Albums With Attitude: The Swag Collection

Tha Carter IV

Lil Wayne
An interesting story came out as Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter IV leaked to the Internet five days early. Special guest Busta Rhymes, being interviewed from his tour bus, had not even heard the leak within those first 48, and seemed fascinated to hear that Bun B, Nas, and Shyne were also on his track. This was in spite of the his line “Tunechi, thanks for giving us a whole 'nother classic with Tha Carter IV” the album's final words, delivered by Busta during the “Outro,” one of two tracks on which Wayne doesn’t even appear. Busta’s mix of excitement and confusion perfectly captures this album’s magic in that there’s an electricity in the air here, one so attractive that you don’t care about what’s missing, so don’t hold this up next to Tha Carter II or III because you just might miss a grand Jay-Z diss (“Talkin' about baby money, I got your baby money/ Kidnap your bitch, get that how much you love your lady money”) while considering the differences. If II and III were the arguable masterpieces, this one is less convincing, but it is a solid, above average hip-hop album that would be in held high and wide regard if it carried any other name. Wayne seems to address this new, sometimes B+ era with “Some of us are lovers/Most of y’all are haters/But I put up a wall/And they just wallpaper” on “Blunt Blowing,” a track which is Young Money’s seductive and flossy version of the blues. If dazzling rhetoric and shameless bombast is what grabs his audience, it absolutely overflows during the album’s unstoppable first quarter, which boils over when the short blue mobster called “Megaman” shoots forth “Life is shorter than Bushwick.” The totally T-Pain track “How to Hate” is the album’s first speedbump, and Wayne remains a guest on his own album as Tech N9ne and Rick Ross dominate the following cuts, but the uncontroversial “Abortion” (“I know your name, your name is unimportant/We in the belly of the beast, and she thinkin’ of abortion”) puts the spotlight back on Weezy. After John Legend adds some purposeful polish, it’s all smooth sailing plus with those high Carter standards, bouncing between tracks fans can singalong and connect with (the pure and simple “How to Love”) or marvel at (“It’s Good” where Jay-Z diss meets Alan Parsons sample). In the end, Busta’s pre-cog declaration of “classic” is the download generation’s more “in the moment” definition of the word, and it is fittingly delivered while the venerated Wizard Weezy is out the door and off the track in that “pay no mind to that man behind the curtain” style. On Tha Carter IV, Wayne’s world feels more like a dream than reality, but the loyal subjects of Young Money get a wild ride and the great feeling of flashing those ruby slippers one more time. [The Deluxe Edition added three bonus tracks, including "Mirror" featuring Bruno Mars.]

Kanye West Presents Good Music Cruel Summer

Various Artists
Kicking off with R. Kelly doing vocal gymnastics over the most polished and professional of Pop Wansel beats, Cruel Summer is a mistitled fireworks show from Kanye West and his G.O.O.D. Music label/roster/empire, one that comes off as mixtape-minded follow-up to his flossy Jay-Z team-up Watch the Throne. Big difference here is that the arrogance canon isn't aimed at anything particular, as West and company put their middle finger up "To the World," because those shoes are just so damn stylish you don't need a reason to tolerate anyone, anywhere, anytime. When Kanye mentions strolling into the Def Jam office and asking for another fifty million because he woke up on the wrong side of the bed, it isn't a connectable moment in the least, and as "Mercy.1" steals the listener's girlfriend for a hand job in the Lamborghini, it's hard not classify this as baller party for the "We Are the 1%" set, but anyone who can look past the vapid and still dream wetly about Kardashians or Giuseppe Zanotti shoes can latch onto this hypebeast and ride. "Mercy.1"'s ridiculously good hook, plus its thrill-ride construction from producer Lifted, is reason enough to forgive all the bling and its glare, and as new folks like Big Sean, 2 Chainz, and Chief Keef mix with vets like Ghostface Killah, Common, Raekwon, and returning champ Jay-Z, the album has something for every thug all while West supplies the wicked laughs ("Mitt Romney don't pay no taxes," "MDMA party starts melting like Dali," and so on). Detractors have all the ammo they need as Chief Keef's homegrown hit "Don't Like.1" closes the album like a tacked-on bonus track, getting picked up off the streets and taught how to talk like a boss by West, Jadakiss, and friends. Still, it's a killer single both before and after the G.O.O.D. Music treatment, and one that caps off an album that's like the best bottle service you ever had. Anyone who thought Watch the Throne just wasn't Rick Ross-y enough will agree.

David Jeffries, Rovi

O.N.I.F.C.

Wiz Khalifa
Though Wiz Khalifa found tremendous commercial success with his major label debut Rolling Papers, he didn't do so without making some compromises. On it the Pittsburgh rapper all but abandoned the stoner-friendly contemporary G-Funk of the underground mixtapes upon which he built his grassroots following, in favor of broader pop gestures. With the follow-up, O.N.F.I.C., Wiz seems to be searching for a midpoint between the two approaches, and occasionally finds it. While he's never been a particularly showy rapper, or even a skilled one, his greatest assets are his instincts for penning enormous hooks and his ability to unobtrusively sink his verses into the production. Much of his success falls entirely on beat selection, and while it frequently underwhelms here, whether he chooses full-on pop or quiet storm funk, Wiz sounds most invigorated when he sidesteps these two extremes and explores entirely new terrain, as on the stripped-down trap stomper "It's Nothin'" or the demented and distorted lullabye "Fall Asleep."

Andrew Nosnitsky, Google Play

Trouble Man: Heavy is the Head

T.I.
Trouble Man is an all-too-apt title for T.I.'s eighth album. In the two years leading up to its release, the Atlanta rapper served an extended prison stay before eventually rebooting his image as a reality TV family man. Oddly and unfortunately, Trouble Man picks up exactly where he left off, as an artist divided between the expectations of the streets and the charts. He's still a tremendous writer when he chooses to be, running down intricate and affecting threads of language like "you numb to it and your heart grow colder/ pacify your pain with a chain and a Rover" in "Sorry," but the energy of his old self only comes in short bursts now. Worse, his song and hitmaking instincts have dried up considerably—the hooks here are mostly forgettable or forced, and the production frequently pantomimes triumph while failing to truly inspire.

