Snoop Dogg, "Paid Tha Cost to Be Da Bo$$" (Priority) ***
As one of the most charismatic rappers to emerge from Los Angeles, Snoop Dogg has been able to establish himself as a kingpin of West Coast hip-hop despite releasing some questionable material throughout his decade-long career.
With his sixth studio album (due in stores Tuesday), the rapper regains the reserved force that made him such a compelling figure in the early 1990s. Dr. Dre, his producer from those days, is nowhere to be seen on "Paid," and he's hardly missed. Omnipresent producers the Neptunes provide synthesized funk for "From Tha Chuuch to Da Palace" and give a breezy feel to the gangster love ballad "Beautiful." Snoop even raps a surprisingly straight-up soulful love song on the bluesy "I Believe in You," which features soaring vocals from the impressive Latoiya Williams.
But make no mistake: This is a decidedly hard-core affair. Snoop blasts his former record label boss Marion "Suge" Knight as well as onetime friends Kurupt and Xzibit, and his rough rhymes on "From Long Beach 2 Brick City" rock harder than Nirvana. When he slips into his pimp persona, Snoop oozes extra charm, evidenced on the lively blaxploitation vibe of "Lollipop." Snoop earns the "Bo$$" title.
McGraw scares up pop-rock spirits
Tim McGraw, "Tim McGraw and the Dancehall Doctors" (Curb), ** 1/2
McGRAW'S roots are showing on his seventh and most ambitious album (due Tuesday). That's no shot at his hair, just recognition of the '70s pop and rock ghosts that lurk within many of the songs.
His album-closing take on Elton John's "Tiny Dancer" is more cover than remake, one final tip of a Stetson that's doffed in other songs to Jimmy Buffett, Billy Joel, the Eagles and Hall & Oates.
There's no seismic shift here, nothing like the move from country to pop, soul and R&B; that his wife Faith Hill takes on her latest album. But there's a welcome effort in several songs -- all by outside writers -- to reach beyond the formula-bound numbers he's turned into hit after hit over the past decade.
He edges toward social commentary with the first single, "Red Ragtop," a remembrance of an affair that ends, it's implied, after an abortion. The more politically pointed "Who Are They" breezily takes on the collective "they" that dictates society's do's and don'ts.
With 15 songs, the album is too generous, and he would have made a more forceful case for his musical growth if he'd dropped the overblown arena-rock ballad "She's My Kind of Rain" and left the Hank Jr.-esque chest thumping in "Real Good Man" to Toby Keith.
-- Randy Lewis
System up to its provocative ways
System of a Down, "Steal This Album" American/Columbia) *** 1/2
With its manic yet rapturous instrumentation and politically charged themes, System of a Down's 2001 album "Toxicity" was a real breakthrough for the L.A. band, and a striking example of how unpredictable and inspiring metallic music can be.
"Steal This Album" (due Tuesday) isn't exactly new -- it gathers material from the "Toxicity" sessions with older compositions in a melodic and menacing collection that provides a link between the band's initial wacky aggression and its current role as fiery social commentator.
From crazed rants to grim political anthems, this relentless recording is in some ways even more provocative and diverse than its predecessor. It's also more hook-driven. Singer Serj Tankian's animated croons have an operatic quality, especially when melded with guitarist Daron Malakian's higher-pitched howls. Their harrowing harmonies and weird, repetitive vocal effects alternately glide and grind against chugging guitars and their signature mix of Middle Eastern rhythms and punk tempos.
-- Lina Lecaro
Fernandez handy with Lara songs
Vicente Fernandez, "35 Aniversario, Lo Mejor de Lara" (Sony Discos) ***
On his new album (in stores Tuesday), Mexico's long-reigning king of mariachi changes his charro suit for a tuxedo to interpret the romantic standards of the late Agustin Lara, the urbane composer who dominated Mexican pop music in the pre-rock era.
Lara was a prodigious songwriter who left a legacy of classic songs, many of them considered shocking at the time. "Perevertida," included in this collection, is a yearning ode to a woman he loves "although people call you perverted."
Fernandez tones down his normally booming voice to evoke the aching textures of Lara's futile loves, as well as the tenderness of his graceful tribute to true love, "Solamente Una Vez." Fans will also recognize the jaunty "Maria Bonita," dedicated to mercurial actress Maria Felix, with whom Lara had a tempestuous relationship. Glaringly absent is "Noche de Ronda," Lara's famous song of heartbreak and lonely nights.
Fernandez's elegant backing mariachi is enhanced with orchestral strings, horns and light percussion, though a tune such as "Veracruz" could use a touch more tropical sway. But that's a minor quibble in an otherwise classy production.
-- Agustin Gurza
The Roots, "Phrenology" (MCA) *** 1/2
As hip-hop's premier live band, this Grammy-winning sextet is renowned for jazzy, organic grooves and taut, sociopolitical lyricism. On this wildly experimental sixth album (due Tuesday), they flirt with Hendrix-inspired cacophony (the 10-minute-plus "Water") and mosh-pit hard-core amid the thoughtful verses and soulful arrangements. Contributions from Cody Chesnutt and neo-soul singer Musiq contribute to the Roots' most accessible and enjoyable release yet.
-- Scott T. Sterling
Joni Mitchell, "Travelogue" (Nonesuch) ***
The superb singer-songwriter shows us another side of her music in this two-disc set by revisiting some of her older tunes (including "For the Roses" and "Amelia") and more recent ones with the help of a 70-member orchestra and 20-voice choir. The added weight of the arrangements makes some of the tracks feel strained, but the overall effect is liberating and revealing.
-- Robert Hilburn
Ja Rule, "The Last Temptation" (Def Jam) ** 1/2
Hip-hop's preeminent thug lover has added his gruff crooning and rapping to songs by everyone from J. Lo to Mary J. Blige. On his fourth album, Rule serves up the same type of coarse love songs ("Thug Lovin'," "Mesmerize") and hard-core manifestos ("The Pledge Remix," "Connected") that have become his staple. Though these catchy songs work well on radio, Rule's simple lyrics and his tormented-artist routine aren't always as stimulating.
Matchbox Twenty, "More Than You Think You Are" (Melismatic/Atlantic) **
The title notwithstanding, this Florida band's third album is less than you'd hope it might be. Melodic hooks still abound -- "All I Need" is a pure pop delight -- and singer Rob Thomas' voice is as easy as ever on the ears, but Matchbox is still in search of a third dimension to make most of its songs come alive.
Sum 41, "Does This Look Infected?" (Island/Def Jam) **
On their third release (in stores Tuesday), the bad boys from Canada show they aren't growing up any time soon. They're still hurling bratty punk baubles bulging with mischievous attitude and punk-pop energy, but aside from bulking up a few tunes with the metallic muscle toyed with on their hit debut, "All Killer, No Filler," this release just feels like a rowdy recap.
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.