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NOREAGA, Melvin Flynt -- Da Hustler, Penalty
Oh no. Noreaga's record sales aren't quite what Penalty Recordings had hoped they would be, but that is no fault of Nore's. In his follow up to the thug classic N.O.R.E., Noreaga is able to recapture the same thuggish vibe on his sophomore effort, Melvin Flynt -- Da Hustler. The two best songs on the disc are the synthesizer-driven "Oh No" and "Cocaine Business," which are produced by the Neptunes. The Neptunes also produced the smash hit "SuperThug" on the last album. "Sometimes," "Gangsta's Watch," "Blood Money Pt. 3," "Going Legit," and "Real or Fake N-----" are all tight songs demonstrating Nore's dynamic flow over some well-produced tracks. However, "Da Hustla," "What the F--- is Up?" "First Day Home," and "If U Want It," are definitely in need of some hook help. Nore repeats himself a little too much on the hooks and they are not at all imaginative. "Wethuggedout," produced by Swizz Beats and featuring Missy Elliott, is a terrible disappointment that is hard for me to even listen to, much less discuss. It should be a misdemeanor for Missy to pick up a microphone. Musalini and Maze are all over this album and hold their own, but the best guest appearances come from Juvenile and Lil Wayne, even though they only share one verse between the two of them. Noreaga has a distinct flow that is all his own, and Melvin Flynt -- Da Hustler cements his place in the upper echelon of thug poets. N.O.R.E. was a classic, but this album is not as diverse and falls a few songs short.
Click here to find out how to buy this album.

-- Keep bangin'
Cvere

PUFF DADDY, Forever, Bad Boy
I must be a playa hater. According to Puffy, anybody who doesn't like him and what he does is a playa hater... he's always reminding us of that. Guess what Puffy? I'm not a playa hater, I just recognize weak sh-- when I hear it. Recruiting an all-star lineup of guest appearances is a feeble attempt to compensate for the fact that Puff is a poor lyricist. But hey, he's always been a wack rapper... it was his beats that got him to where he is today... that, and capitalizing on the unfortunate death of Biggie. Puffy found a couple more ways to make more money off the legacy of Notorious. First comes Shyne, who has been billed as a Biggie soundalike... sounding like Biggie and rhyming like Biggie are two entirely different things and Shyne doesn't accomplish either one successfully. Second comes "Real Niggaz," a track with archived Biggie vocals. This was dope the first time I heard it three or four years ago backed with some jacked Death Row beats on an underground mix tape outta NYC. It's still a nice cut... but it's different now. Before it was Biggie blessing the mic as only he could do, now it's Puffy out to make a buck. As for the beats on Forever, Puffy's up to his old tricks. Sure, sampling has always been a part of hip-hop, but don't touch that Club Nouveau track that the Luniz had five on just four years ago. And jacking that classic Public Enemy beat for "P.E. 2000" is unforgivable... Chuck was public enemy number one because he was spreading a message that America was afraid of. Now Puffy's supposed to be public enemy number one for owning a Rolex and a Bentley? And the visuals don't help either... watching Puffy's little mid-video routine in shiny gear evoked memories of Hammer desperately dancing to save his career. Only the Jay-Z and Biggie tracks keep "Forever" from sinking to a buck or two.
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-- The W, a.k.a. Ed O'Neill

MADE MEN, Classic Limited Edition, Restless
This group has done a lot behind the scenes to impact hip-hop without really doing anything noteworthy on wax. Decent cameos from Master P, Daz, Kurupt, Big Pun and Montell Jordan can't conceal the truth. Blamed for the demise of more than a few staffers at The Source in two separate, well-publicized incidents, the group formerly known as The Almighty RSO covers every clichť in the book. With little airplay or street cred, the Boston trio's only publicity continues to come from their man David Mays in the form of advertising, feature articles, generous reviews and nominations for awards. Something has to even out the ridiculous 4.5-mic rating that The Source staff was unknowingly forced to give this album. Consider it done.
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-- Butta Parkay

