• Shabazz Palaces, 'Black Up' (Sub Pop)

    Shabazz Palaces, 'Black Up' (Sub Pop)

    Ishmael "Butterfly" Butler once rhapsodized about jazz and Jimi in '90s boho-rap darlings Digable Planets. Now, as Palaceer Lazaro, leader of this mysterious Seattle collective, he espouses a more realist view, even reveling in ?extensive, effusive cran-berry-and-vodka seductions. He still enigmatically declares solidarity with the urban proletariat and critiques pop-culture clichés, but Black Up impresses most with its beguiling sounds, especially the verdant keyboard washes of "Are You...Can You...Were You? (Felt)" and the dread bass ticks of "Recollections of the Wraith."

  • Grieves, 'Together/Apart' (Rhymesayers)

    Grieves, 'Together/Apart' (Rhymesayers)

    Seattle-raised, Brooklyn-based Grieves is inspired by the Minnesota school of confessional hip-hop (Slug, Brother Ali, Eyedea). But he's also an optimist, so despite spilling an hour's worth of personal crises on Together/Apart, he actually locates the "Sunny Side of Hell." "Grab a hold of yourself, and face those days when it seems like it always rains," he sympathizes. While producer Budo creates melancholy set pieces -- from the funereal piano of "BloodyPoetry" to the soulful organ grinding of "Heartbreak Hotel" -- Grieves shines as a friendly, thoughtful voice, gladly ready to share secrets.

  • Tech N9ne, 'All 6's and 7's' (Strange)

    Tech N9ne, 'All 6's and 7's' (Strange)

    On all 6's and 7's, Tech N9ne claims he's a "cult leader," with a following of suburban delinquents who mimic his face-paint designs and violent, operatic dirges. Promising a similar fate for hip-hop's mainstream, he adds, "I'm gonna show these nonbelievers what mass lab-producing means." But as hell-raising séances go, All 6's and 7's can't compare to Tech's 2001 debut, Anghellic, where he rapped alongside machine-gun fire. "I'm beyond the boobies and the champagne," he claims. So the 39-year-old Kansas City, Missouri native offers star power.

  • Vast Aire, 'OX 2010: A Street Odyssey' (Man Bites Dog/Fat Beats)

    Vast Aire, 'OX 2010: A Street Odyssey' (Man Bites Dog/Fat Beats)

    If you expected a reprise of Cannibal Ox's 2001 cyberpunk masterpiece The Cold Vein, too bad: The duo's Vast Aire is still in his thug phase. Trying to bridge the eras with OX 2010, he pairs smashmouth braggadocio with superhero homage ("Thor's Hammer" and "Battle of the Planets," the latter an angry shot at former Definitive Jux comrades El-P and Cage). Vast proves his lyrical bona fides on gems like "Horoscope," rasping, "She would use music to escape / Press play, close her eyes, and dreamscape." Unfortunately, OX 2010's middling beats aren't quite as inspiring.

  • Dels, 'Gob' (Ninja Tune)

    Dels, 'Gob' (Ninja Tune)

    Despite claiming on his debut album's title track that he "won't get swallowed by the darkness," this London rapper willingly tumbles into his mind's netherworld. Giving voice to hallucinations, he employs vivid wordplay on "Eating Clouds" and "Melting Patterns," but also breaks into social commentary, including a haunting depiction of a homeless woman ("DLR") that recalls '60s British kitchen-sink drama. Backed by serrated electronics (Kwes, Hot Chip's Joe Goddard, Micachu from the Shapes), Dels struggles to find solace in the knowledge that his doubts and alienation are universal.

  • Raphael Saadiq, 'Stone Rollin' (Columbia)

    Raphael Saadiq, 'Stone Rollin' (Columbia)

    Raphael Saadiq's retro soul homage is almost too expertly calibrated. Cases in point: "Heart Attack," which riffs on the driving tempo of Sly and the Family Stone's "Dance to the Music"; or "Day Dreams" and its shuffling Bo Diddley backbeat; or the title track's LittleWalter–inspired harmonica. Still, Stone Rollin's rhythm-and-blues revival can't obscure Saadiq's songwriting talents. On the redemptive spiritual "Go to Hell," he sings, "There are channels in the valley, take me upstream" amid a gospel chorus and string arrangement worthy of Isaac Hayes. It's an apt metaphor for a virtuoso stylist whose finest flourishes lie in the details.

  • Prefuse 73, 'The Only She Chapters' (Warp)

    Prefuse 73, 'The Only She Chapters' (Warp)

    With this seventh studio album, Scott Herren finally emerges from the shadow of his 2003 glitch-hop classic One Word Extinguisher. Stripping down the beats of these 18 tracks, the producer conjures a dream-folk ambience, focusing on female choral voices, including the late Trish Keenan of Broadcast ("The Only Trial of 1000 Suns") and My Brightest Diamond's Shara Worden ("The Only Hand to Hold"). While occasionally meandering or drifting into tempests of digital noise, Herren focuses on a path of rapturous melancholy.

  • Daedalus, 'Bespoke' (Ninja Tune)

    Daedalus, 'Bespoke' (Ninja Tune)

    This merrily eccentric Los Angeles beatmaker plays like a Victorian tinkerer, tossing every genre into the works, while a clique of fellow pop subversives sing amid the clatter. As a riff on '50s jazz-pop, Inara George's "Penny Loafers" haunts with echoes of Bernard Hermann; but Busdriver's crooning over the frantic cumbia house of "What Can You Do for Me" is just chaotic. With its breakcore pacing and woozy bass and beats, Bespoke sometimes threatens to explode in Daedalus' face, but his willful delight in mucking things up proves to be persistently infectious.

  • Killer Mike, 'Pl3dge' (Grind Time/Grand Hustle/Tree Leaf/SMC)

    Killer Mike, 'Pl3dge' (Grind Time/Grand Hustle/Tree Leaf/SMC)

    Continuing his Pledge Allegiance to the Grind series, the former OutKast associate tones down the crack talk in favor of diatribes against Sarah Palin and Nancy Pelosi ("That's Life II") and the Christian church. "I need the pimps, pushers and prostitutes out in the streets / That's where I'm seeking God 'cause that's where he found me," he argues eloquently on "God in the Building II." ATL kingpins Young Jeezy, Gucci Mane, and T.I. pay their respects, and Mike mimics their strip-club homilies, but he shines brightest as the trap's "book reader" and "gang leader."

  • Pharoahe Monch, 'W.A.R.' (Duck Down)

    Pharoahe Monch, 'W.A.R.' (Duck Down)

    Pharoahe Monch has mostly sold "wood in the hood" during a two-decade career (as he admitted in his sole hit, 1999's "Simon Says"). But on W.A.R., the Queens MC is still in a linguistic fervor, rapping about being in the streets "like catalytic converters" on "Clap (one day)" and comparing himself to a preacher with a ".38 snub-nose" on "Let My People Go." Major-label misadventures still trouble him -- on "The Hitman," he blames SRC/Universal for poorly promoting his 2007 gem, Desire. But that doesn't stop him from focusing on more resonant issues, like the Cairo protests ("Calculated Amalgamation"): "No justice, no peace, no settle / We are renegades, fuck your gold medal."

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