*** Memphis Bleek, "The Understanding," Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam.

The second collection from this Jay-Z protege is a dramatic improvement over his 1999 debut and one of the most surprising hip-hop albums of the year. Bleek's flows are refined, and his thugged-out narratives contain an undeniable intensity. The album's nearly flawless production varies from brutal to dreamy, but it remains forceful throughout. Memphis Bleek pulls off a hip-hop rarity: His second album is better than his debut.

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Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.

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