the percussive bass minimalism of 2008's The Bake Sale, employing Travis Barker's live drums on "Sour Apples" and hard synth lines on "Gas Station," featuring Bun B. Still, aninnate casualness is their defining characteristic: "This is what should be playing in them jeeps / Swimsuit girls at the pool, beach," raps Mikey matter-of-factly.

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