* * * 1/2 Fat Joe, "Don Cartagena," Mystic/Big Beat/Atlantic.

When Fat Joe released his debut album, "Represent," in 1993, he became one of the few Latino rappers to make serious inroads into the primarily black realm of hip-hop. Although the South Bronx resident's album failed to make an impact on the pop music charts, his credibility within the rap community was rock-solid.

His second set, 1995's "Jealous One's Envy," featured a blazing collaboration with KRS-One and led to Joe's being featured on LL Cool J's "Mr. Smith" album. While Joe was switching record companies, he stayed busy co-executive-producing fellow rapper Big Punisher, whose debut album entered the pop charts at No. 5 earlier this year.

"Don Cartagena" stands as Joe's triumphant return project. As in his recent guest appearances, Joe largely sticks to ultra-violent lyrics and gangster story lines. The album's appeal rests largely on his ability to effortlessly mix gangsterism and braggadocio. Joe's menacing voice and thunderous production create a masterful musical atmosphere that thrills and intimidates.

Strong guest performances from Nas, Big Punisher, Noreaga and others add to the record's appeal. A superb blend of hard-core sounds and sensibilities, "Don Cartagena" places Fat Joe among rap's elite.

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).

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