RAHZEL, Make the Music 2000, MCA
To call Rahzel a human beat box is to relegate him a status as strictly an old school throwback. Vocal percussionist is to play a game of semantics with the term. To give the man his proper respect is to recognize him as the self-contained, wholly organic musical phenomenon that he is. On the Philly-bred Roots crew's domestic debut Do You Want More? Rahzel first made himself known, appearing in progressively larger capacity on their next two albums. On his solo debut, Rahzel blossoms from hip-hop anomaly into a self-proclaimed bad muthaf----. At various points throughout Make the Music 2000, Rahzel plays the role of MC and DJ, as well as taking the place of the drum machine and sampler all by simply opening his mouth. Not only does Rahzel provide amazing beats, scratches and various audio effects through a mind-blowing display of mandibular manipulation, but also provides solid if not spectacular old school flavored lyrical delivery. Furthermore, he breaks with current rap etiquette by including guest appearances by DJ's, producers and vocalists based upon their skills, not their current popularity. In addition to Rahzel himself, Marley Marl, Pete Rock, Twilite Tone, LES, Scott Storch and Bob Power are enlisted for production duties. Lyrically, Q-Tip spreads "To the Beat" with his usual butter delivery and Roots mates Black Thought and ?uestlove show love, backed by an Aaron Hall chorus on the plush "Suga Sista." One of the most impressive and progressive cuts on the album is the ethereally beautiful "Steal My Soul" featuring Me'Shell Ndegeocello (good to hear her again) and Branford Marsalis on sax. Just as tight, "Southern Girl," where Erykah Badu sexily laces Rahzel's spartan version of dirty Southern funk. Additionally the tracks are interspersed with snippets of live performance by Rahzel, displaying a stunning array of his skills in their purest form; be sure to let the final track run past the 3:30 mark to hear a dope bonus tag team battle pitting men vs. machines. Although I know that many will surely argue with me, I have to label this disc a classic because it achieves what few even attempt. Rahzel manages to revive the original spirit of hip-hop music without going 'retro' for pop culture's sake (P Diddy take note), delivers modern rap music without pandering to trends, and pushes the envelope through collaboration and innovation. It's just too bad that it isn't a little longer.
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-- Kawon

VIOLATOR, The Album, Violator
LL Cool J, Q-Tip, Busta Rhymes (no relation to LeAnn), Mobb Deep, Fat Joe, Big Pun, Eightball, Noreaga, Camíron and many others appear on this hip-hop all-star disc. And like NBA all-star hoop battles over the last few years, this disc is not what it could be. Q-Tip tips off with "Vivrant Thing," which is a departure from most of his Tribe Called Quest work. "Vivrant Thing" is pure funk. Tipís lyrics arenít very complicated, but man, this song is hot. The Flipmode Squad succeeds with "What You Come Around Here For," and LL does not disappoint on "Say What." A couple of my favorite songs on this disc are "Ohh Wee" by Cru, "Beatnuts Forever" by, of course, the Beatnuts, and "What My N----- Want" by Cam and Busta. Next and Mysonne also make a good team on "Nobody." However, the rest of the album is a bit of a letdown. While production is tight, it seems that most of the artists are saving their best stuff for their own albums.
Click here to find out how to buy this album.

-- Cvere

WHITEBOYS, Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, Offline Music
Let's all gather around the heart rate monitor at the local E.R. and watch the Whiteboys soundtrack die a slow, painful death. Strong intial signs of life are encouraging, with bangin' tracks like Big Pun's "Who Is A Thug," DJ Hurricane's "Come Get It" (with Flipmode Squad's Rah Digga, Rampage and Lord Have Mercy) and Soopafly's "Hell Ya." This disc might actually make it... wait... we're losing him. Snoop Dogg and T-Bo botch the title track. Quick, 50 ccs of Raekwon's "Respect Power" ... heart rate steady. Unfortunately, it's touch and go from here on out. Canibus' "Watch Who You Beef Wid" and Tommy Finger's "Paper Chasers" do severe damage to some vital organs. "Don't Come My Way" by Slick Rick and Common shows promise, but doesn't live up to its potential. Three 6 Mafia... heart rate dropping. Do or Die... flatline. Gotta Boyz... no signs of life. Trick Daddy... paddles, clear! Cocoa Brovas featuring Buckshot pump life into the soundtrack with "Intrigued." Really, there's nothing I can do... after Black Child, Wildlife Society and 12 Gauge do their thing, this soundtrack is ready for the morgue. I'm really very sorry.
Click here to find out how to buy this album.

-- The W, a.k.a. Dr. Rosenrosen

MEMPHIS BLEEK, Coming of Age, Roc-A-Fella
Since his debut on Jay-Z's classic Reasonable Doubt, Memphis Bleek has been waiting in the wings for his turn at the plate. Now, with an album of the same name as that first track, it truly is his time to shine. The only problem is that he has to find his way through a cloud of guest appearances to do it. Although you can't front on his mentor's appearance on "What You Think of That," only five of the 14 joints on the album are truly solo. And cuts like "Stay Alive in NYC," with its "King of New York"-inspired intro and piano-laced track, "Memphis Bleek Is...," with its increasingly all-too-familiar Swizz Beats production, and "You A Thug" prove that he can clearly hold his own on the mic. He'll just have to wait until next time to do it.
Click here to find out how to buy this album.