Andrew Nosnitsky, Google Play

Sacrament

Lamb of God
Virginia metalcore kings Lamb of God get personal on the blistering Sacrament, an 11-track onslaught of machine gun riffs and larynx-shredding vocals filtered through an immaculately mapped-out rhythm section that owes as much to progressive rock as it does traditional heavy metal. Producer Machine, who helped craft 2004's Ashes of the Wake into one of the best metal records of the year, has returned, tightening his wrench and experimenting on Randy Blythe's voice like a fever-mad scientist. Longtime fans will no doubt debate the virtues of Sacrament's commercial bullet, the scathing White Zombie-meets-Megadeth single "Redneck," but the rest of the album is as brutal as anything they've ever done. Melodic opener "Walk with Me in Hell" culls inspiration from Piece of Mind-era Iron Maiden, "Pathetic" wraps itself around a sinewy lead that sounds like a snake swallowing dinner, and "Blacken the Cursed Sun," easily one of the best metal songs of 2006, shows further evidence of the band's potential to become the American version of Opeth. If Sacrament suffers from anything, it's a pounding sense of sameness. They rarely stray from the "Drop D" tuning, resulting in a second half that tends to blur, shake, and sputter out a bit, but there's no denying Lamb of God's almost unnerving power to conjure wind from the tiniest of stereo speakers.

James Christopher Monger, Rovi

I'm Not Dead

Pink

Aerosmith's Greatest Hits

Aerosmith
Aerosmith's Greatest Hits remains one of the most popular and enduring best-of collections by any rock band, selling nearly ten million copies in the U.S. alone since its release. But when it was issued in 1980, the band had just about reached its nadir. With original guitarist Joe Perry gone (and Brad Whitford soon to follow), Aerosmith had turned into a directionless, time-consuming ghost of its former self. Since there would be a three-year gap between 1979's Night in the Ruts and 1982's Rock in a Hard Place, Greatest Hits was assembled, more or less, to fill the void and buy the band some time. With the album clocking in at only 37 and a half minutes, many Aerosmith classics are not included, such as what many consider the band's quintessential track, their cover of "Train Kept a Rollin'." The only poor selection is the forgettable "Remember (Walking in the Sand)," but nine out of ten are bona fide classics -- "Dream On," "Same Old Song and Dance," "Sweet Emotion," "Walk this Way," "Last Child," "Back in the Saddle," and "Draw the Line." Also featured is their venomous cover of the Beatles' "Come Together," previously only available as a single and on the soundtrack to the 1978 movie Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. For the casual fan, Greatest Hits will do the job, as well as its sister album, 1988's Gems.

Greg Prato, Rovi

It's Dark And Hell Is Hot

DMX
Just as rap music was reaching its toughest, darkest, grimmest period yet, following the assassinations of 2Pac and Biggie in the late '90s, along came DMX and his fellow Ruff Ryders, who embodied the essence of inner-city machismo to a tee, as showcased throughout the tellingly titled It's Dark and Hell Is Hot. Unlike so many other hardcore rappers who are more rhetorical than physical, DMX commands an aggressive aura without even speaking a word. He showcases his chiseled physique on the arresting album cover and trumpets his animalistic nature with frequent barking, growling, and snarling throughout the album. He also collaborates with muscular producers Swizz Beatz and Dame Grease, who specialize in slamming synth-driven beats rather than sample-driven ones. Further unlike so many other hardcore rappers from the time, DMX is meaningful as well as symbolic. He professes an ideology that stresses the inner world -- characterized by such qualities as survival, wisdom, strength, respect, and faith -- rather than the material one that infatuates most rappers of his time. It helpes that his album includes a few mammoth highlights ("Ruff Ryders' Anthem," "Get at Me Dog," "Let Me Fly," and "I Can Feel It") as well as a light, mid-album diversion ("How's It Goin' Down"). The long running length of It's Dark and Hell Is Hot does wear you down after a while, since nearly every song here sans "How's It Goin' Down" hits hard and maintains the album's deadly serious attitude. Even so, It's Dark and Hell Is Hot is a tremendous debut, laying out DMX's complex persona with candor, from his faith in God to his fixation with canine motifs, and doing so with dramatic flair.

Jason Birchmeier, Rovi

Dreams and Nightmares

Meek Mill

Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1

Lupe Fiasco
For all the artist-label snags Lasers hit prior to its birth, the album topped the Billboard 200, while one of its singles, "The Show Goes On," became Lupe Fiasco's second Top Ten Hot 100 hit. As that album was in limbo, Fiasco began working on his confusingly titled fourth album, a 69-minute "part one" of a sequel to his 2006 debut. It's most certainly not a Lasers sequel. There's no obvious attempt to repeat earlier pop chart successes, and its introduction is indicative, similar to that of 2007's elaborately conceptual The Cool, with Fiasco's sister Ayesha Jaco contributing some more of her commanding poetry. Released only a year and a half after Lasers, the album was likely met with fewer label-related issues, but each one of its first three singles stirred up some controversy. "Around My Way (Freedom Ain't Free)" uses the indelible beat from Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth's "They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)," considered by many hip-hop fans to be untouchable for its emotional relevance and classic stature. Pete Rock himself objected vehemently, and that conflict was resolved, but the beat is a bad match for the MC's angered, if piercingly focused and thoughtful, rhymes. On "Bitch Bad," Fiasco takes a characteristically authoritarian stance on misogyny. The order of the second and third nouns in the hook -- "Bitch bad/Woman good/Lady better/They misunderstood" -- is one of its many debatable issues. As with many of his songs, the lyrical value (clever, cerebral) is far greater than the musical value (sluggish, meandering). It's much more about delivering a message and provoking debate than replays. For the third single, "Lamborghini Angels," Fiasco is at his detailed and focused best, combining surreal imagery and grim non-fiction over a brilliantly tense beat from Mr. Inkredible. Through this song, the MC covers behavioral programming, child sexual abuse, and Afghan civilian murders in a graphic manner. Don't expect a party. Don't expect to appreciate each method he uses to relay his viewpoints. One can at least appreciate, or at least respect, a rapper capable of dropping an absolute stinger like "But my tone was like a Afghani, killed without a home, blew that bitch up with a drone" like it's nothing.

