"Get Rich or Die Tryin' " (Shady/Aftermath/Interscope)
He's been shot. He's been stabbed. He's a rival of Ja Rule. His mix tapes are the hottest items on the streets of New York. He's now signed by Eminem and Dr. Dre. Surprise: 50 Cent is the hottest rapper in America.
After years of bubbling on the underground circuit, the Queens-bred artist is poised to explode with his major-label debut, a charged affair that includes a devastating mix of raw street hunger from 50 Cent and production polish from Dr. Dre, Eminem and others.
The catchy "Wanksta" (culled from the "8 Mile" soundtrack) and the current smash single "In Da Club" exemplify how hard-core hip-hop can cross over without going pop. The rest of the 19-cut collection finds 50 Cent pledging his allegiance to the streets. His rhymes are average, but his lisp, his exaggerated delivery and the beats backing him push this collection over the edge.
It's undeniable that part of 50 Cent's appeal is his authenticity. Like 2Pac and other high-profile rappers, he has had his street and courtroom dramas widely documented, and he revisits these episodes in the album, further fanning the flames of his brazen arrival.
Gill's latest goes on and on and on
"Next Big Thing" (MCA)
Blessed with a high, sweet voice that is as pure as any in modern pop and a welcome dedication to classic country music tradition, Gill has been one of the most rewarding figures in Nashville for almost two decades.
Apparently wanting new challenges, he produced this album himself -- and it was a mistake. If nothing else, he needed someone in the studio to tell him, "Vince, it's time to wrap this baby up."
This album, due in stores Tuesday, is almost 50% longer than 1998's "The Key," a superb, 45-minute look at the breakup of his marriage and the death of his father, and much of the extra length feels thin.
With his career built around love songs (blissful or sad), you can see where he would want to add some other touches, including maybe even a homage to some of his musical favorites. We hear Vince as Merle Haggard ("Real Mean Bottle"), as Marty Robbins (the border cantina atmosphere of "We Had It All") and even as one of the Eagles ("Young Man's Town"), but it's just not as interesting as Vince being Vince.
Not everything is secondhand. In fact, there is almost enough Vince to make a pretty good 45-minute album.
-- Robert Hilburn
Visionary, polished and harrowing
"100th Window" (Virgin)
Trip-hop pioneer Massive Attack has finally marked the '00s with a dark, icy and chromatically sublime fourth album (in stores Tuesday), its first since 1998. The tone of the work is bleak, even as the hydroponic production is dazzlingly deep.
Producers Robert "3-D" Del Naja and Neil Davidge, this time without the help of Grant "Daddy Gee" Marshal, who temporarily stepped away, churn out slow-motion bass lines and IDM-flavored blip-hop ballads, a new direction in pop. "Future Proof" starts the album with an almost operatic sense of drama, while harrowing synths and precious keys float above the laptop beats in "Name Taken."
The polished tracks, however, don't seem to mesh with "Window's" ambitious lyrics, with their themes of vulnerability, addiction and needless bloodshed. There are no clear anthems in the tradition of 1991's "Unfinished Sympathy" or 1994's "Protection." Sinead O'Connor lends her burning, emotional vocals to three tracks, including "Special Cases," a likely breakout that lyrically recalls her Prince-written hit "Nothing Compares 2 U."
The English group's harrowing studio artistry is, once again, visionary, even if the overall package feels as uncertain as the times.
-- Dennis Romero
"Len Parrot's Memorial Lift," (Rough Trade/Beggars Banquet)
Mojo magazine's English eccentrics issue somehow overlooks the late Ian Dury, but his son's debut album does the reputation proud -- though it's more evocative of Robert Wyatt's airy, abstract pop than the elder Dury's Cockney narratives. Portishead's Adrian Utley helped craft some of the music, but it's young Dury's high, fragile voice and cockeyed but emotional sensibilities that make this an ear-catching arrival.
-- Steve Hochman
"Pursuit of Happiness" (ffrr)
The most delicious U.K. soul listening since the heavy head-nod of Portishead and Massive Attack's "Protection." Nottingham jazz and DIY sound system singer Rachel Foster intoxicates with Tracey Thorne and Sade accents laid over perfect house and trip-hop beds made by Groove Armada's Andy Cato. Works both as an empowered female tip and contemplative, ultra-smart dance flow. Be prepared to hear "I'll Be There" and the rest of this classic at every house party in '03.
-- Dean Kuipers
Draped in strings and choral luxuriance, the fourth album of sweet mopery from this Glaswegian foursome threatens to snap under the weight of its dark content. With Alun Woodward and Emma Pollock characteristically trading vocals, fractured narratives such as "Child Killers" and "All You Need Is Hate" trump what the band accomplished on 2000's "The Great Eastern," which was nominated for Britain's Mercury Music Prize. Dave Fridmann applies the cinematic production flourishes that made memorable his collaboration with Mercury Rev and the Flaming Lips, but it is restraint that makes the Delgados' tightrope act work.
-- Kevin Bronson
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.