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LUNIZ, Oakland Blaze, C-Note
Luniz albums are few and far between. Making a strong debut with "I Got 5 On It" and Operation Stackola in 1995, Yukmouth and Knumskull have had just one album since (1997's underrated Lunitik Muzik). Yuk has remained on the scene with a semi-successful solo career that spawned two albums, but the Luniz have always been stronger as a pair. Enter Oakland Blaze, their long-delayed third offering. Still without a release date because of rampant bootlegging, the album is worth checking. A double dose of guest spots lead off the album, with Daz and Kurupt making an appearance on "Stay Packin' Heat" and Treach contributing to "Take It Off, Break Me Off." A more familiar face shows up on the smoothed-out personal tale, "Makin' Moves" -- Dru Down, who also appears on "I'm Dangerous." Other notable guests include Nina Ross on "Cuz Yo B---- Wants To," C-Bo on "F--- You" and the one-and-only Reverend Run on "Nobody's Love." Speaking of old school, "I'm A Raider" serves as a tribute to Oakland MCs, "Mic Check" takes you back with classic samples, and "Narcotics" borrows the device used by the late, great Eazy-E on "Radio" as Yuk and Knum get interviewed about their indulgences in various substances. Although Oakland Blaze slows down a little toward the middle, the front and back ends make up for it. By the time "Pockets Deep & Plenty" closes out the album, you're tempted to go back for more.
Click here to find out how to buy this album.

-- Mason Storm

STATE PROPERTY, The Soundtrack, Roc-A-Fella
The first thing you notice is that there is no Jay-Z on this album. Remember that this is the guy that turned The Dynasty compilation into a Jay-Z album at the last minute -- his fingerprints are usually all over any Roc project. Funny that he decided to let this album go without blessing at least a track (or even donating one of his own leftovers, as he did with Memphis Bleek and Beanie Sigel in the past). Not that this album needs it, because Beanie is ready to be off on his own. This is his first venture out of Jigga's nest, sort of like when Ice Cube left N.W.A, except without the beef. The problem is the rest of the "State Property" crew is Da Lench Mob, and they're all over the album. Aside from Freeway, there probably aren't a lot of solo careers in the future for these artists. (Notice the word was 'careers,' not albums. There surely will be solo joints from Young Chris, Oschino, Neef and Sparks at some point. It's unavoidable.) As a collective, though, they manage to put together a decent album. The first single, "Roc the Mic," is still the standout, but "It's Not Right," "No Glory" and the Freeway solo, "International Hustler," are worth peeping. It says a lot that Beanie's on almost every track. He's looked upon to carry the album, while Freeway is there to dish out assists. When neither is on the track is when the album suffers the most. Fortunately, that's only on two tracks, "So You Want Me" and "Sing My Song." If you can make it all the way through "Sing My Song" without cringing or skipping to the next track, you are a bigger man than most (and your taste is suspect). "State Property" is a good test of the depth of the Roc-A-Fella family. Although the results are questionable at best, Beanie, Freeway and the solid production keep it from being a total loss.
Click here to find out how to buy this album.

