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Jay-Z
The Black Album
Roc-A-Fella/Island Def Jam

Every artist worth their salt has released a black album. Think about it: Metallica did one, and Prince, and even Spinal Tap. Now, Jay Z -- the estimable Hova -- is releasing what he says is his last record ever. Those who know him say the statement isn't a surprise.

What's surprising is that the record isn't called The Green Album. As is obvious from listening to any one of his (platinum plus) records, Jay's fondness for green rivals perhaps only The Masters golf tournament. One of the few rappers to have earned most of the money he raps about, Jay's a multimillionaire and then some. He has his own record company, a clothing line, his own sneaker line, an upscale sports bar, and a new autobiography.

Perhaps more importantly, he has the considerable street cred to say what the hell he wants to on a record: "I dumb down for my audience/And double my dollars/They criticize me for it/Yet they all yell "Holla.'" How many other major-label rappers do you know who'd admit such a thing? Even the man's disses are usually rather creative, for crying out loud: "I check cheddar like a food inspector/I shoot at y'all actors like a movie director."

Whether or not this is Jay's last album is certainly up for debate. What's not up for debate is that he is one of the best MCs -- major-label, indie, or otherwise -- of all time. When every other rapper was bragging about hos bagged and caps peeled, Jay-Hova became rap's first real paper-chaser. In the NFL, we give a guy a hand when he can retire at the top of his career with money and his health. Why not major league rappers?

Track to burn: "Moment of Clarity"
Grade: B+--Timothy C. Davis

G Unit
Beg For Mercy
G Unit/Interscope

50 Cent, not content with surviving nine bullet wounds, selling a butt-load of records, and dating the 39-year-old, washed-up actress Vivica Fox, has now done what has become tradition in The Game: bringing his crew into the studio with him.

He should have left his boys in the hood, where they belong. Between them, Lloyd Banks, Young Buck and Tony Yayo -- the so-called G Unit -- manage about three creative couplets on Beg For Mercy. It's an apt title, at least from the listener's perspective. 50 manages to engage a few times with that spittle-laden sideways drawl of his, but overall the sheer tediousness of Big Talk here (whether it be guns, dicks, or bankrolls) ought to make the average listener -- i.e., the average Joe who has to think twice before even purchasing something as small as a CD -- run for cover. Posse records always sell like hotcakes, but, without exception, quickly grow cold on the plate. This platter, released the same week as Jay-Z's The Black Album, was expected to chart at one or two, simply because of the whole 50 connection. I ended the Jay-Z piece above with a sports analogy, and, as these records have been closely linked in the press, will do so here. When a kid from the projects makes the big time -- think LeBron James, think 50 Cent -- it's a big deal.

Notice, however, that you don't see the Cleveland Cavaliers scrambling to sign any of LeBron's high school buddies. While it's true that said friends might work for LeBron later on -- the infamous pro athlete posse -- none of them will ever get on the court, or deserve to.

The G-Unit should have been kept on the bench where they belong.

Track to burn: "Poppin' Them Thangs"
Grade: D--Timothy C. Davis

The Handsome Family
Singing Bones
Carrot Top Records

Last year the Boris & Natasha of Gothic country -- husband and wife Rennie and Brett Sparks -- left their decade-long home of Chicago and wagon-trained it down to Albuquerque, NM. Their music -- which seemed to be running in place on 2001's Twilight, their previous studio disc -- has breathed the wide-open air of the Southwest and, just like the Chamber brochures out there suggest, now enjoys the recuperative health benefits.

Expanding on their deliciously disturbed, traditional/noir take on country music, lyric-writer Rennie and song-writer Brett (the self-proclaimed "bi-polar Texan") have added the musical heritage from their new neck of the woods to the usual mix of forlorn pedal steel, eerie saw and haunted fiddle. Some Marty Robbins-gunslinger-on-codeine country, a slab of Western swing, and un poquito Spanish-guitar and mariachi ("Far From Any Road" is vintage Calexico) open up the skeletal framework, rather than overcrowd it.

They may have moved and benefited artistically, but the Handsome Family packed plenty of familiar darkness to bring along.

Track to burn: "The Song of A Hundred Toads"
Grade: B+--John Schacht

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