De La Soul
"The Grind Date" (AOI/Sanctuary Urban)
Ever since De La Soul broke through in the late 1980s, the Long Island, N.Y., rap group has been redefining itself. Early on, it tried to distance itself from the hippie tag bestowed on it by fans and critics alike after the success of its landmark debut album, the innovative and quirky "3 Feet High and Rising."
Since then, the group has openly lamented the increasingly exploitative imagery used to sell rap music (a focus on violence and the excessive glorification of the objectification of women, among other transgressions).
With its seventh studio album, rappers Posdnuos and Dave and DJ/occasional rapper Maseo continue to celebrate hip-hop culture and attack its negative manifestations. They also spend several songs defending its musical legacy specifically and New York's place in hip-hop history in general.
As enjoyable as that may be for fans in the know, hearing De La Soul team with fellow legend Flavor Flav on the reflective, boast-heavy "Come On Down" and with gifted lyricist Common on the meditative "Days of Our Lives" is the real payoff.
As this standout collection of songs shows, with its astounding lyrical acumen and stellar beats, De La Soul surely ranks among the best rap groups of all time.
Mixing passion and purpose
"Thug Matrimony: Married to the Streets" (Atlantic)
Taking a much rougher but equally captivating stand with his music is Trick Daddy, whose sixth album demonstrates that the Miami rapper can be lewd, outrageous and thought-provoking at the same time. He made his mark in the late 1990s with a brand of party-ready thug rap that contained more grit than a mechanic's fingernails. Since then, Trick Daddy has refined his style to include stinging political observations as well as encouragement for children to believe in themselves and follow their dreams. Yet he remains among the most sexually explicit rappers since the 2 Live Crew.
It's a formula that's virtually perfected on "Thug Matrimony" (in stores Tuesday). Its energetic lead single teams Trick with the gruff Lil Jon and the lightning-fast Twista for the boast-heavy arena-rock "Let's Go," while the X-rated "Jump On It" and "Manage a Trois" earn points for Trick's humorously blunt comments on the rewards of recreational sex. He does a lyrical 180 on "These Are the Days," which encourages children to listen to and respect authority, and the autobiographical "I Wanna Sang," which traces Trick's early musical aspirations and gives them the fuzzy, I-can-do-that-too ambience of an after-school television special. Trick's strongest skill is pulling off this wide range of songs with equal aplomb, a talent that places him among hip-hop's elite.
How to punch up your next party
Roy Jones Jr. Presents Body Head Bangerz
"Volume 1" (Universal)
Whereas Trick Daddy's albums are multifaceted, the first album from the Body Head Bangerz focuses almost exclusively on getting the party started. As a second-string member of Master P's No Limit Records in the late 1990s and early this decade, Magic teamed with Master P, Mystikal and others to make the New Orleans-based label one of rap's biggest rags-to-riches stories.
Now aligned with boxer-cum-rapper Jones and fellow New Orleans rapper Choppa, Magic returns as the mastermind of the Body Head Bangerz, a trio whose bone-crushing debut album (in stores Tuesday) features a blistering collection of songs (including an original and a remix version of the underground hit "I Smoke, I Drank") sure to send any party into overdrive. Guests Juvenile, Petey Pablo and Bun B. add lyrical firepower to an already explosive collection.
Anticipated debut is a slow Jin fizzle
"The Rest Is History" (Ruff Ryders/Virgin)
"Explosive" isn't a word that comes to mind to describe the disappointing debut album from Jin. After winning a string of freestyle battles on BET's popular "106th & Park" video countdown program, Jin became the first Chinese American rapper to create a national buzz. His debut album, however, does not live up to the promise he displayed on television. His storytelling on such narrative-driven cuts as "Love Story" is stilted, his punch lines elicit little reaction throughout the collection's 16 songs, and his thin voice is often overpowered by his production, which isn't always compelling, either. "Club Song" was supposed to be a parody of disposable rap tunes aimed for clubs, but it is so generic that it ends up being the type of song it was supposed to belittle. Jin proved he could defeat rappers in a rhyme battle, but making a quality album is something he has yet to master.
Compelling tales of street life
"Special Edition" (Legal Hustle)
Cormega has mastered poetic street thuggery in his latest collection. Once signed to Def Jam and formerly aligned with Nas, this Queens, N.Y., rapper seemed destined for greatness. By delivering thoughtful ruminations on the perils of ghetto life, Cormega has achieved it on an independent level with little national fanfare. "Special Edition" is a double-disc set that packages the original versions of 2001's "The Realness" and 2002's "True Meaning," his first two albums, and also includes seven bonus cuts, all of which highlight his keen storytelling ability and showcase the atmospheric beats that enhance his vivid narratives.
A brainy spin, and with a grin
"Fear of a Mixed Planet" (33rd Street)
While Cormega focuses on the bleak conditions of America's urban centers, Shock G takes a more cerebral look at life on the engagingly adventurous "Fear of a Mixed Planet." When hip-hop was going down a decidedly gangster road in the early 1990s, Digital Underground provided a credible, lighthearted alternative with such hits as "The Humpty Dance" and "Kiss You Back."
Shock G, the crew's musically ambitious leader, returns with a sonically and thematically adventurous collection that echoes his group's early -- and most zany -- work. Shock's comfort zone includes defining protege 2Pac's place in hip-hop on the mellow "Keep It Beautiful" and venturing off into the abstract on the serene "Cherry Flava'd Email." Propelling Shock's sometimes insightful, sometimes nonsensical rhymes are a wide range of instruments (piano, flute, saxophone and guitar) that serve as a great complement to his lyrical potpourri.
Reveling in the rough stuff
"Self Explanatory" (Capitol)
I-20, a husky-voiced Atlanta-area rapper with a decidedly gangster bent compared to musical mentor Ludacris, offers an enjoyable brand of brutal comedy on this rugged album. With trunk-rattling beats and an overall intimidating edge, I-20's hard-hitting debut collection centers on the rugged streets of the lower-class South. I-20's voice is his strongest asset and his descriptive lyrics, whether describing brawling or having sex, form memorable images. Boosting I-20's vocal muscle is an impressive array of top-shelf beats from Salaam "The Chameleon" Remi (the Fugees, Nas), Lil Jon (Usher, Ying Yang Twins) and DJ Paul and Juicy "J" (Three 6 Mafia).