-- West Coast

NAS, Stillmatic, Columbia
Despite dismissing those who "thought I'd make another Illmatic" on the intro, Nas later references his 1994 classic and declares that "this is the rebirth." By the time the music fades on the last track, it's obvious that he reached back for more than just the title on this album. Nasty Nas is back. Whether it was his public battle with Jay-Z or his own pride that inspired him, it doesn't matter. The important thing is that this sleeping giant has been awakened. Speaking of beef, Nas gets right to it by placing "Ether" as the first full track on the album. His response to Jigga's "Takeover" systematically dismantles the current king of New York and his ongoing obsession with Notorious B.I.G.: "First Biggie's your man / then you got the nerve to say that you better than Big / d--- sucking lips, why won't you let the late, great veteran live?" and "Is he Dame Diddy, Dame Daddy or Dame Dummy? / Oh I get it, you Biggie and he's Puffy," as well as "How much of Biggie's rhymes is gonna come out your fat lips? / Wanted to be on every last one of my classics." Now there are those that will dispute that I Am and Nastradamus were anything close to classics and still others that will challenge you to dig deeper than the surface on those albums and try to say that they're not, but Nas leaves nothing to debate on Stillmatic. At times the beats seem overly simple, but that just allows the rhymes to shine. And Nas can more than hold his own when it comes to carrying a track with lyrics alone. More often than not, hits are made by the beats, and Nas is operating in reverse. In fact, on "Rewind" he literally tells the tale of a day in the life completely backwards. The next track, "One Mic," finds Nas exploring yet another vocal device, as the beat and his demeanor start out calm and gradually become enraged before settling back down at the end. Nas lets everyone know on "Destroy & Rebuild" that he takes issue with more than just one MC. In fact, he attacks Cormega, Prodigy and Nature for not representing the QB properly. Fortunately, Nas managed to squash it with at least one former collaborator -- AZ. The "Life's A B----" duo reunites for "The Flyest." On the other hand, he also remembered to bring his new crew along for a "Braveheart Party." We'll pretend we weren't invited and won't let it count against the album as a whole. On "Rule," Nas carries on his '80s pop sample theme with a snippet of Tears for Fears' "Everybody Wants to Rule the World." A curious choice since "If I Ruled the World" is probably his best known single, but Nas uses it to address war and the events of Sept. 11. A little more politics in hip-hop can't hurt, and Nas chooses to take a stand and call for peace. Then he keeps the intellectual vibe going on "My Country" and "What Goes Around." Sure, he still has his pop tendencies and glaring infatuations with mobsters -- real and fictional -- but with Stillmatic, Nas has reached heights he hasn't seen since he was christened the second coming of Rakim.
Click here to find out how to buy this album.

-- West Coast

WARREN G, The Return of the Regulator, Universal
Don't get it twisted when you go to the store to pick up Warren G's new album. When Warren decided to take it back to the "Regulate" days, he went all out. The cover of The Return of the Regulator looks exactly like Regulate... G-Funk Era. Same street signs, same pose, just about everything. It's probably why they placed "2002" prominently on the front even though it isn't part of the title. Beneath the surface it's just as familiar. Starting off with "Lookin' At You" featuring Miss Toi, it's apparent that ain't nothing changed. Warren still brings the funk with the best of 'em out West. One surprise is the resurgence of Mista Grimm, who appears on four tracks, which is probably four more than you've heard him on in the last four years. Others that offer support include Soopafly on "Somethin' To Bounce To," W.C. on "Young Locs Slow Down," George Clinton on "Speed Dreamin'" and Boss Hogg on two different tracks. Snoop Dogg, Nate Dogg and Warren bring 213 back together once again for "Yo' Sassy Ways," but unlike on Regulate, Butch Cassidy is the main man on the hooks for this album. Keeping with the sequel theme, "Deez Nuts II" also is included, and "The G Child" returns as well on "G-Funk Is Here To Stay." Now on Universal after moving from label to label, let's hope Warren G can settle in and finally get his due.
Click here to find out how to buy this album.

-- Butta Parkay

JAY-Z, Unplugged, Roc-A-Fella
Consider this Jay-Z's Greatest Hits. Except instead of just getting a collection of the best cuts from his six albums in six years, Jigga performs them live. Not only that, but he's backed by a live band. And it's The Roots. It doesn't get any better than this. From his first album's first track, "Can't Knock The Hustle," to Jay's latest single off The Blueprint, "Girls, Girls, Girls," The Roots offer their live interpretation of the original banging beats. On "Takeover," when Jay begins his assault on Mobb Deep and Nas, the band breaks it down with a little "Shook Ones," "Oochie Wally" and "N.Y. State of Mind," while "Song Cry" gets an "I Need Love" treatment. Just as you would expect from a live set from any artist, Unplugged supplies a heavy dose of his current album ("Izzo," "Heart of the City," "Jigga That N----" and the previously mentioned tracks) while peppering the performance with plenty from his past. Mary J. Blige reprised her role for "Can't Knock The Hustle," but there was no sign of Foxy Brown for the other selection from Reasonable Doubt, "Ain't No N----." Although there were no offerings from In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 , "Jigga What, Jigga Who," "Can I Get A..." and "Hard Knock Life" made the cut from Vol. 2. Filling out the set was "Big Pimpin'" off Vol. 3... Life and Times of S. Carter and "I Just Wanna Love U" from The Dynasty. The only drawback is that many of the songs are brief since so many of them had guest appearances on the album versions, but it's definitely an album you can throw in and listen to all the way through. This is hip-hop at its best lyrically and musically.
Click here to find out how to buy this album.