Greatest Hits

Big & Rich
Big & Rich first hit the charts a mere five years before they released their Greatest Hits in 2009, but their presence was so pervasive it seems like they've been around twice as long. Part of the reason for this is that they wrote and produced for a huge number of artists, sometimes giving their best music to other singers, and the result of this is that Greatest Hits plays a bit patchier than you might imagine, with the earliest hits and songs -- "Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)," "Wild West Show," "Holy Water," the barroom brag "Kick My Ass" -- holding up better than the power ballads and goofiness of their second two albums. Although anybody who wants to really hear Big & Rich at their best should probably stick with their debut, Horse of a Different Color, those who want just the hits will find them all here.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Loaded: The Best of Blake Shelton

Blake Shelton
Loaded: The Best of Blake Shelton, is a solid collection of the country singer's singles, hits, and favorites from his five studio full-lengths, and the two six-track EPs he released in the latter year. Fifteen tracks deep, it begins with the two cuts that put him on contemporary country's radar -- "Ol Red" and "Austin" -- from his self-titled debut album in 2001. The Dreamer, from 2003, is represented by the its two best cuts, "The Baby," and the classic "Playboys of the Southwestern World." There are three from 2004's Blake Shelton's Bar & Grill, including Shawn Camp's stellar "Nobody But Me," and Shelton's reading of the Conway Twitty smash "Goodbye Time." Pure BS, from 2007, is showcased by a pair of numbers, including "The More I Drink" and a third, "Home," comes from the deluxe edition of album. There's a solid version of "She Wouldn't Be Gone" from 2008's Startin' Fires to round things out. The first 11 tracks were a given, and Shelton's annotations in the booklet make a solid case for their inclusion. That said, Shelton also tacks on the title track from the Hillbilly Bone, "Six Pack," as well as "Kiss My Country Ass" from the same set. Further, "Who Are You When I'm Not Looking" and the title track from the second EP are here. All four of these songs were released earlier in the calendar year, making their appearances seem redundant at best and, frankly, like a cynical money grab at worst. Oftentimes, less really is more.

Thom Jurek, Rovi

The Blueprint

JAY-Z

Take Care (Deluxe)

Drake

Strange Clouds

B.o.B
B.o.B's sophomore effort is missing that little bit of humility that made his debut (2010's The Adventures of Bobby Ray) so approachable, and when you come out of the gate nailing such a wide variety of pop-rap, asking for growth is asking for a lot. On this sophomore effort, B.o.B sounds like the same guy who delivered that debut and with the same set of skills (good lyrics, great pathos, and great punch lines) and aspirations (big across the board), just after numerous nights of bottle service, living in a platinum dream world where Dr. Luke and Lil Wayne contribute to your hazy highlight title track, and where mega-star Taylor Swift replaces Hayley Williams on the worthy "Airplanes" follow-up, "Both of Us." Later it's Nicki Minaj acting like a malfunctioning robot on the hip thrill ride called "Out of My Mind," followed by alt-rocker Ryan Tedder on the warm and cozy morning affirmation titled "Never Let You Go," but B.o.B isn't just influenced by the styles of his guests and is willing to bump a solo strip-club number ("Ray Bands") next to a solo soul-searcher ("So Hard to Breathe") as if albums were always executed like trapeze acts. Combine well funded and well crafted along with the rapper's "no frontin'" attitude -- sometimes he really wants to ease problems, and sometimes he really wants to be at a strip club -- and it starts to come together, plus when Morgan Freeman delivers that big, heavy-handed intro with barely a smirk, B.o.B's choice of audacious over ironic is refreshing. This is bold pop-rap at an "Arena" level, and while partying like a rock star means cohesiveness takes a hit, Strange Clouds is still thrilling and persuasive.

David Jeffries, Rovi

Finally Famous (Explicit Version)

Big Sean
Named after his successful mixtape series, Big Sean’s official debut skillfully balances his underground promise with his big money dreams and winds up an approachable winner with long-lasting appeal. His hook-filled anthem “I Do It” is an instant floor-filler thanks a No I.D./Legendary Traxster co-production, but the reason to return is supreme smart-aleck Sean, who at one point raps in "Family Guy"-speak, referencing cad character Quagmire and boasting “My cash flow, I giggity-gig it.” On “Dance (A$$),” he’s mixing a MC Hammer sample with a booty beat while quoting Pootie Tang, while “High” finds the crafty prankster trading weed jokes with Wiz Khalifa and Chiddy Bang for a track that runs a clever 4:20. If you’re looking for something more sane and Drake, “Marvin & Chardonnay” makes the bed squeak with some help from executive producer/label owner Kanye West, while the cool, John Legend feature “Memories (Part II)” gives Khalifa, Currensy, Cudi, and the rest of the successful stoner school something to shoot for with its opening couplet “Sometimes I dream bigger than I live/Sometimes I think better when I’m lit.” “So Much More” does what it says, adding brilliant lines like “I swear I’ve been through everything in life but the coffin/You say the sky’s the limit, hi bitch, I’m moonwalkin’” to the usually hackneyed format of the autobiographical track. At 12 cuts long, the album is right between right-sized and “leave them wanting more,” and when it comes to being well-rounded, these different-flavored tracks offer variety without wildly stepping out of Big Sean’s comfort zone. Fun, inventive, swaggering, and smart, Finally Famous is an exciting debut.

David Jeffries, Rovi

Paid In Full (Expanded Edition)

Eric B. & Rakim
One of the most influential rap albums of all time, Eric B. & Rakim's Paid in Full only continues to grow in stature as the record that ushered in hip-hop's modern era. The stripped-down production might seem a little bare to modern ears, but Rakim's technique on the mic still sounds utterly contemporary, even state-of-the-art -- and that from a record released in 1987, just one year after Run-D.M.C. hit the mainstream. Rakim basically invents modern lyrical technique over the course of Paid in Full, with his complex internal rhymes, literate imagery, velvet-smooth flow, and unpredictable, off-the-beat rhythms. The key cuts here are some of the most legendary rap singles ever released, starting with the duo's debut sides, "Eric B. Is President" and "My Melody." "I Know You Got Soul" single-handedly kicked off hip-hop's infatuation with James Brown samples, and Eric B. & Rakim topped it with the similarly inclined "I Ain't No Joke," a stunning display of lyrical virtuosity. The title cut, meanwhile, planted the seeds of hip-hop's material obsessions over a monumental beat. There are also three DJ showcases for Eric B., who like Rakim was among the technical leaders in his field. If sampling is the sincerest form of admiration in hip-hop, Paid in Full is positively worshipped. Just to name a few: Rakim's tossed-off "pump up the volume," from "I Know You Got Soul," became the basis for M/A/R/R/S' groundbreaking dance track; Eminem, a devoted Rakim student, lifted lines from "As the Rhyme Goes On" for the chorus of his own "The Way I Am"; and the percussion track of "Paid in Full" has been sampled so many times it's almost impossible to believe it had a point of origin. Paid in Full is essential listening for anyone even remotely interested in the basic musical foundations of hip-hop -- this is the form in its purest essence. [The Deluxe Edition of Paid in Full released in 2003 truly lives up to its title. The record is expanded to two discs with improved fidelity, and the thick booklet is full of great photos and has essays by MC Search and Tom Terrell. The second disc is made up mostly of remixes taken from U.K. 12" releases. First up on the bonus disc is the incredible "Seven Minutes of Madness" remix by Coldcut of the title track, which is a contender for greatest remix of all time. Funny, witty, and funky, it's a sampladelic miracle that never gets old no matter how many times you hear it. The other remixes are not quite as effective but are still a load of fun. The highlights are the Derek B. mix of "Paid in Full," which drafts in John Mellencamp's "Jack & Diane" guitar riff and some sexy female voices, the Chad Jay mix of "As the Rhyme Goes On," which is a turntable-rocking remix that monkeys with the beats quite entertainingly, and the Richie Rich megamix of "I Know You Got Soul," which adds some cool samples and makes the track very thick and funky. The only remix that doesn't fly is the overly long and hokey mix of "Move the Crowd" by the Democratic 3. Also included are the original mix of "My Melody," which was originally released on the flip side of the duo's first single, "Eric B. Is President" (the version on the album was remixed by Marley Marl), a really nice a cappella mix of "I Know You Got Soul," which lets the listener focus on Rakim's flow, and dubs of "I Know You Got Soul," "Eric B. Is President," and "My Melody," which bring Eric B.'s production skills to the forefront. Also included is a video for "Paid in Full."]

