• J. Cole / Photo by Robin Marchant/Getty

    J. Cole, 'Born Sinner' (Roc Nation)

    Born Sinner is derailed by its penultimate track. "Let Nas Down" finds the North Carolina-raised J. Cole wallowing in his feelings after learning that his first album's breakthrough single, "Work Out," disgusted his fellow MC and apparent idol. The song casts Nas as a wandering hip-hop bard and Cole's current label boss and benefactor, Jay-Z, as the corporate beast who's demanding a radio hit. Instead of resonating as an emotive confessional, though, the song only spotlights the lack of fire on Born Sinner. Cue the whining chorus ("I can't believe I let Nas down") and the rather defeatist conclusion: "Long live the idols, may they never be your rivals." Certainly not with that attitude.This sophomore set is wracked by a curious envy. Cole himself has become something of a wholesome star: He attempts to write from the heart, crafts sophisticated beats, and embraces a clean-cut persona.

  • Ghostface and Adrian Younge / Photo by Lloyd Bishop/NBC/NBCU/Getty

    Ghostface Killah and Adrian Younge, 'Twelve Reasons to Die' (Soul Temple)

    Spoiler alert: Ghostface Killah ultimately wreaks gory revenge on the Deluca organized crime family that betrays him, though his girl Logan was the one who set him up.That's the crux of the plot running through Twelve Reasons to Die, recorded in cahoots with Los Angeles-based retro-fetishist producer Adrian Younge (although it also includes a peculiar scene where Ghost's body is melted down into 12 pieces of vinyl, hammily narrated by executive producer the RZA). The newly minted chemistry here is decent — Younge recently resurrected '70s soul men the Delfonics, and Ghost in the past has rhymed over loops of their songs, so a sample circle is complete — and suggesting our host channel his high-strung and wantonly wayward raps into a steady narrative makes practical sense.

  • Bilal, 'A Love Surreal' (eOne)

    Frank Ocean resurrected R&B last year. Or reinvented it. Or just rescued it. At least, that's the way many critics saw it. But while his channel ORANGE — an excellent record, of course — catalyzed interest in the genre, the frenzy of genuflecting that followed cast a sour light on his immediate predecessors and peers, a.k.a., those artists who had been releasing fine R&B records for years (if not decades), and whose brows likely furrowed quizzically when they learned that their chosen genre had been moribund all along.With sober timing, then, Bilal's fourth album arrives in the wake of ORANGE's year-end-poll sweep. If that cresting wave carries more interest his way, then all power to the collective good. But despite its hammy title, A Love Surreal shows the folly of blind Ocean Fever.

  • Pusha T / Photo by Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

    Pusha T, 'Wrath of Caine' (G.O.O.D. Music)

    Pusha T begins his 2013 with a brutal blitzkrieg of impeccably wrought lines shot through with the godly confidence of the golden-era hip-hop standard that gives his new mixtape its title: Big Daddy Kane's "Wrath of Kane." This is to be expected: Pusha raps better than your favorite current rapper. In his 10-plus-year career, he's rarely forsaken a rhymed word. But as the curt Wrath of Caine zips through its 11 songs, he more and more marries his impervious talents to his equally daunting demons.True, the veteran Clipse member and current Kanye West cohort has been myopically pigeonholed as just a coke rapper in the past, but now he's embracing the darker recesses of his soul, which includes reveling in a growing God complex and confidently breaking free from the tethers of his old, dormant group.

  • Muggs, we think

    Hear the Muggs and Roc Marciano Dubstep Collabo 'Absolem' and Read Our Q&A

    "I'm a fan of electronic music going back to the early '80s," says DJ Muggs, explaining away the inspiration for his new Bass for Your Face project. Pitched as the Cypress Hill architect's attempt to craft hip-hop-based music that appeals to the dubstep crowd, the ten-track album is hinged around cavernous bass tones that twist their way around vicious metallic drum patterns while guest MCs like Danny Brown, Dizzee Rascal, Freddie Gibbs, and Chuck D contribute aggressive vocals. Bass for Your Face also features a canny collaboration with underground rap man of the minute Roc Marciano, whose hushed and menacing tones embellish a brutal brooding groove for "Absolem," which you can stream below.

