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.]
Even compared to their already excellent and forward-looking catalog, OutKast's sprawling third album, Aquemini, was a stroke of brilliance. The chilled-out space-funk of ATLiens had already thrown some fans for a loop, and Aquemini made it clear that its predecessor was no detour, but a stepping stone for even greater ambitions. Some of ATLiens' ethereal futurism is still present, but more often Aquemini plants its feet on the ground for a surprisingly down-home flavor. The music draws from a vastly eclectic palette of sources, and the live instrumentation is fuller-sounding than ATLiens. Most importantly, producers Organized Noize imbue their tracks with a Southern earthiness and simultaneous spirituality that come across regardless of what Dre and Big Boi are rapping about. Not that they shy away from rougher subject matter, but their perspective is grounded and responsible, intentionally avoiding hardcore clichés. Their distinctive vocal deliveries are now fully mature, with a recognizably Southern rhythmic bounce but loads more technique than their territorial peers. Those flows grace some of the richest and most inventive hip-hop tracks of the decade. The airy lead single "Rosa Parks" juxtaposes front-porch acoustic guitar with DJ scratches and a stomping harmonica break that could have come from nowhere but the South. Unexpected touches like that are all over the record: the live orchestra on "Return of the 'G'"; the electronic, George Clinton-guested "Synthesizer"; the reggae horns and dub-style echo of "SpottieOttieDopaliscious"; the hard-rocking wah-wah guitar of "Chonkyfire"; and on and on. What's most impressive is the way everything comes together to justify the full-CD running time, something few hip-hop epics of this scope ever accomplish. After a few listens, not even the meditative jams on the second half of the album feel all that excessive. Aquemini fulfills all its ambitions, covering more than enough territory to qualify it as a virtuosic masterpiece, and a landmark hip-hop album of the late '90s.
Steve Huey, Rovi
The record industry's blatantly greedy ploy of remastering and "upgrading" CDs is shameful. The sonics are usually improved, but the CDs could have been mastered properly the first time. But then fans wouldn't buy the same titles twice. The Allman Brothers Band's indispensable compilation A Decade of Hits 1969-1979 was reissued in 2000, just nine years after the original release. The remastered 2000 edition still features the same 16 songs, but the packaging and liner notes include an essay by Guitar World journalist Alan Paul, photos, and detailed recording credits. It would be easy to argue that individual albums like Idlewild South, Live at Fillmore East, Eat a Peach, or Brothers and Sisters are more cohesive artistic statements, but no self-respecting rock & roll fan should be without a copy of A Decade of Hits 1969-1979, which includes the cream of those albums. It's impossible to go wrong with one CD featuring Gregg Allman's harrowing "Whipping Post" and gorgeous "Midnight Rider," Dickey Betts' soaring "Ramblin' Man," and the lovely instrumentals "Jessica" and "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed," let alone the blues covers "Statesboro Blues" and "One Way Out," which many people probably don't realize are covers because the band embodies them so much. Fans shouldn't have much of a problem recognizing the 2000 version. The cover featuring the band logo stitched on the denim jacket is still intact, but the white lettering is laid out a little differently on both the front and back covers. Plus, the shrink-wrap has an identifying sticker. Better still, just look at the copyright date. The first pressing's liner notes include a typographical error; there's a noticeable gap within the essay text where the Enlightened Rogues title is missing.
Bret Adams, Rovi
Fans held their breath when Rick Rubin took the Avett Brothers under his wing. What would the co-head of Columbia Records -- a man known for recording rap-rock albums and resurrecting Johnny Cash's late career -- do with a small-time folk trio? The answer is "relatively nothing," as the band's major-label debut continues charting the same musical course as Emotionalism and Mignonette. The Avett Brothers have expanded their reach since 2000, adding elements of pop and hillbilly country-rock to a bluegrass foundation, and they carry on that tradition with I and Love and You, whose songs introduce a new emphasis on piano and nuanced arrangements. Working with a major label's budget allows the group to add small flourishes -- a cello line here, a keyboard crescendo there -- but the resulting music is hardly grand, focusing on textures rather than volume. Scott and Seth Avett share vocals throughout the album, delivering their lyrics in a speak-sing cadence that, at its best, sounds both tuneful and conversational. Given the opportunities presented here -- the ability to add strings, organs, and harmonium to the mix -- the two devote more time to slower songs, which display those sonic details better. The result is an intimate, poignant album, laced with rich production that often takes as much spotlight as the songwriting itself.
Andrew Leahey, Rovi
UGK's third album, Ridin' Dirty, is their first to be released by a major label, which gives you some sort of indication of how far the group has gone in four short years. In that span of time, UGK scaled to the top of the small but vicious hip-hop scene in the Southern United States, creating a distinctive gangsta hybrid in the process. UGK is just as hedonistic and materialistic as those rappers out on the West Coast, but they don't infuse their music with the deep funk of the Cali scene, nor do they revel in the buoyant bass of their Miami brethren. Instead, they take a more stripped-down approach, which is all the better to hear their celebrations of money, drugs, women -- all of the typical gangsta accessories. If UGK doesn't really have something new to say, at least they have come up with an engaging way to say it -- the sound of their record is vibrant and direct, bringing you right into the thick of things. It's not exceptional gangsta rap, but it is entertaining.
Leo Stanley, Rovi
ZZ Top had reached the top of the charts before, but that didn't make their sudden popularity in 1983 any more predictable. It wasn't that they were just popular -- they were "hip", for God's sake, since they were one of the only AOR favorites to figure out to harness the stylish, synthesized grooves of new wave, and then figure out how to sell it on MTV. Of course, it helped that they had songs that deserved to be hits. With "Gimme All Your Lovin'," "Sharp Dressed Man," and "Legs," they had their greatest set of singles since the heady days of Tres Hombres, and the songs that surrounded them weren't bad either -- they would have been singles on El Loco, as a matter of fact. The songs alone would have made Eliminator one of ZZ Top's three greatest albums, but their embrace of synths and sequencers made it a blockbuster hit, since it was the sound of the times. Years later, the sound of the times winds up sounding a bit stiff. It's still an excellent ZZ Top album, one of their best, yet it sounds like a mechanized ZZ Top thanks to the unflaggingly accurate grooves. Then again, that's part of the album's charm -- this is new wave blues-rock, glossed up for the video, looking as good as the omnipresent convertible on the cover and sounding as irresistible as Reaganomics. Not the sort the old-school fans or blues-rock purists will love, but ZZ Top never sounded as much like a band of its time as they did here. [Based on Rhino's 2008 Deluxe reissue of ZZ Top's classic 1983 LP Eliminator, the trio didn't have much in the way of unreleased songs left in the vaults, but that doesn't mean this double-disc set isn't useful. This set has a DVD devoted to the album's landmark videos -- "Gimme All Your Lovin'," "Sharp Dressed Man," "Legs," and "TV Dinners," all staples of early MTV -- adding a couple of live performances for good measure. Live performances are also the key to the expansion of the CD, as the seven bonus tracks contain two mixes of "Legs" -- a 7" edit and a 12" mix -- and five live cuts from the Eliminator tour. These live performances aren't as good as the sleek, gleaming finished album, as the group had neither learned to expertly play with a drum machine on-stage or figure out how to do these songs without electronics, but that just winds up highlighting what an exceptionally well-crafted, imaginative production the original Eliminator was and for that, this deluxe edition is worth exploring.]