Tical

Method Man
The first Wu-Tang Clan solo album to follow the seismic impact of Enter the Wu-Tang, Method Man's Tical similarly delivers an otherworldly wallop, one that instantly sets the madcap MC apart from his clansmen as the collective's shining star. Not only is Meth madcap, both in terms of mentality and delivery, he's also incredibly witty and wordy. Here he inspires hilarity as well as astonishment, and the way that he fires off his rhymes with such seemingly spontaneous ease compounds this sense of wonder. Just as Meth is quite clearly leagues above practically every other rapper in 1994 sans a small handful, if that, so is his producer, Wu-Tang abbot RZA, who produces the entirety of Tical: from the antiquated flutes and kung fu flick samples that open the album, to the pulse-accelerating beats of "Bring the Pain" and the fist-pumping ones of "All I Need" (the b-boy version rather than the radio-geared one featuring Mary J. Blige), to the rallying, warlike horns of "Release Yo' Delf." Despite a few outside contributions, most notably from Raekwon on the rowdy spar-fest "Meth vs. Chef," Tical is strictly a two-man show, Meth bringing da ruckus and RZA the swarming soundscapes, and that's precisely what further makes this album such a treasure amid the many Wu-Tang gems. Where most of Meth's clansmen delivered guest-laden albums that sounded more like group efforts than solo ones, Tical strictly spotlights the group's two stars and does so with refreshingly straightforward flair. There's none of the epic overreaching that mars so many rap albums of the era; rather, there's just over a dozen tracks here, and they're filled to the brim with rhymes and beats and little else -- no pop-crossover concessions nor any heady experimentation for the sake of experimentation, just good ol'-fashioned hip-hop, albeit with a dark, dark deranged twist.

The New Danger

Mos Def

Port Of Miami

Rick Ross

Souljaboytellem.com

Soulja Boy
In a year filled with quirky hip-hop party tunes, their accompanying dances, and the YouTube-fueled teen mania that would follow, Soulja Boy Tell Em's killer pop-rap single "Crank That" stood out from the crowd thanks to the charismatic showman at its center and his strange way with words. Produced by the 17-year-old Soulja Boy Tell Em himself, "Crank That" combines a steel drum hook with a fat-bottomed Mississippi beat, but it's the bizarre lyrics that matter most as questions like "Why me crank that Robocop?" sit next to nonsensical called-out dance instructions. Only a few of the tracks on Soulja Boy Tell Em's debut advocate a dance, but this formula of infectious hook, trunk-rumbling beat, and wonderfully dumb words is all the album knows. If it wasn't for the whiny guitar riff, "Snap and Roll" could easily be mistaken for "Crank That," while "Bapes" is more of the same at a slower tempo with Soulja Boy Tell Em wondering why haters get mad when he dons his Bathing Ape gear. It's only after the great "Report Card" ("Check out my report card/Looked at it, all F's/Took it the teacher/Said 'Throw some D's on it'") that the party drops off, which isn't just a testament to Soulja Boy Tell Em's unique skills but also to executive producer Mr. Collipark's great attitude towards the overall product. Collipark and his crew, the Package Store, handle production for a handful of numbers, Arab and Los Vegaz both helm a tune, but the rest is left to Soulja Boy Tell Em and the end result is a debut that feels like it was downloaded right off a Southern hood laptop. This solid party album should satisfy giggling Right On! readers with pin-ups in their locker, way too cool mash-up fans that carry gigabytes of club music in their pocket, and all the freaky party people in between.

David Jeffries, Rovi

The Inspiration

Young Jeezy

The Church of Rock and Roll

Foxy Shazam
Foxy Shazam always felt like a band that was looking to bring "over-the-top" back to rock & roll, pushing the envelope on bombast as if their mission was to make Sparks seem not only straitlaced, but dull by comparison. On The Church of Rock and Roll, however, it seems that change is in the air. From the album's titular opening track, where singer Eric Nally proclaims, "Your music sucks including us, it's time we clear our name," to the stark mission statement in the liner notes that lets the listener know, "Foxy Shazam is a jet plane going down and we have been playing the same tune the whole way. It just sounds different the closer we get to the ground," it's clear that the band is looking to reinvent itself. While songs like "Holy Touch" and "I Like It" still feel like the Foxy Shazam of years past, the winds of change can definitely be felt throughout the album. The band certainly hasn't lost their flair for the theatric, but instead of doing it with near-operatic blasts of rock energy, Foxy Shazam channels that energy into tighter, dancefloor-ready tracks. "I Wanna Be Yours" marches its way forward without ever losing control, giving the song a relatively restrained feeling that sort of gets to the heart of what the band is trying to do with the album. Rather than looking ever upwards for new ideas with soaring guitars and pure rock & roll grandeur, Foxy Shazam are expanding outwards, absorbing a whole new set of tools into their songwriting arsenal as they give their sound an overhaul. Even though the album has a transitional feeling, Foxy Shazam still manage to make their sonic renovation a fun ride, and The Church of Rock and Roll is an entertaining stop on the musical journey.

