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BUSTA RHYMES, Genesis, J Records
Clive Davis lets you know right off the bat in the intro that Genesis is a "ridiculous album that's hot to death." Now it's funny hearing Clive use phrases like that, but he couldn't be more accurate. Brushing off his disappointing Elektra finale, Anarchy, Busta Rhymes has come back strong for his debut on J. And taking a cue from Dres, Busta uses a sample of himself to let you all know on "As I Come Back." The track will sound familiar to those of you who have seen the video for his first single because he slips part of the first verse in as the intro to the clip. (Always the master marketer, Busta also manages to sneak in a subliminal plug for his biggest endorser, Mountain Dew, by reenacting their ram vs. man commercial -- one of the few spots he didn't appear in for them this year.) The aforementioned first single, "Break Ya Neck" is a bonafide head-nodder with a beat provided by Dr. Dre. Pete Rock, the Neptunes and Diamond D also contribute from behind the boards, while everybody's favorite producer on the mic, P. Diddy, gets extravagant with Busta on "Pass the Courvoisier." A decidedly more deft MC, Rah Digga, trades verses with Busta on "Betta Stay Up In Your House" and the whole Flipmode Squad joins in on "Match the Name With the Voice." Mary J. Blige lends her vocals to "There's Only One," while "Shut 'Em Down 2002" finds Busta recreating the Public Enemy classic. The title track is on some futuristic sh-- not heard since Eightball & MJG... either that or Guy. And then there's the track that asks the question, "Why you got your 'A-- On Your Shoulders'?" Better yet, "Why'd you leave this track on the album?" It's really not that bad, but it seems a little too far West even for Busta. "What It Is" from the Violator 2.0 compilation makes an encore appearance here, and the album closes with "Bad Dreams," a DMX-like battle between Busta and the devil. Genesis is 20 tracks strong with a variety of styles and beats that only Busta could rhyme to. Even the skits are kind of funny the first time.
Click here to find out how to buy this album.

-- Butta Parkay

ERICK SERMON, Music, J Records
Erick Sermon is one of a kind. From his lyrical delivery to his creative production, nobody quite does it like E-Dub. Once again, he has put industry on its ear with his use of Marvin Gaye vocals for an improbable duet on "Music." Riding the success of this single, Sermon has put together an album built around this concept piece, even going as far as to duplicate the feat with another Gaye sample on "Hot." Many of the tracks have a melodic feel to them, including "The Sermon" featuring R. Kelly, but E makes sure to stay grounded in the old school as well on cuts like "Do-Re-Mi" featuring L.L. Cool J and Scarface and a remake of M.C. Breed classic on "Ain't No Future 2001." "Genius E-Dub" uses the same Tom Tom Club sample as X-Clan's "In The Ways of the Scales" and Mariah Carey and ODB's "Fantasy." And of course, Redman and Keith Murray join E to reunite the Def Squad on "Now What's Up." Overall, this album is not as strong as his brief turn under the alias Erick Onasis last year, but it's not bad starting point for his new career on J.
Click here to find out how to buy this album.