-- Mason Storm

HOT BOYS, Guerrilla Warfare, Cash Money
A warning to all rap listeners... a war has been declared! No, this isn't your typical East Coast vs. West Coast or MC vs. MC warfare. This time around, the attack seems to be aimed at the entire hip-hop industry. The Crescent City's Cash Money clique seems to be on the verge of discovering another gold mine with the first major release from The Hot Boys, Guerrilla Warfare. (Oops! Did I say gold? I meant to say platinum, but I seem to associate these guys with the teeth in their mouth.) Ever since Juvenile's 400 Degreez, Cash Money Records has steadily established themselves as the force to be reckoned with in hip-hop. By the time fellow Hot Boys member B.G. dropped Chopper City in the Ghetto, the whole country couldn't get enough. (Side note: For all of you keeping track of the latest ghetto phrases, add "Bling, Bling" to the list.) And when Juve unleashed the dance song of the summer, "Back That Ass Up," there was no doubt that Cash Money was, and I quote, "..takin over for the 9-9" (and 2000 for that matter). Juvenile, B.G., Lil' Wayne ("Drop it like it's hot") and Young Turk masterfully take turns dropping rhymes on the mic throughout the entire album. A perfect example of this microphone exchange can be heard on the first release from this album, "We on Fire". Although the song's repetitive chorus wears on you, there is no way that you can't appreciate each member's distinct rhyme delivery. Super producer Mannie Fresh allows the Hot Boys to keep sh-- gangstafied on tracks like the dark and gloomy "Ridin" and "Tuesday & Thursday," an anthem pertaining to the two days when everyone who is living a life on the other side of the law should stay alert for the Pigs. And for those lookin' for a little bit of that "bounce" music that N.O. is known for, check out "I Need a Hot Girl," featuring Big Tymers (a personal fave). In addition to most of the group cuts, each and every solo song by the members of the Hot Boys is just that...Hot! In particular, check out the cuts by the two youngest members, Lil' Wayne and Young Turk. It's just two more reasons why Cash Money won't be going anywhere for a long while. Now I'm not suggesting that you all go out to your local dentist and ask for a mouthful of gold fronts. But, I do recommend picking up a copy of Guerrilla Warfare. Or else, your ass might get caught up in the crossfire!
Click here to find out how to buy this album.

-- Mr. Freez

LIL' CEASE, The Wonderful World of Cease A Leo, Undeas
Guess who it is? It's Cease A Leo, baby, in his solo debut. It has been a very long time coming for Junior Mafia's Lil' Cease, who left fans wanting more after hearing his verse on SWV's "Love Like This" in 1997. WARNING: Do not be put off by the album cover. Yeah Lil' Cease is wearing nothing but a furry hat, tattoos and two fat gold chains, but nevertheless this is a good album. Cease comes correct immediately on the first track, "More Dangerous," with a little help from Busta Rhymes, who provides one of the illest hooks of the year. The next song, "Get Out Our Way," features a forgettable verse from Puff Daddy, and an off-key hook sung by Blake C, who should probably stick to rapping. Redman makes an appearance on the funked out "Future Sport" talkin' bout how he "f---- girls that do hair in mini-malls," and all types of other crazy stuff. But Lil' Cease more than holds his own, making for a tight track. "Girlfriend," featuring Kelly Price and employing a sample from R. Kelly's "Not Gonna Hold On," happens to be my girlfriend's favorite song on the album. Lil' Cease and Jay-Z do their thang on "4 My Niggaz," but the song is so nice I wish they would've done their thang a little longer. Puffy gets more time on the mic doing the hook on "Don't Stop," which samples "Knowledge Me," which was sampled first by Master Ace on "Born to Roll" a few years back. Cease A Leo pays homage to his best friend Notorious B.I.G on "Everything," a song that samples "You Are Everything" and features 112. The coolest part of the album, though, is "B.I.G. & Cease Forever," a little mix of Biggie snippets where he mentions Lil' Cease. Overall The Wonderful World of Cease A Leo is a pretty good album and I expect to hear a lot more good stuff from Lil' Cease in the future. However, there are a ton of samples and recycled beats that we have all heard within the past few years, and Blake C and Mr. Bristal are on a few too many tracks (I want to hear Ganza, baby!). Lil' Cease gets a light dub-sack.
Click here to find out how to buy this album.