-- West Coast

MOBB DEEP, Infamy, Columbia
Mobb Deep is crossing over. Don't get mad, because they'll freely admit it. In fact they already have in countless interviews promoting the new album. Besides that, look at the first single. 112? "Hey Luv"? This is Mobb Deep? But wait, there's more. Ronald Isley and Lil' Mo are here, too. The crew that brought you one of the hottest cuts of 2000 with "Quiet Storm" now is counting on R&B and the radio to sell records. And then there's that beef. You know the one. Havoc and Prodigy take their shots at Jay-Z, but nothing that will erase the memory of what Jigga did at Summer Jam or make you forget how they got trashed on "Takeover." Although this might be the Mobb at their worst, there still are some cuts that are all right, including "The Learning (Burn)" featuring Vita and "Get At Me." Still, Infamy is a long way from The Infamous. Almost makes me embarrassed that I ever had a Hennessy jersey.
Click here to find out how to buy this album.

-- J Rough

MACK 10, Bang or Ball, Cash Money
Mack 10 needed a label, not a crew. He's an established artist and he doesn't really need help to drop a tight album. He proved that on his debut, Foe Life, six years ago. So why is it that his new labelmates feel the need to be all over this album? Mannie Fresh is the only Cash Money Millionaire that contributes anything to the album, and that's mainly because he provides the beats. The rest of them seem as out of place as all the No Limit Soldiers did on Snoop's first album for Master P. Even the few tracks that Cash Money affiliates don't show up on have some other ill-advised and unnecessary collaborations. And the true solo cut that Dr. Dre produced, "Hate In Your Eyes," falls apart when it uses yet another interpretation of the Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive." Hopefully, Mack 10 will take a cue from his fellow West Coast defector to New Orleans and go back to the basics on his next 'solo' album. Hardcore Mack 10 fans probably will enjoy Bang or Ball, but others will find it hard to keep in regular rotation.
Click here to find out how to buy this album.

-- Butta Parkay

HOW HIGH, Soundtrack, Def Jam
The "How High" soundtrack is nothing more than a collection of all your favorite Method Man and Redman hits with a few new tracks thrown in. And that's not a bad thing. New offerings include "Cisco Kid" featuring Cypress Hill, "Round and Round" featuring Jonell, "Let's Do It" and of course "How High Part II," which makes nice use of a Toni Braxton sample to avoid being just a rehash of the original. As good as the new stuff is, you can't help but indulge in all the great tracks on the second half of the album. Method Man delivers "Bring The Pain," "N 2 Gether Now" and "All I Need" featuring Mary J. Blige, while Redman offers "How To Roll A Blunt." The duo comes together to bring back "Da Rockwilder" and "Big Dogs," and the album closes with the track that started it all -- the original "How High." The inclusion of DMX's "Party Up" and Ludacris' "What's Your Fantasy" is an added bonus, while tracks from Streetlife and Saukrates are mostly afterthoughts. But thanks to the new tracks and a boatload of classics, this new album is worth having.
Click here to find out how to buy this album.