-- Butta Parkay

BENZINO, The Benzino Project, Motown
It's gone too far now. First, the Almighty RSO newsletter (a.k.a. The Source) gives free ad space and articles to a group out of Boston nobody cares about. Then they change their name to Made Men and get nominated for Source Awards. Then The Source's publisher, David Mays, personally raises the rating from 3.5 to 4.5 mics on the Made Men album. Now they put Ray Benzino on the cover?! And they have the nerve to call it one of four "collector" covers? Yeah, mark the date: "December 2001, when The Source officially stopped being relevant." It's actually kind of fun to read The Source these days, because with Made Men they used to have a block of three pages with the same ad on it -- way too blatant. With Benzino (formerly known as RSO's Ray Dog), he still gets three ads, but they're scattered throughout the mag and all look different. They're getting smarter, but it's funny how no one else has picked up on wearing iced-out wristbands or outfitting their dogs (yes, puppies) in Antonio Ansaldi (another alias) leather. All that free promotion and they still can't set trends. Now let's talk about "Bootee." You know, the first single from The Benzino Project that features the production of Teddy Riley, who has done virtually nothing since inventing new jack swing more than a decade ago. Of course you know he can't help but get on the track, reliving his "Rump Shaker" days with Wreckx-N-Effect. And will someone please remind Ray Lewis that he's the Super Bowl MVP and has no business being a chauffeur to this Benzino chump. Scarface, Snoop Dogg, Raekwon, Black Rob and Busta Rhymes also appear on the album, but you have to figure either they were well-paid or are looking to be in the good graces of The Source (who knows, maybe it's worth half a mic). This guy wouldn't even warrant a mention here if it wasn't for The Source, but somebody has to balance out those undeserved high ratings. So keep putting out albums, Almighty RSO, Made Men, Hangmen 3, Ray Dog, Benzino, or whatever you decide to call yourself next, and we'll keep dishing out frisbees. And for all those that want to use the convenient term and call us "haters," that's just a shield used as an excuse for putting out weak product these days. Remember what Common told you last year: "If I don't like it, I don't like it. It don't mean that I'm hatin'."
Click here to find out how to buy this album.

-- West Coast

MR. CHEEKS, John P. Kelly, Universal
The Lost Boyz never really seemed to live up to the potential they showed on their debut album, Legal Drug Money, and unfortunately their career was cut tragically short by the death of Freaky Tah last year. But the main ingredient has always been Mr. Cheeks, so it should come as no surprise that he is moving forward with a solo release. With the focus squarely on him and him alone, it obvious he doesn't mind. In fact he seems to relish it. A nice little intro lets you know where he comes from and what he and the Lost Boyz have done. Then it's "Lights, Camera, Action!" The album's first single is the perfect showcase of the renewed Mr. Cheeks. Save for the awkward chorus that references Outkast's "Ms. Jackson" just a little too soon, the track is a classic LB fam cut. "Mama Say" and "Till We Meet Again" recruit the talents of Stephen Marley to add a touch of reggae, while Horace Brown brings his soul to "Friday Night." Big Gipp of the Goodie Mob stops in for "Bump Heads," but it's the solo joints that really allow Cheeks to shine. "Let's Go," "I Remember," "Worldwide Bouncin'" and "What The F--- Is This?" all showcase different sides of this complex artist. By the time the last track comes on, it should be a "Unanimous Decision" that it was a good idea to invite John P. Kelly into your stereo.
Click here to find out how to buy this album.

-- West Coast

JA RULE, Pain Is Love, Def Jam
His duet with Jennifer Lopez and assorted movie roles have made him a hot commodity, but Ja Rule still seems to disappoint when it comes to delivering a full album. Someone find out who told him to sing, and promptly fire them. It's okay in small doses, like on the "I'm Real" remix when he's just kind of singing his verses a little, but when he starts belting out the hooks like he's K-Ci or somebody, it's just plain awful. "Down A-- B----" is a perfect example. Listening to yet another Lil' Mo collabo would be better than having Ja handle it on his own. That said, it wouldn't kill him to have the Murderers stay behind the scenes, either. "So Much Pain" is a remake of 2Pac's underappreciated "Pain" from the "Above the Rim" soundtrack. While Ja does it justice, especially in the ominous way he brings Pac in for the final verse, it really just makes you long to hear the original. Ja Rule is a hitmaker, no doubt. "Livin' It Up" featuring Case is continued proof of that. But like Randy Moss, he doesn't seem to give his all on every play. If this album as a whole was as good as his singles, he'd get a higher rating.
Click here to find out how to buy this album.