Gregory Heaney, Rovi

The Big Picture (Explicit Version)

Big L

Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star

Black Star

Blazing Arrow

Blackalicious
The late '90s ushered in a second golden age of progressive hip-hop, as a group of ambitious young lions rose from the underground to redefine the art of lyrical technique and revive the idea that hip-hop had relevant statements to make. With their 2000 debut album, Blackalicious established themselves as one of the West Coast's top outfits in this vein, and while it was very good, their follow-up, Blazing Arrow, is simply fantastic, vaulting the duo to the forefront of the progressive hip-hop pack. Much of Blazing Arrow retains NIA's airy, laconic feel, but the group's sense of craft has improved to a startling degree; the hooks are sharper and more plentiful, Gift of Gab's rhymes are denser, Chief Xcel's production is more breathtakingly lush, and his arrangements more sophisticated. What's more, the tracks draw from a rich sonic palette -- not just the expected jazz-funk and old-school influences, but straight pop (check the Nilsson sample on the title track) and smooth soul (particularly the Philly variety, but also the contemporary neo-soul revival) in particular. In spite of the duo's intellectual bent, the grooves on Blazing Arrow exude a tremendous warmth that's only complemented by the positivity of their messages. And if Gift of Gab wasn't recognized among hip-hop's premier lyricists before, he certainly ought to be now; his raps are jam-packed with internal rhymes, allusions, metaphors, ten-cent words, and amazing tongue-twisting feats of skill. Guests include members of Jurassic 5, Dilated Peoples, and Latyrx (all worthy company), not to mention singer/songwriter Ben Harper, Zack de la Rocha (Rage Against the Machine), and the legendary Gil Scott-Heron. All the pieces add up to not just one of the best rap albums of 2002, but one of the richest, most captivating albums to emerge from hip-hop's artsy new underground.

Steve Huey, Rovi

Reflection Eternal [Train Of Thought]

Talib Kweli

Greatest Hits Vol. 1

Korn
A decade after changing the metal landscape drastically with their self-titled debut juggernaut, Korn got the best-of treatment just as their standing began to seem increasingly shaky, commercially at least. Greatest Hits, Vol. 1 sadly isn't the disc it ideally could be, but it nonetheless summarizes how steady Korn were over the years, developing their sound oh so slightly from one album to the next and, in the process, coming up with several unquestionably killer songs every go-round. The band's six full-lengths resulted in enough of those killer songs to fill this best-of to the brim; in fact, there are quite a few more that could have been compiled here if there were more space on this single-disc release (a double disc would have been definitive). As it stands, however, practically every song here is a highlight in and of itself, with the sole exceptions of the below-par "Alone I Break" and a pair of album-opening covers: Cameo's "Word Up!" and Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall, Pts. 1-3." These newly recorded covers are here undoubtedly to bait the legions of Korn fans who already own all the band's albums but are loyal enough to purchase this best-of as a way to hear these songs. And yes, they're quite curious, so much so that you'll want to give them a listen if you're a fan (download them, though -- they're curious, no doubt, but certainly not worth the price of this disc alone). The band's "Word Up!" cover is awesome, and the Pink Floyd cover is overwrought, yet enticingly so. Then again, these two songs are "so" well known that you have to wonder, what's the point? Like Korn's previous cover of Metallica's "One," though, the point seems to be one of curiosity rather than one-upmanship.

In any event, these covers aren't the best way to start off this best-of -- not at all -- nor is the reverse chronological sequencing ideal. Because Korn developed their sound over the years, even if only slightly, it'd have been better to map out that progressive trajectory here, rather than hear the band regress from the elaborate, theatrical bombast of their later albums to the stripped-down naked rawness of their fierce debut. These quibbles aside, it's worthy stating again that nothing but great songs are featured here. If you're new to Korn, the most influential and successful metal band of the '90s, this disc should blow you away -- that is, assuming you're a fan of extreme music with a dark, disturbing edge. But if indeed you're new to Korn, you'd be better off skipping over this best-of and heading straight for their self-titled debut (their one undisputed classic), and then moving chronologically forward through the band's catalog. Each album stands well on its own, albeit some better than others, and here you're only getting the tip of each iceberg. If money is a concern, however, and you can only afford one Korn disc for your collection, don't think twice about picking up Greatest Hits. You won't be disappointed. No chance of that. Plus, there's a bonus DVD here of Korn's 2003 show at CBGB's that will give you a good taste of what the band is like live.

HELLYEAH

HELLYEAH
The roots of the spinoff heavy metal band Hellyeah date back to a 2003 tour by Mudvayne and Nothingface, after which singer Chad Gray and guitarist Greg Tribbett from the former combined with guitarist Tom Maxwell and bassist Jerry Montano from the latter in a songwriting session. Conflicting schedules kept the project on hold for several years, until, during hiatuses from their usual commitments, the musicians reconvened with former Pantera and Damageplan drummer Vinnie Paul. The result is not exactly a "supergroup," but it is a collection of musicians who came in knowing what they were doing. Their album is a competent example of its genre, in which Tribbett and Maxwell combine to create crushing riffs over the pummeling rhythm section of Montano and Paul, while Gray howls typically enraged, expletive-littered lyrics to songs with titles like "Hellyeah," "Goddamn," and "Rotten to the Core." The aggressive attitude gives way on "Star," a song of romantic devotion as unfettered in its expression of gentle feelings as the other songs are of belligerent ones. Also dialed down from the usual thrash is the hard rock ballad "Thank You," a sort of musical version of the extensive acknowledgements section that occupies as much space in the CD booklet as the lyric sheet ("Thank you! Mother/Thank you! Father/Thank you! Brother," etc.). It's easy to imagine Hellyeah becoming a main occupation for the bandmembers, even though the music doesn't constitute a notable variation from their other affiliations.