  • You just lost, The Game

    The Game, 'Jesus Piece' (Interscope)

    Blame Kendrick Lamar for this one. Now that the former war zone of Compton has been soothed by warm waves of righteous goodwill, courtesy of Lamar's critical smash good kid, m.A.A.d city, even the CPT's former orthodox nihilists are embracing the positive side. So it is with the Game, who has gone from holding fort as his hometown's last gangsta-rap star to his fifth solo album, wherein he aims to "deliver the good word." Yep: He's gone and opened up the Church of Rap.Dude has done his research, at least, and hits the main tenets of all the most popular religions.

  • Action Bronson / Photo by Roger Kisby/Getty

    Been Caught Stealing: Action Bronson's Shoplifting Tips for 'Rare Chandeliers' Release Day

    "I'm in Miami right now so the morning regime is get up, smoke wax out of my custom G-Pen vaporizer, walk around the beach, have a bowl of cereal with a banana in it, and just enjoy the weather," says Action Bronson. It's two hours before today's noon release of the rapper's new Rare Chandeliers album, a 14-track free download cut in tandem with the producer Alchemist, and Bronson is enjoying the last spoils of the Miami life before hopping on an airplane and heading home to Flushing, Queens. By the time he lands, Rare Chandeliers will have dropped and helped further the burgeoning legend of Bronson: The project showcases more of the rapper's masterly flow, his delightfully uncouth sense of humor, and is infused with his now patented smorgasbord of fine-dining food references.

  • The Roc is in the building!

    Roc Marciano, 'Reloaded' (Decon)

    "Is that Roc official like his last jawn? My best hip hop debate w/ hov was over that record."That's a recent Tweet from Roots drummer ?uestlove, in conversation with hip-hop producer the Alchemist, describing an earlier argument with Jay-Z concerning rapper Roc Marciano's 2010 album Marcberg. Well, none of the above will be disappointed with the sequel.The grimy, lo-fi Marcberg met with a curious reception: It notched a smattering of year-end accolades from critics and was hailed by a small group of New York rappers as a beacon of the city's enduring prowess, but it was ultimately dwarfed in a glitzy year defined by Drake's debut, Kanye's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and Rick Ross' Teflon Don. Steadily though, the cult coalesced as the record became a classic of its type, born from the city's underbelly, nodding to its heritage, but willing to move on from its past.

  • Meek Mill / Photo by Clay Patrick McBride

    Meek Mill Lets His Rick Ross-Approved LP Speak for Itself

    "Gangstas move in silence, nigga / and I don't talk a lot," spits Meek Mill midway through the title song on his Dreams and Nightmares album. As the Philadelphia-based arm of Rick Ross' expansive Maybach Music Group, sizable things are expected of Meek and his debut. But in the run-up to the October 30 release date, Meek, 25, seems to be taking his rapped vow of silence as something of a mantra, greeting a series of questions about the make-up of the album with a conversational shrug.Reaching him while in transit from Philly to New York City, we ask Meek how his approach to writing Dreams and Nightmares differed from the two Dreamchasers mixtapes that established his gift for layering street-wrought raps over radio-friendly beats in prime M.M.G. fashion. "I don't know," he says in a curt-but-polite manner.

  • MGK, 'Lace Up' (Bad Boy/Interscope)

    A firebrand of a 22-year-old white rapper from Cleveland, Richard “Machine Gun Kelly” Baker has journeyed from the Midwest rap underground to Bad Boy Records on the strength of his spirit, angst, and enthusiasm. (That youthful rage also recently inspired him to rough up some innocent computers during a performance at a Microsoft store in Atlanta’s Lenox Square Mall.) But his debut album under Diddy’s supervision is a rather soulless affair: The man rebranded MGK goes about his rapping as if the project of pitching to a broader audience necessarily requires him to compromise his identity and his emotions.In the rapper’s pre-Bad Boy days, his most endearing songs were powered by an infectious combination of passion and precision. As an MC, he could rattle out verses at what seemed like warp-speed, but those quickly spit syllables also managed to convey a worldly pain and frustration.

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