Boasts and lyrical skill from Jay-Z

Jay-Z

"The Black Album" (Def Jam)

***

Anointed the king of New York hip-hop after friend the Notorious B.I.G. was killed in 1997, this Brooklyn rapper claims, as he's done a number of times, that this studio album, his eighth, will be his last. If true, hip-hop will indeed be left without one of its premier talents.

Throughout the new album's 14 cuts, Jay-Z showcases his tremendous lyrical skill, highlighted by his uncanny ability to string together clever couplets with double meanings, something he does masterfully on the macabre "Moment of Clarity" and the brag-heavy "What More Can I Say."

These cuts also highlight Jay-Z's effortless delivery patterns, which can sound as casual as conversation or as complex as astrophysics. Best known for his ingenious boasts, Jay-Z gives fans an engaging look into his formative years on "December 4th" and "Moment of Clarity."

Backing Jay-Z's nimble lyrical gymnastics is equally potent production. Longtime collaborators Kanye West and Just Blaze deliver spectacular, soul sample-based beats, while Eminem, Aqua and Joe "3H" Weinberger also supply superior soundscapes. Yet for all of his retirement talk, Jay-Z hints on "What More Can I Say" and "Encore" that he'll be returning to the rap arena. If so, he'll undoubtedly enjoy a well-deserved hero's welcome.

--Soren Baker

Brief peek behind the bad-boy mask

Kid Rock

"Kid Rock" (Atlantic)

**

The good news about Kid Rock's fourth album: He's come up with five pretty strong songs that show a human being lurking beneath the public persona of a swaggering rock god. The bad news: You'll have to wade (or skip-button) through 10 others concerned with little beyond reminding everyone what a stud he is.

His models run from Mick Jagger and Rod Stewart to such Detroit-rock forebears as Bob Seger and Ted Nugent, and while he clearly is having the most fun trying to prove he deserves a place in the upper echelon of rock's bad boys, the only songs that don't sound like a hundred others that have come before them are the softer ones, in which he drops his mask.

Seger's "Hard Night for Sarah" is far more worth revisiting than his remake of Bad Company's lumbering arena-rock anthem "Feel Like Makin' Love," and Rock genuinely connects with the former's heartache of a woman blindsided by divorce. He lets some real pain slip through the anger in "Run Off to L.A.," his new collaboration with "Pictures" partner Sheryl Crow. And although the lyric to "Single Father," which he wrote with country outlaw David Allan Coe, is clumsy in spots, its humility is refreshing.

Surely one day we'll get an entire album of equally thoughtful, sensitive performances from Rock. Look for it right next to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

-- Randy Lewis

Lyrics sag, despite good intentions

P.O.D.

"Payable On Death" (Atlantic)

**

P.O.D.'s man-bites-dog approach to rock-rap is nothing if not intriguing. With guitars grinding, bass and drums thundering and vocals screeching, the San Diego quartet rants less about what's wrong with the world or the members' love lives than about how to make things better.

The positive spin has its empowering moments in the heavy rock ballad "Will You," which, like many of the group's compositions, can be interpreted as a love song or an expression of yearning for a closer relationship with God. That's to be expected from a group that says it's not a Christian band, but its members just happen to be Christians.

But attitude carries P.O.D. only so far. The group often wraps lyrics in generic hard-rock settings lacking strong melodic or instrumental hooks. And those lyrics, however well-intentioned, rarely exhibit the craft or artistic insight that might turn them into something beyond conversational remarks anyone wanting a better world might make.

"You portray selfishness and hate, while some prepare to die today/ I say you'll fade away, appreciate life and liberate," they sing in "Freedom Fighters."

There's a noble idea in there somewhere, as in many of the album's songs. But memorable rock 'n' roll? Hardly.

-- R.L.

Intense disdain hinders ingenuity

Ja Rule

"Blood In My Eye" (Def Jam)

**

50 Cent is the biggest rapper of 2003, but don't count Ja Rule among his fans. Ja Rule, who catapulted to stardom a few years ago by teaming on his singles with such female singers as Jennifer Lopez and Ashanti, dedicates virtually all of his fifth album to dissing 50 Cent, with whom he has had a long-standing rivalry.

It's a novel approach for Ja Rule to make his first "concept" album an indictment of another rapper, but by focusing almost exclusively on his disdain for 50 Cent, he sounds a bit desperate. His attacks, largely superficial barbs that also occasionally target 50 Cent cohorts Dr. Dre and Eminem, lack the sting and imagination contained in the same type of confrontational songs that everyone from LL Cool J to Ice Cube has released over the years.

Tellingly, the gritty single "Clap Back," a braggadocio session that doesn't involve 50 Cent, is the collection's standout cut. Ja Rule, who released hard-core music before he became a star by teaming with R&B; singers, apparently wants to get his edge back. To do so, he needs to add more edge and insight to his angst.

--S.B.

*

Quick spins

A glance at other new releases of interest.

John Lennon "Lennon Legend" (Capitol): This DVD compiles all of Lennon's music videos with some TV appearances and other footage. In stores Tuesday.

Bruce Springsteen "The Essential Bruce Springsteen" (Columbia): This three-CD set starts with "Blinded by the Light" and ends with "Countin' On a Miracle," fleshing out the Boss' hits and concert staples with a few rarities.

Dave Matthews Band "Live In Central Park" (RCA): Recorded at the group's Sept. 25 performance before about 85,000 people.

Reba McEntire "Room to Breathe" (MCA): After successful detours to Broadway and TV sitcom, country music's reigning queen of the '80s returns with her first album in four years. In stores Tuesday.

G-Unit "Beg for Mercy" (Interscope): 50 Cent is the big name in this hot rap crew that's burning up the singles chart with "Stunt 101."

Blink-182 "blink-182" (Geffen): The locker-room humor in the video for the first single, "Feel This," suggests this San Diego pop-punk group isn't in danger of growing up any time soon. In stores Tuesday.

Various Artists "The Amos House Charity Compilation, Vol. III" (Wishing Tree): Wilco, Super Furry Animals, Emily Sparks are among nearly two dozen indie rockers on this benefit double album. In stores Tuesday.

*

Quarter notes

Rapper 50 Cent, on his new album with rap crew G-Unit, "Beg for Mercy," which was moved up from Nov. 28 to Nov. 14 after the music began circulating over the Internet.

"What can you expect when you're the hottest rapper around? The streets are used to gettin' my music the unconventional way."

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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