-- Cvere

GZA, Beneath the Surface, MCA
As the millennium approaches amid much hype and anxiety, hip-hop attentions are diverted by the flash of platinum and ice and the crossover success of rap/rock hybridization. However, the discerning eye of hard-core heads bear witness to the fulfillment of a prophecy beneath the surface. The Wu have been predicting Clan dominance of hip-hop music ever since they warned all comp to protect their neck. The summer of 1999 sees the Clan's latest chess move in the music industry game with the release of the third solo album by the GZA, Beneath the Surface. Like the title suggests, the Genius' latest release is full of the subliminal and cryptic hard-core storytelling that has become the hallmark of this chamber of the Clan. Although the lyrics are as serious and prophetic as always, the production exhibits a bounce that marks a change from the dark and desolate urban samurai epic displayed on Liquid Swords. This time out the GZA has enlisted the production efforts of Allah Mathematics, Arabian Knight, and fellow Clan MC Inspectah Deck, in addition to the razor sharp presence of the RZA. While this newest solo opus possesses the same overall solidity and underground flavor of Liquid Swords, nonetheless there are some definite gems that shine brightly from their hardrock setting. Deck demonstrates tight production skills, no doubt honed during a patient wait for his debut solo release (due later this summer) on the title cut, lyrically blessed with appearances by Killah Priest and RES. "Breaker, Breaker," sees GZA deftly riding the organ-driven bounce provided by Arabian Knight, while Njeri and Joan Davis help beautifully weave a bleak ghetto tapestry for the mind's eye on "Victim." However, my personal fave comes in the form of a Wu dynamic duo of GZA and Mr. Meth, who masterfully use a single verse apiece in the old school tradition to rip on "Stringplay." This latest effort from the GZA is a refreshing change from many of today's debut single-driven hip-hop albums -- a whole CD more than worth its price. Another Wu banger in a continuing line that has proven the once uttered line, "It don't stop, and it don't quit unless you're in the studio doin' wack sh--."
Click here to find out how to buy this album.

-- Kawon

MISSY ELLIOTT, Da Real World, Elektra
On her sophomore release, Missy Elliott again proves she is not worthy of the sonic bed Timbaland has made for her. She blathers on about relationships, devoid of compelling creativity in her wordplay or passion in her vocals. Still, Foxy Brown she isn't. Missy will always have the mastery of Timbaland, who she seems to rightfully thank on every track. Here, hip-hop's most inventive producer has done nothing less than craft the year's best listen. Timbaland has refined his familiar production techniques by tossing out the cartoon sound effects for straight, banging technofunk. One could even go so far and say the album's content is saved by its string of cameo appearances (Eminem, Aaliyah, but surprisingly no Magoo), who seem to ride the delicious beats with ravenous delight. Timbaland needs some new friends.
Click here to find out how to buy this album.

-- Stackcats

MASE, Double Up, Bad Boy
It's just as well that Mase retired, because his career had pretty much run its course anyway. As with most hip-pop artists, Mase had his moment to shine and capitalized on it, but now his time has passed and he has no choice but to fade away (with Puffy close behind if he isn't careful). Double Up is vintage Mase -- lazy lyrical delivery backed by beats you've heard before. On "Stay Out of My Way," he even uses samples of samples, taking pieces from both Madonna's "Justify My Love" and its backbone, Public Enemy's "Security of the First World." With continued assurances that a harder Mase was on the horizon, his first single is the nice and soft "Get Ready," featuring Blackstreet and a chorus that promises "a night to remember." The hardest Mase hits is on "Same N-----," when he attacks critics and shoots down rumors while throwing in a kiss-and-tell revelation that shares with the world just how bad Brandy wanted to be down. To top things off, Mase delivers what amounts to a sequel of "24 Hours to Live" with "From Scratch." However, the trio of Shyne, Harlem World and Mysonne fall far short of the threesome on the first LP -- DMX, the Lox and Black Rob. And that pretty much sums up the album, too.
Click here to find out how to buy this album.

