-- Hobart Rowland

Master P
MP Da Last Don
No Limit

In the great Warhol tradition, it often seems any aspiring talent can find 15 minutes of fame on Master P's No Limit label. Not since Suge Knight's Death Row Records has a rap label taken its name so literally.

Not convinced? Go to your local record store and flip through the stacks of No Limit releases featuring the up-and-coming likes of Silkk The Shocker, C-Murder, Kane & Abel, rookie R&B quartet Sons of Funk and others. You can bet there will be more Gulf Coast offerings where those came from -- and that doesn't include the long-awaited No Limit album from Death Row outcast Snoop Doggy Dogg, which drops in August. But, as any No Limit associate will tell you, this is P's world; everyone else is stuck paying rent. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that No Limit's most trumpeted release of the year so far just happens to be his own.

MP Da Last Don's two-CD, 29-track ghetto fiesta has been billed as the Louisiana rapper's farewell album, a final teaser for fans before he hops into his Jeep and swerves off into the industry jungle to attend to label matters full-time. (Personally, I don't buy it; he's probably working on a "comeback" triple album as you're reading this.) Last year, P was all about those tired, synthesizer-strewn beats of his single "I'm Bout It, Bout It." How things have changed: Da Last Don is Master P's most tolerable outing to date. With the help of his No Limit cohorts (including Snoop Dogg, who sounds livelier than ever), and the frenzied, impulsive grooves of the "Beats by the Pound" production crew, Master P has made the hip-hop equivalent of a summer popcorn movie. Beats and rhymes whiz by so fast you'd be a fool to let your guard down -- even for a minute. A capitalist at heart, P revels in plush, extravagant verse while never losing sight of his urban roots. (Evidently he cherishes the ghetto even when conspiring to escape it.) Last Don's vibe can only be described as postmortem Tupac; tracks such as "The Ghetto's Got Me Trapped," "Mama Raised Me" and "Goodbye to My Homies" all sound like something Shakur could've easily sunk his teeth into.

Granted, Da Last Don's subject matter isn't all that fresh (P's incessant use of "nigga" puts the Mark Fuhrman tapes to shame), but Master P never lets his songs go too far into the formulaic doldrums. More than anyone, P knows there's nothing worse than a weak rapper extolling weak rhymes. Shrewd, sly and opportunistic, Da Last Don mirrors its maker. (***)

-- Craig D. Lindsey

Brooks & Dunn
If You See Her

Reba McEntire
If You See Him

Reba McEntire and Brooks & Dunn have sold more than 30 million records between them and won enough awards to fill several pages. Garth aside, they are the biggest acts in country music. Scary, isn't it?

In what passes for a stroke of genius in Nashville these days, they've taken to touring as co-headliners in an attempt to draw attention to a pair of aging acts in danger of being overtaken by the younger guns. Naturally, there was a need for a "showstopper," a song that would allow them to perform on-stage together. These two releases are tied together by that tune, a drippy duet of sorts, "If You See Him, If You See Her." What their respective labels are calling an "event" is really nothing but a shameless marketing stratagem.

Give Brooks & Dunn credit for If You See Her, if only for its occasional attempt at keeping it country (for example, the super-slick take on Gary Stewart's honky-tonk classic "Brand New Whiskey"). Otherwise, there's not much new or unexpected on this collection of radio-ready weepers ("I Can't Get Over You") and boot-scootin' boogie ("Way Gone"). Mildly entertaining but nothing extraordinary.

Reba, on the other hand, has abandoned any semblance of her country roots on If You See Him, apparently catering to the massive Celine Dion contingent with a variety of pop fluff accented with the occasional steel guitar and string section. Sure, her vocals are as powerful as ever, but her choice of material isn't varied or strong enough to keep the whole commercially calculated exercise from melting into a sugary mess. If You See Her (**); If You See Him (*)

-- Jim Caligiuri

Squinting Before the Dazzle

It's a great feeling when a band that has shown promise finally delivers the goods. On its third release, Squinting Before the Dazzle, Cincinnati's Throneberry exhibits the best qualities of a highly efficient indie-pop brain-trust without the awkward self-consciousness that marred the band's previous work. Here, they bounce between sad-eyed ballads with a hint of edginess and up-tempo, oughta-be-radio-hits. The pace is unhurried; the melodies drifting by -- pardon the cliche -- like a cool breeze on a summer's day.

Although layering the songs with intriguing ornamental tidbits, Throneberry continues to rely chiefly on a traditional twin-guitar approach and the occasional keyboards and watery vocal effects. His voice laden with nicotine and character, singer Jason Arbenz -- way out in front on some occasions -- still manages enough restraint to make us feel like we're eavesdropping.

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