-- Mason Storm

JAY-Z, The Blueprint, Roc-A-Fella
The 411 Online doesn't have to use the first few lines of this review to apologize for sleeping on Jay-Z's Reasonable Doubt, because we didn't. His debut album was labeled a certified classic in the print version of The 411 in 1996, so while other publications give The Blueprint a five-star rating but have to explain that it's still not better than an album they only gave four marks, we can label it another classic with confidence. Sure, we've handed out our share of $50s to Jigga since then. In fact, three in all. Some may even say it was the wrong three, but what no one can deny is that Jay-Z consistently puts out albums that top anything else out on the market at that time. Such is the case with The Blueprint. This is a true solo album. Only one guest spits a verse, and just like he did on Biggie's "Dead Wrong," Eminem seems to raise the bar on his lyrics when he's matched with a comparable MC. And Slim Shady isn't the only one who shows depth. Jay-Z gets deep. How deep? Deeper than "Regrets" on his debut. Deeper than "You Must Love Me" on In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 or even "Where Have You Been" on The Dynasty. Track after track, from "Never Change" and "Heart of the City" to "Song Cry" and "All I Need," seems to have more feeling than those of years past. To balance it out, there's plenty of upbeat singles to be found as well, like "Girls, Girls, Girls," "Hola Hovito," "Jigga That N----" and the first release, "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)" To top it all off, Jigga rips Prodigy and Nas on "Takeover," which is probably the best dis to be unleashed since 2Pac's "Hit 'Em Up." This is without a doubt Jay's finest solo work since Reasonable. No hidden agendas and no excessive crew cuts. Just Jay-Z at his best.
Click here to find out how to buy this album.

-- J Rough

FABOLOUS, Ghetto Fabolous, Desert Storm
Most people have gotten to know Fabolous from his recent contribution to Lil' Mo's single and video, "Superwoman Pt. II." But true heads know that this 21-year-old Brooklyn native is no newcomer to the rap game, appearing on DJ Clue's mix tapes as far back as 1998. Since then, he's blessed R&B tracks such as 702's remix of "Where My Girls At" and Mariah Carey's remake of "Last Night a DJ Saved My Life." But all that was just a warmup for the main event. And Ghetto Fabolous doesn't disappoint. The first single, "Can't Deny It" featuring Nate Dogg, is just the tip of the iceberg. Fab's deck is stacked with bangers like "Ride For This" featuring Ja Rule, "Keepin' It Gangsta," "Young'n," "Trade It All" featuring Jagged Edge, "One Day" and the Timbaland-produced "Right Now & Later On." Many have compared Fabolous to Mase, but the way he jacks Biggie you'd think he was Jay-Z. His reunion with Lil' Mo is nothing more than a remake of Junior MAFIA's "I Need You Tonight," and "Get Right" repeats the hook from "Players Anthem" almost word for word. Even with its setbacks, the whole album has potential to stay in regular rotation, which is quite a feat for a rookie.
Click here to find out how to buy this album.

-- Butta Parkay

FOXY BROWN, Broken Silence, Def Jam
This platter gets my early vote as "the album most likely to be slept on this year." Foxy has kind of disappointed us these past few years, so expectations aren't high for Broken Silence. Maybe that's why it comes off so well. The production carries the album, but Foxy's trademark monotone is at its best as well, especially when it's addressing the personal problems she's endured while she's been out of the spotlight. The first single, "B.K. Anthem," hasn't really gotten the run it's deserved, but she should have plenty more to boost the awareness of this fine product. "Oh Yeah," "Hood Scriptures," "Tables Will Turn," "The Letter" featuring Ronald Isley and "Candy" featuring Kelis are among the standout tracks. Guest appearances are heavy but don't interfere with the flow of the album in this case. Mystikal on "'Bout My Paper" and Capone-N-Noreaga on "Run Yo' Sh--" are the most visible of the cameos, but the less-experienced contributors hold their own as well. The reggae influences she's experimented with in the past shine through more clearly this time around and add a nice flavor to the album. Foxy's been down, but this proves she's definitely not out. In fact, this puts her back up top in my book.
Click here to find out how to buy this album.