-- Mason Storm

HEAVY D, Heavy, Uptown
Known for his tendencies to lean toward the R&B side of hip-hop, Heavy D actually takes a step back toward the old school world that he came from on Heavy. The former Uptown president left that gig because he wanted to focus his efforts on his own music. The results are somewhat mixed. While his collaboration with Big Pun and Eightball (a trio affectionately dubbed the Heavyweights) is -- as the title suggests -- "On Point," the album takes a strange turn on the sixth track, "Dancin' In the Middle of the Night," as Hev grabs the mic and sings what for some reason sounds like a pop hit from the '80s. Cee-Lo of Goodie Mob and Q-Tip provide a couple of other decent appearances, although the Abstract's routine of providing only a hook when he guests is tiring quickly. Production and subject matter drift from trend to trend -- you can find traces of East, West and South influences -- which is a credit to his versatility but also comes off as confusing. Heavy D deserves respect for being a pioneer, but it seems he's still trying to find his spot in the lineup of today's game.
Click here to find out how to buy this album.

-- Mason Storm

MC EIHT, Section 8, Hoo Bangin'
From the outset, MC Eiht lets you know that ain't nothin' changed in the hood. Gunfire and screams ring out on the intro before giving way to his trademark "jeahs." Despite being on the brink of stardom for much of his career and flirting with the idea of following Snoop to No Limit, Eiht chose to continue to drop ghetto anthems for Mack 10's Hoo Bangin' label. No commercialized crossover hits here, just classic laid-back g-funk on tracks like "My Life" and "Thicker Than Water." And the gangsta tales of "Automatic" and "Flatline" somehow seem more authentic coming from a seasoned West Coast vet. Eiht revisits his roots on the "Days of '89" and recruits his new boss and Ice Cube for "III Tha Hood Way," staying true to his game throughout. Ironically, he and longtime nemesis DJ Quik appear to be the most likely candidates to lead the West Coast resurgence.
Click here to find out how to buy this album.

-- Mason Storm

JA RULE, Venni Vetti Vecci, Def Jam
The man who brought you Jay-Z's "Can I Get A..." steps out on his own for his solo debut. Promoted as being cut from the same mold as 2Pac and DMX, Ja Rule seems to have the emotional and spiritual territory of those artists covered with tracks like "Daddy's Little Baby" featuring Ronald Isley, "Race Against Time" and "Only Beggotten Son." What Ja lacks is an edge. Although his song titles are littered with references of murder and death, it lacks the feeling of authenticity or prophetic eerieness of Pac and X. ("Murder" and "kill" are even censored on the album cover as if they're curse words.) Aside from the first single, "Holla Holla" (which is a great follow-up to his introduction to the world), Ja is better when he's with a guest. "Kill 'Em All" featuring Jay-Z, "It's Murda" featuring DMX and Jay-Z and "E-Dub & Ja" featuring Erick Sermon outshine most of the other cuts on the album. It's not necessarily Ja's fault, because it's not like he can't hold his own. It's just that these happen to be the best Venni Vetti Vecci has to offer.
Click here to find out how to buy this album.

-- Butta Parkay

DRES, Sure Shot Redemption, Ground Control
Eight years removed from Black Sheep's classic A Wolf In Sheep's Clothing, Dres is back on the scene without his partner of two albums, Mr. Lawnge. Sure Shot Redemption starts off strong with "Pardon Me," an upbeat track with a choice Busta Rhymes sample. "As I Look Back" features a jazzy sound reminiscent of Dres' Native Tongue days. The pace picks up again with the energetic "Damn Right," and the sonic whiplash continues with the solid, laid-back "Hi & Lo." The Legion makes a much-too-brief appearance on "Never Say," which at just over two minutes comes off more like a snippet, but the crew reappears on "Sky's the Limit." Another blast from the past comes in the form of a mature Chi Ali, who appears alongside Droop Dogg on "It's Going Down." However, the album tends to drag a little toward the end. But hopefully it's enough to keep Dres in the mix for a few more albums.
Click here to find out how to buy this album.

-- Mason Storm

PUBLIC ENEMY, There's A Poison Goin' On, Atomic Pop
The rebels are back and have something worth fighting for again. With hip-hop firmly entrenched in the nation's culture, Public Enemy has been searching for its place in a world that would rather get paid than get justice. So P.E., with its own battles well-publicized, has decided to take on a leadership role in the war against manipulative record companies with an Internet-released product that threatens the current state of the industry. While Poison isn't as groundbreaking as It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Fear Of A Black Planet, or as catchy as last year's He Got Game soundtrack, you can sense an energy that has not been felt for some time. The production is futuristic, but still echoes the noise of the past. Chuck D's lyrics are pointed and fear is his weapon of choice. Even Flavor Flav seems more serious this time around. A revolution is upon us.
Click here to find out how to buy this album.

-- Mason Storm

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