William Ruhlmann, Rovi

Only Built 4 Cuban Linx

Raekwon
A serious contender for the title of best Wu-Tang solo album (rivaled only by the Genius' Liquid Swords), Only Built 4 Cuban Linx is also perhaps the most influential, thanks to Raekwon's cinematic imagination. If the Genius is the Wu's best overall lyricist, Raekwon is arguably their best storyteller, and here he translates the epic themes and narratives of a Mafia movie into a startlingly accomplished hip-hop album. Raekwon wasn't the first to make the connection between gangsta rap and the Cosa Nostra (Kool G Rap pioneered that idea), but he was the one who popularized the trend. Cuban Linx's portraits of big-money drug deals and black underworld kingpins living in luxury had an enormous influence on the new New York hardcore scene, especially Mobb Deep and Nas, the latter of whom appears here on the much-revered duet "Verbal Intercourse." The fellow Clan members who show up as guests are recast under gangster aliases, and Ghostface Killah makes himself an indispensable foil, appearing on the vast majority of the tracks and enjoying his first truly extensive exposure on record. Behind them, RZA contributes some of the strongest production work of his career, indulging his taste for cinematic soundscapes in support of the album's tone; his tracks are appropriately dark or melancholy, shifting moods like different scenes in a film. Cuban Linx's first-person narratives are filled with paranoia, ambition, excess, and betrayal, fast rises and faster falls. There are plenty of highlights along the way -- the singles "Criminology" and "Ice Cream," the gentle "Rainy Dayz," the influential posse cut "Wu-Gambinos" -- and everything culminates in "Heaven & Hell" and its longing for redemption. Like the Genius' Liquid Swords, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx takes a few listens to reveal the full scope of its lyrical complexities, but it's immensely rewarding in the end, and it stands as a landmark in the new breed of gangsta rap.

Steve Huey, Rovi

Black Sunday

Cypress Hill

Enter The Wu-Tang

Wu-Tang Clan
Along with Dr. Dre's The Chronic, the Wu-Tang Clan's debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), was one of the most influential rap albums of the '90s. Its spare yet atmospheric production -- courtesy of RZA -- mapped out the sonic blueprint that countless other hardcore rappers would follow for years to come. It laid the groundwork for the rebirth of New York hip-hop in the hardcore age, paving the way for everybody from Biggie and Jay-Z to Nas and Mobb Deep. Moreover, it introduced a colorful cast of hugely talented MCs, some of whom ranked among the best and most unique individual rappers of the decade. Some were outsized, theatrical personalities, others were cerebral storytellers and lyrical technicians, but each had his own distinctive style, which made for an album of tremendous variety and consistency. Every track on Enter the Wu-Tang is packed with fresh, inventive rhymes, which are filled with martial arts metaphors, pop culture references (everything from Voltron to Lucky Charms cereal commercials to Barbra Streisand's "The Way We Were"), bizarre threats of violence, and a truly twisted sense of humor. Their off-kilter menace is really brought to life, however, by the eerie, lo-fi production, which helped bring the raw sound of the underground into mainstream hip-hop. Starting with a foundation of hard, gritty beats and dialogue samples from kung fu movies, RZA kept things minimalistic, but added just enough minor-key piano, strings, or muted horns to create a background ambience that works like the soundtrack to a surreal nightmare. There was nothing like it in the hip-hop world at the time, and even after years of imitation, Enter the Wu-Tang still sounds fresh and original. Subsequent group and solo projects would refine and deepen this template, but collectively, the Wu have never been quite this tight again.

Steve Huey, Rovi

Illmatic

Nas
Often cited as one of the best hip-hop albums of the '90s, Illmatic is the undisputed classic upon which Nas' reputation rests. It helped spearhead the artistic renaissance of New York hip-hop in the post-Chronic era, leading a return to street aesthetics. Yet even if Illmatic marks the beginning of a shift away from Native Tongues-inspired alternative rap, it's strongly rooted in that sensibility. For one, Nas employs some of the most sophisticated jazz-rap producers around: Q-Tip, Pete Rock, DJ Premier, and Large Professor, who underpin their intricate loops with appropriately tough beats. But more importantly, Nas takes his place as one of hip-hop's greatest street poets -- his rhymes are highly literate, his raps superbly fluid regardless of the size of his vocabulary. He's able to evoke the bleak reality of ghetto life without losing hope or forgetting the good times, which become all the more precious when any day could be your last. As a narrator, he doesn't get too caught up in the darker side of life -- he's simply describing what he sees in the world around him, and trying to live it up while he can. He's thoughtful but ambitious, announcing on "N.Y. State of Mind" that "I never sleep, 'cause sleep is the cousin of death," and that he's "out for dead presidents to represent me" on "The World Is Yours." Elsewhere, he flexes his storytelling muscles on the classic cuts "Life's a Bitch" and "One Love," the latter a detailed report to a close friend in prison about how allegiances within their group have shifted. Hip-hop fans accustomed to 73-minute opuses sometimes complain about Illmatic's brevity, but even if it leaves you wanting more, it's also one of the few '90s rap albums with absolutely no wasted space. Illmatic is a great lyricist, in top form, meeting great production, and it remains a perennial favorite among serious hip-hop fans.

Steve Huey, Rovi

Tenacious D

Tenacious D
As anyone who witnessed their legendary shorts on HBO will attest, Tenacious D is indeed the greatest band on earth. Bad D is still better than the Beatles and good D is transcendent. Even so, Tenacious D's debut album will likely kick fans on their asses because the D is no longer just about JB and KG. They're even ready to be more than a power trio -- they're ready to be backed by a full band, complete with Dave Grohl on drums and the Dust Brothers behind the boards. After years of hearing them as an acoustic heavy metal duo, that's a real shock, but they've also overhauled their repertoire, reworking and retitling several songs and leaving many tunes behind. Most regrettably, there is no "History of Tenacious D," even if it is quoted in the liner notes, but there's also no "Rocketsauce," no "Kyle Took a Bullet for Me," no "Sasquatch," no "Cosmic Shame," no "Special Things," and no "Jesus Ranch." "You Broke the Rules" becomes "Karate," "Song of Exultant Joy" is "Kyle Quit the Band," "Sex Supreme" becomes "Double Team," "The Best Song in the World" becomes "Tribute," lacking many of the "Stairway to Heaven" allusions in this version, and so on and so forth (elements of their opening theme are incorporated into "Kielbasa," thankfully). Furthermore, the dynamic has shifted drastically because the group no longer sounds like maniacal misfits who've conquered the worlds in their own minds playing to an audience who just hasn't caught up yet. Here, they sound like victors who've had their delusions of grandeur come real (which is true when you think about it -- those shorts might not have done much on HBO, but videotapes passed through a lot of hands on the underground video railroad). This is a bigger change than you might think, and while the acoustic D sounds better, weirder, and purer, this still is a hell of a record, particularly because it rocks so damn hard. The worst thing about it are the sketches, which may be funny, but not nearly as funny as the plots that tied the shows together (nothing as funny as asides from the show, like "circle church," either) or the live routines; they tend to distract from the music. And the music is indeed what matters, since no matter how silly and gleefully profane this can be, Tenacious D rules because the music is terrific. The tunes have hooks, Kage and Jables harmonize well, and the cheerfully demented worldview is intoxicating, since their self-belief and self-referential world is delightfully absurd and warm (think about it -- the sex songs may be vulgar and may be about their prowess, but their prowess is about making those backstage Betties feel good). Sure, some listeners may chuckle because this all comes from two large, cute, 30-something slackers, but they're missing the inspirado behind this record -- Tenacious D certainly know they're funny, but that doesn't erase the fact that they rock so hard. They came to kick your ass and rock your socks off, and that is a very special thing.

