• 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."

  • Beans, 'End It All' (Anticon)

    Beans, 'End It All' (Anticon)

    Beans always poses as an abstractionist, freaking motormouth cadences with a self-professed "mind that's literary." But on his fifth soloalbum, the former Anti-Pop Consortium rapper is actually more of a traditionalist, with songs grounded in elaborate boasts (save the post-recession critique "Air Is Free," where he rues oil spills and government bailouts as the "new hard times"). Beans' avalanche of verbiage can obscure his nuances, but a cast of collaborators -- disco evangelist In Flagranti, electro-hop eccentric Tobacco, psychedelic beat guru Four Tet, even Interpol's Sam Fogarino -- burnish his rhyme schemes into high-tech funk.

  • Talib Kweli, 'Gutter Rainbows' (Javotti Media/3D)

    Talib Kweli, 'Gutter Rainbows' (Javotti Media/3D)

    Brooklyn rapper Talib Kweli has a talent for summing up ambitious concepts in powerfully concise phrases, whether it's 2004's The Beautiful Struggle or 2007's Eardrum. With the similarly evocative Gutter Rainbows, the self-described "prisoner of consciousness" distills stories of ghetto-shackled blues people and his decade-plus career ("Mr. International"), occasionally turning over the mic to guests like Sean Price and Jean Grae (who kills "Uh Oh" with a coolly ruthless verse). However, the production (from Ski Beatz, 88-Keys, others) adds florid, melodramatic choruses to jazzy boom-bap tracks, blunting the impact of Kweli's dogged street intellectualism.

  • Big L, 'Return of the Devil's Son' (Distrolord/SMC)

    Big L, 'Return of the Devil's Son' (Distrolord/SMC)

    Lamont "Big L" Coleman was tragically murdered in 1999, leaving behind a revered debut, a classic single ("Ebonics"), and dozens of radio freestyles and demos that continue to inspire awe among rap purists. Return of the Devil's Son officiallycollects the odds and sods of that discography into a portrait of a young rhyme animal who could not only blast MCs for days, but also discipline himself into a compelling prison narrative like "I Won't." Fans will quibble over the track selection -- his legendary ten-minute freestyle with Jay-Z is sorely missed -- but this may be the best distillation to date of the late Harlem MC's potential.

  • Smoke DZA, 'George Kush Da Button - Deluxe Edition' (Frank Radio/IHipHop)

    Smoke DZA, 'George Kush Da Button - Deluxe Edition' (Frank Radio/IHipHop)

    The retail version of Smoke DZA's Internet mixtape expands the monopoly of the JETS International crew (Curren$y, Trademark Da Skydiver, Young Roddy) on new-school weed rap. "Every morning I salute Mr. Marley," boasts DZA on "Continental Kush Breakfast." Wake-and-bake fantasias, languorous sounds from Ski Beatz and Big K.R.I.T., and cheeky snippets from the Dubya lexicon make George Kush catnip for stoners. But the Harlem rapper can spit game, too, delivering "cemetery raps, dead nice" that will keep sober-minded listeners equally stoked.

  • Skyzoo & Illmind, 'Live From the Tape Deck' (Duck Down)

    Skyzoo & Illmind, 'Live From the Tape Deck' (Duck Down)

    "This is '86 Rakim with a Flip camera on," rhymes Brooklyn-born MC Skyzoo, who tosses out complex arrangements of syllables like Frisbees, while avoiding corny backpacker clichés. On this duo's debut full-length, he's nicely complemented by Illmind's production, which ranges from the Dilla-like soul loop of "#Allaboutthat" to the fuzzy '70s-cop-show funk of "The Now or Never." Live From the Tape Deck is full of stolid striver anthems; Skyzoo even bases a song on Lebron James' controversial "Decision" broadcast ("Winners Circle"). But the album's meat-and-potatoes consistency remains bracing throughout.

  • Lyrics Born, 'As U Were' (Decon)

    Lyrics Born, 'As U Were' (Decon)

    With each new release, former Solesides crew member Lyrics Born edges closer to becoming the West Coast Cee Lo, a onetime rap innovator now dedicated to the power of soul. While earlier albums like 2003's excellent Later That Day stayed in the P-Funk pocket, As U Were strains to incorporate electro into an ebullient mix of confessionals ("I've Lost Myself") and confidence boosters ("Oh Baby!"). Though he sounds slightly out of place on the screeching "Lies X 3," standouts "We Live by the Beat" and "Kontrol Phreak" impressively blend synth-funk and neo-new-wave glamour.

  • Bilal, 'Airtight's Revenge' (Plug Research)

    Bilal, 'Airtight's Revenge' (Plug Research)

    Bilal Oliver was once a soldier in the Soulquarians, the ?uestlove-led collective that called for a hip-hop and R&B revolution. But 2001's underappreciated 1st Born Second led to years of label battles, and the experience left him stressed and emotionally scarred. So Bilal invests his third album (the second, Love for Sale, remains unreleased) with rambling confessions, mourns a foster child turned crack-addicted prostitute (the searing "Flying"), and claims that he's a Muslim, Christian, and Jew on "Who Are You" -- everything and anything he sees in the mirror. Airtight's Revenge has its soul affectations, but even standard fare like "Little One" bears Bilal's impressively reedy, insistent voice. He sounds like a man unburdening himself.

  • Aloe Blacc, 'Good Things' (Stones Throw)

    Nathaniel "Aloe Blacc" Hawkins' first album since his promising 2006 debut is yet another retro-soul riff, but the rapper turned singer's wonderfully expressive voice (shades of Bill Withers) sets him apart from stylized crooners. For Good Things, he offers a sympathetic tale of a homeless drunk ("I Need a Dollar," featured on HBO's How to Make It in America) and delivers love songs full of lyrical grace ("You Make Me Smile"). Despite Truth & Soul Productions' lean, understated arrangements, Good Things carries an oversize emotional impact, especially when Blacc pays tribute to his aging mother ("Hold My Hand") over a gust of violins. BUY: Amazon

  • Roots Manuva Meets Wrongtom, 'Duppy Writer' (Big Dada)

    South London producer Wrongtom (who's also the DJ/remixer for bloke-ish dance punks Hard-Fi) has a refreshingly old-school take on contemporary dub, eschewing trendy dubstep gimmicks for deeper touchstones Lee Perry and Sly & Robbie. On Duppy Writer, he drops shuffling riddims ("Worl' a Mine") that give a fresh context to these reworkings of old Roots Manuva tracks (save for one new tune "Jah Warriors"). Shorn of its usual grime trappings, Manuva's deep, gruff lyricism sounds playfully inspired on catalog highlights like "Proper Tings Juggled." BUY:iTunes Amazon

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