-- Mason Storm

DE LA SOUL, AOI: Bionix, Tommy Boy
After a four-year layoff before last year's Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump, De La Soul is back already with the second installment of the AOI trilogy. Bionix is similar to its predecessor with its collection of choice guest appearances, which includes guest spots by Devin the Dude on "Baby Phat," Slick Rick on "What We Do (For Love)" and B-Real on "Peer Pressure." But this edition's skit series -- "Reverend Do Good" -- pales in comparison to Mosaic Thump's "Ghost Weed." It would have been interesting to see what MCs they could have gotten for a second session. Instead, it appears that Dave kept the stash to himself, because he does a dead-on impression of Greg Nice on "Simply," and then tackles Smooth B later on the track, which samples "A Wonderful Christmas Time" by Paul McCartney's post-Beatles band, Wings. Even better is the cut's 48-second outro. Listed as its own track, "Simply Havin'" features Pos flowing over A Tribe Called Quest's "Footprints." One odd occurance is "Pawn Star," where the threesome go all 2 Live Crew for a minute, but for the most part this album is solid throughout. Maybe it's because they returned so quickly that we can't appreciate it more.
Click here to find out how to buy this album.

-- J Rough

FAT JOE, Jealous Ones Still Envy, Atlantic
From the looks and sound of it, Fat Joe just might be trying to pick up where Big Pun left off. That might be a good career move. Enlisting R. Kelly for the first single, "We Thuggin'," sure does bring back memories of Pun and Joe's collabo. However, it must be said that flossing by the pool in matching baby blue fur coats will no doubt haunt Fat Joe and R. Kelly the way Puffy and Mase were by the shiny suits. "What's Luv?" featuring Ashanti and Ja Rule (barely -- he says "got to do with it" on the hook) seems to continue down that crossover road. And that's one of the mixed blessings of J.O.S.E. -- the truckload of guest appearances. Ludacris on "Get the Hell on with That," Xzibit on "Wildlife" and M.O.P. and Petey Pablo on "Fight Club" are among the cameos, and there's even a "We Thuggin'" remix with Remy Martin, Noreaga and Busta Rhymes. "Murder Rap" and "He's Not Real" stay truer to Joe's roots, and "It's OK" features a creative use of Cypress Hill's "How I Could Just Kill a Man." One track sure to cause a buzz is "King of N.Y." As Jay-Z and Nas seemingly battle over the crown, Joe claims it was his all along. That's a tough sell, especially since this album seems to be Fat Joe's first step toward the commercial hip-hop that put those two at the level they are.
Click here to find out how to buy this album.

-- West Coast

LUDACRIS, Word of Mouf, Def Jam South
Probably the rawest MC to emerge from the South in a while, Ludacris is back for a second time in a year with Word of Mouf. Opening with a spoof on the movie of the same name, "Coming 2 America" starts the album off strong once it drifts from the Zamunda theme of the first few seconds. The lead single, "Rollout (My Business)," showcases Luda at his rapid-fire best with assistance from Timbaland production. Luda's hit with Nate Dogg off the "Rush Hour 2" soundtrack, "Area Codes," makes an appearance here, but the best cuts are "Growing Pains," "Keep It On The Hush" and "Saturday (Oooh! Oooh!)" -- if only because they stand out as being different. Honorable mention goes to the title-track freestyle, assuming that it really is off the dome. The highlight of the album just might be a skit in which 'random white people' attempt to perform Luda's "Greatest Hits." One of the most combustible pairings of all time ignites on "Move B----" when Mystikal arrives on the scene to trade verses with Ludacris and fellow guest I-20. "Block Lockdown" is listed as the bonus track, but the real hidden gem comes right after that in the form of "Welcome to Atlanta," his collabo from Jermaine Dupri's Instructions. Delivery and wordplay are Luda's strong suits, and there's no shortage of either throughout this album, but it just doesn't seem like he attacks the meat of his albums with the same voracity that makes his singles and guest appearances so tight. Ultimately, it's the somewhat uninspired hooks and occasionally lackluster production that holds this album back. Word of Mouf, for all its positives, comes up just a little short of expectations, but not enough to avoid adding it to your collection.
Click here to find out how to buy this album.

-- Butta Parkay

More reviews on Busta Rhymes, Ja Rule and Jay-Z...

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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