Loco Motive (U.S. Release)

Cowboy Troy

The Hunger For More

Lloyd Banks
Lloyd Banks' being a member of the G-Unit posse, click, crew, whatever, means that the release of his debut is a huge event with a massive storm cloud of positive and negative hype looming above. Mixtapes had boasted it's the second coming, message boards had already declared it a disaster, but when you get down to it, all you're left with is a CD to throw in the player -- a 120-mm-diameter disc of polycarbonate that's either going to have you bobbing your head to the beat or wondering what else you should have bought. Decide whether you can tolerate, ignore, or devour all the usual G-Unit boasts, brags, and threats, and know that The Hunger for More is another solid release from the crew and is a couple steps down from 50 Cent's Get Rich or Die Tryin' and a step above G-Unit's Beg for Mercy. Know too that there's no "In da Club" here. Banks goes more for the long lyrical flows compared to 50's penchant for catchy chants, but there's no filler and there's about four or five tracks to add to the crew's hall of fame. With its marching-band snare and frantic loop, "Playboy" is the first contender, and one of the tracks that breaks away from the usual G-Unit thuggish funk. The stately "Warrior" is struck from the mold -- as are the great "I'm So Fly" and "On Fire" -- but it's all part of the album's great bouncing-between-the-two structure and perhaps executive producer 50 Cent's plan. To his credit, 50's given Banks plenty of room to explain himself; you could trim about three minutes of G-Unit propaganda and still have an album. Anyone questioning Banks' lyrical skills only needs to check his vivid picture of life on the streets, "Til the End." The frank narrative turns chilling as the rapper observes that crack addicts are part of picture -- easy to dismiss losers when they're strangers but devastating when it's your family. There are many more moments that are striking enough to rise above the hype and drama, and even guest stars Snoop Dogg and Eminem end up just passers through in Banks' world. To define yourself as a complex individual in the G-Unit clan is a difficult task, but here's a rapper who can do it. The Hunger for More starts with the sound of a money counter flipping -- a perfectly G-Unit opening -- but in the end it's totally Banks. 50 Cent seems comfortable with this, but maybe even he missed some of the irony in the album's title.

David Jeffries, Rovi

Like Water For Chocolate

Common
Common spent the '90s carrying the Native Tongues torch through an era dominated by gangsta rap, earning a sizable underground following. Positive-minded alternative rap came back into vogue by the new millennium, and Common managed to land with major label MCA for 2000's Like Water for Chocolate. The album established him as a leading figure of alternative rap's second generation, not just because of the best promotion he'd ever had, but also because it was his great musical leap forward, building on the strides of One Day It'll All Make Sense. There's production work by the Roots' ?uestlove, neo-soul auteur D'Angelo, the Soulquarians, and DJ Premier. But the vast majority of the album was handled by Slum Village's Jay Dee, and his thick, mellow, soul- and jazz-inflected sonics make Like Water for Chocolate one of the richest-sounding albums of the new underground movement. Common isn't always a master technician on the mic, but it hardly matters when the music serves his deeply spiritual vision and smooth-flowing raps so effectively. The singles "The Light" and "The 6th Sense" are quintessential Common, uplifting and thoughtful, and helped bring him a whole new audience. They're well complemented by the slinky, jazzy funk and lush neo-soul ballads that make up the record. Not everything is sweetness and utopia, either; Common sends up his own progressive image on "A Film Called (Pimp)," which features a hilarious guest appearance by MC Lyte, and spins a gripping first-person tale of revenge on the streets on "Payback Is a Grandmother" (though the tougher "Dooinit" feels a bit forced). The album could have been trimmed a bit to keep its momentum going, but on the whole, Like Water for Chocolate is a major statement from an artist whose true importance was just coming into focus.

Steve Huey, Rovi

Dead Sara

Dead Sara
Do not come to L.A. band Dead Sara looking for subtlety or restraint. Oh, sure, there's about 30 seconds of holding back at the beginning of "Dear Love," and a minute or so of relatively soft, slow build-up in the otherwise rocking power ballads "Face to Face" and album closer "Sorry for It All"—and you'll be happy for these moments of calm, because otherwise they're all about red-lining, amped-up rock 'n' roll. Frontwoman Emily Armstrong has a sweet voice, but she lets it snarl and howl at operatic levels, and she and guitarist Siouxsie Medley trade riffs that mean to crush like brick walls toppling, with loud/quiet/loud combos that repeatedly punch hard.

Eric Grandy, Google Play

Rollin' Stone

Stevie Stone
Coming out of St. Louis, in the geographic middle of the country between the various rap scenes that exist along the coasts, rapper Stevie Stone grinds the best parts of the East, West, and Dirty South styles into his own signature blend on Rollin' Stone. With a blend of New York hype, California swagger, and Southern drawl, the MC strikes a nice balance between all three styles to create a flow that, while brushing up against the touchstones of the coastal scenes, remains refreshingly different. Rollin' Stone also finds the rapper taking a more personal approach to songwriting than he has in the past. His first album for Tech N9ne's Strange Music, a label well known for its penchant for reaching out to and connecting with its rabid fan base, Stone seizes on the opportunity to reach a whole new group of listeners with an album that plays out like a meeting between new friends at a party. Early in the album, listeners get to see Stone's rowdy side on tracks like "808 Bendin'" and "Keep My Name Out Your Mouth," which feature guest spots by labelmates Tech N9ne and Kutt Calhoun, respectively, before getting personal deeper into the album, opening up on more plaintive, reflective tracks like "My Life" and "The Road." Even though Stone had been kicking around on Ruthless Records for a while, Rollin' Stone feels like a chance for Stone to reintroduce himself to the rap world, and with the production talent, care, and personal touch of Strange behind him, it's an opportunity he takes full advantage of.