-- J Rough

KURUPT, Space Boogie: Smoke Oddessey, Antra
Last time out, Kurupt blessed us with a Chronic-inspired reunion that was one of the best West Coast albums in quite some time. Space Boogie: Smoke Oddessey find him branching out, recruiting a range of guests from a variety of backgrounds. A familiar face, Nate Dogg, starts things off on "Space Boogie," kicking off a parade of guest artists belting out the hooks. The first single, "It's Over," features Kurupt's current girlfriend, Blaque singer Natina Reed. It follows the little-kids-singing model popularized by artists like Jay-Z and Busta Rhymes and is not representative of the album as a whole. DJ Quik offers his classic sound to "Can't Go Wrong" as Butch Cassidy handles the vocals. Lil' Half Dead resurfaces on "On, On Site," while Jon B contributes to "Sunshine." Along with Xzibit and Nate Dogg, M.C. Ren stakes a claim for still being "The Hardest." "On Da Grind," one of the best tracks from Daz's independent album, Raw, from last year, makes a return engagement here and fits in nicely, but the Dogg Pound duo is at their best on "Gangstas." Toward the end of the album, Kurupt starts to bring in some of the popular rap-rock crossover artists -- with mixed results. Say what you will about Fred Durst's talent as a rock star, video director, producer and industry exec, but as an MC, he flat out sucks. His lyrics are horrible and his delivery is just as weak. How this guy ever got down in the hip-hop world is beyond me. Durst's Limp Bizkit partner DJ Lethal does slightly better on "Just Don't Give A..." Speaking of former House of Pain members, Ice-T associate turned proud Irishman turned contemporary folk singer Everlast brings his current style to the table on "Kuruption." Fortunately, Daz returns for the final cut, "Da World," before things get out of hand. Negatives aside, Kurupt has delivered a quality disc that's listenable from start to finish for the second straight time, but it's not quite on the level of The Streetz Iz A Mutha.
Click here to find out how to buy this album.

-- Mason Storm

BEANIE SIGEL, The Reason, Roc-A-Fella
"It's Mack, B----," Beanie Sigel proudly declares on his sophomore effort The Reason. B Mack is back with a whole new arsenal of rhymes and more casual beats to kick those lazy Philly charmed bars. On "Nothing Like It" Sigel spits that sh-- that originally got us hooked on the Philly cat: introspective rhymes matched with a smooth 'oldies'-type beat. On the first single off the album, "Beanie," Sigel raps about what every gangsta rapper always spits about -- drugs, murder and driving the fanciest cars. On this album we find Mack rapping on a lot more caring, slower-level cuts. "Man's World," "What Your Life Like Pt. 2," and "Watch Your B------" is evidence of the change in direction. The most touching track is the duet of Beanie and the 'retired' Scarface on "Mom Praying," in which Scarface delivers his most heartfelt verse to date. But don't think Beanie is on some soft sh--. On "Tales Of A Hustler" featuring Sparks, Sigel spits fire with: "I'll leave your family in pieces/ Starting with your big uncles to small nieces." "Think It's A Game" with Jay-Z, Freeway and Lil' Chris is one of the illest NY ciphers ever recorded. But the whole album isn't all good. Tracks like "So What You Saying," "Get Down," and "I Don't Do Much" do nothing for this otherwise stellar album. Mack is still one of the illest lyricists in the game, but he needs to separate his fillers from his bangers. One love.
Click here to find out how to buy this album.

-- Sam

More reviews on Run DMC, Eve and Xzibit...

Ratings

Certified classic
You should already own this album

Capital goods
Better than the price you paid

Balanced
Worth every penny you pay for it

Coming up short
Wait for this one to go on sale

Good frisbee
Hold off until it hits the 99-cent bin


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