Gregory Heaney, Rovi

Rugby Thompson

Smoke DZA
Harlem rapper Smoke DZA has earned a name for himself in recent years by indulging in the sort of effortless, stoned-slow flow that his frequent collaborator Curren$y pioneered, but he seems to be consciously evolving with his sophomore effort. Produced entirely by Brooklynite workaholic Harry Fraud (French Montana, Wiz Khalifa), Rugby Thompson melds the grime of New York vintage with the foggier sonics and double-time flows of present-day blog rap. (The guests reflect this balance, as well, with current critical lightning rods like Schoolboy Q and Odd Future's Domo Genesis sharing the tracklisting with seasoned NYC vets like Sean Price and Thirstin Howl III.) And whether in the past or present, DZA tends to maintain a singular cool, one that mostly revolves around his passions for Polo gear and fine strains of marijuana, but he's most engaging when able to stretch his theme and style beyond those points. He reveals himself to be a finely-tuned storyteller on the tragic "Playground Legend" and something of a party starter with the loosely Eastbound & Down-inspired bounce of "Kenny Powers."

Andrew Nosnitsky, Google Play

Russian Roulette

The Alchemist
Although he's worked with some of rap's biggest hitmakers -- Eminem, Nas, Fat Joe, and so on -- producer the Alchemist is a rangy dude, hanging those platinum albums on the wall on one hand, while sticking with underground thugs like Mobb Deep through thick and thin on the other, all while keeping his left-field rep in check by wilding out with producer/rapper Oh No in the Gangrene project. Coming hot off the heels of Gangrene's Vodka & Ayahuasca -- a very '70s and very psychedelic album -- Russian Roulette is the Alchemist going solo and thematic, constructing tracks by sampling old Russian records -- jazzy, psychedelic, soulful, and otherwise -- and grabbing some dialog from '80s movies that were cold war-themed. His final touch is the jaw- droppingly excellent guest list that contributes to these 30 short tracks, all strung together for an album meant to be taken as a whole. That last bit of advice comes from the Alchemist himself, and it's certainly the best plan, as these shards of tight-knit '70s pop loops, jazz drum breaks, and funky bass beats -- all of them feeling very Euro-sourced and not necessarily Russian -- are arranged like a wild mixtape from the edge. This cohesive piece is still dotted with stand-out moments, including Action Bronson doing his usual, magical food thing ("Decisions Over Veal Orloff"), Danny Brown and Schoolboy Q teaming-up for a cut with that wild, Ol' Dirty Bastard bounce ("Flight Confirmation"), and Evidence returning for a cut which feels like the chilled follow-up to his previous great Alchemist team-up "So Fresh" ("Never Grow Up"). Those with a Soviet fetish could argue that past "Flight of the Bumble Bee" and the red scare artwork, the album doesn't deliver enough of the superpower's Cold War strut, but getting hung up on Russian Roulette not sounding Russian enough would be like complaining that the Beatles Revolver doesn't shoot straight. It's an amazing record even without the concept, comrade.

Hot Cakes

The Darkness

Chapter V: Underrated

Syleena Johnson
Syleena Johnson’s husky vocals and genuine lyrics thrust her music beyond typical fly-by-night R&B. Chapter V: Underrated stands as another marker of the Chicago native’s consistency. While 2001’s Chapter 1: Love, Pain & Forgiveness opened her story on the heels of an abusive relationship, Syleena’s all strength by Chapter V. Filled with her signature mix of empowering anthems, old soul confessionals, duets and ballads, Underrated is made for reflective nights snuggled up alone.

Laura Checkoway, Google Play

GMB (Deluxe Edition)

Pac Div

Alive & Living

Skeme

MMG Presents: Self Made, Vol. 2

Various Artists

Triple F Life: Friends, Fans & Family

Waka Flocka Flame
Like his Brick Squad brother Gucci Mane, Atlanta rapper Waka Flocka Flame is good with the shouted hook and the drug-induced stumble, plus he's funny, able to drop witty punch lines and cool quips all the way through to verse number three while retaining his tattooed buffoon stance that projects "I couldn't care less, homie." His sophomore effort, Triple F Life, threatens to confuse the issue with its subtitle dedication to "Friends, Fans & Family," but there's way too much strip-club music here to consider this a heartwarming concept album, so spend a solemn moment with the RIP dedication to Slim Dunkin -- Waka's friend and cohort who was murdered in late 2011 -- and then get ready for the expected slam session. Coming after the convincing street track "Let Dem Guns Blam," a booming Southside production with guest Meek Mill, the woozy, Lex Luger-helmed diamond "Round of Applause" offers glorious highlight number one, spitting "Pimpin' like I'm Dolemite, hos jump in my Caddy/Smoke like I got cataracts, in the strip club throwin' up them stacks" before borrowing a bit of YC's "Racks" because that street hit is so darn good. This "why not?" attitude is the charm behind banger number two, "I Don't Really Care," which goes for the simple hook and lyrics that could have come from the Lonely Island crew ("Throwin' money in the air like I don't really care, yeah/Standin' on a chair like I don't really care"). Complaining about redundancy and frivolity seems like sour grapes once "Get Low" comes around with its million dollar guest list (Nicki Minaj, Tyga, and Flo Rida) plus vibrant attitude, and as the latter half of the album goes back to his roots with forceful, Southern-fried tracks (check the block party rocker "Candy Paint & Gold Teeth" with Ludacris and Bun B, or Plies and Waka doin' their own "The Ski Mask Way" on "Lurkin"), the layout becomes admirable, managing its endless supply of party rap in a surprisingly sensible manner. There's the bad feeling that all this Xanax chewing and gun throwing might be bad for the health and/or soul, but Triple F Life moves fast and rocks hard, making it hard to dwell on its shortcomings.

David Jeffries, Rovi

Ambition

Wale

welcome to: OUR HOUSE (Deluxe)

Slaughterhouse
It makes sense that Eminem would sign blog rap darlings Slaughterhouse to his Shady Records imprint. The quartet specializes in an aggressive, wordy and punchline-heavy style that feels like the modern extension of what Em was doing prior to his ascension to pop superstar. Slaughterhouse seems to be aiming for those same heights with Welcome to: Our House, their second full-length and first for the label. On it, they're as sharp as ever when it comes to lyrical showboating but too many of their musical choices are awkwardly tailored for pop radio. This means tacking the melodramatic sap of rent-a-songstress Skylar Grey onto two tracks and delving into full-on trance rap with the shameless "Frat House." Stranger still, the group sticks to their ideological guns throughout the album, passionately pledging themselves to hip-hop purism while making aesthetic decisions that directly oppose those values.

Andrew Nosnitsky, Google Play