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Snoop Dogg
Da Game Is to Be Sold, Not to Be Told
No Limit

Eightball
Lost
Suave House

Those who dare to seek parallels between the lanky, low-wattage Snoop Dogg and the corpulent, Southern-fried Eightball will be surprised to find that some do exist. Each, on their respective new CDs, reaches a creative emancipation of sorts, breaking free of regular routines to plunge forward into unchartered hip-hop hubris.

All said and done, Snoop Dogg's Da Game Is to Be Sold, Not to Be Told is his most entertaining work since DoggyStyle (keeping in mind, of course, that Snoop has only three releases to his credit and that the last, The Doggfather, bit it). Da Game's first track, "Snoop World," lays out the liberated game plan for the entire album: Set to a flighty, xylophone-assisted beat, Snoop makes it known that he's hanging up his Death Row colors to roll with Master P and the rest of No Limit's Gulf Coast upper crust. His capitalistic bent (it's as if he's in a higher tax bracket or something) and, dare I say it, uplifting lyrics make him sound like a ghetto bon vivant, a pencil-thin, cocoa-dipped Hugh Hefner inviting the boys to come frolic in his version of the Playboy mansion.

But don't be fooled by the moneyed facade; in many ways, Snoop is still the prince of the project playas. And Master P's Beats by the Pound crew gives Snoop enough gristle to insulate his ghettoized wordplay, whether it revolves around party sound-offs ("Woof!") or silly love songs ("Show Me Love"). Da Game's middle portion wanes somewhat, with Snoop retreating into his nihilistic Dogg Pound spiel on "Ain't Nut'in Personal" and "Game of Life." But the final tracks return to the No Limit lap of luxury Snoop cozies up to in the beginning: The two-and-a-half-minute "Picture This" is a high-rolling, glitzy number, while "Hoes, Money & Clout" and "Get Bout It & Rowdy" are saucy soundtracks custom-made for low-riders and jeeps everywhere.

Overall, Snoop sounds like he's happy to be among the living on Da Game. And while Master P's circus of boundless affluence may be no match for jailed Death Row svengali Suge Knight's ominous street credibility, Snoop knows that with No Limit he might just escape alive -- and have a hell of a good time in the process.

Making its own play for the hedonist in all of us, Eightball's Lost deals in the lazy, down-home approachability indicative of Houston's rap hierarchy. With a rolling Southern drawl that's as thick as homemade barbecue sauce, the hefty, Memphis-born half of Suave House's most successful act thus far (Eightball & MJG) enhances the glide-ability of some smooth grooves with his flexible, urbane flow. Lost has more bounce than an episode of Baywatch, and a lot more color, to boot. By contrast, Eightball's raps can turn gritty and dark at times. "Put tha House on It" and "Drama in My Life" kick off the release with an authentic whiff of menace that is never undermined by cartoonish riffing. But Eightball's scowl loosens to a smirk on the naughty "My Homeboy's Girlfriend" and the wild-and-woolly "Pure Uncut," the latter with Master P and Mystikal guesting.

Like most multi-CD efforts (three discs, if you include a bonus Suave House sampler), Lost isn't without filler. Eightball's rapping to a snippet of "Wrapped Around Your Finger" on "My First Love" makes you wish they'd declare a moratorium on all Police samples. But a few clunkers aren't enough to stall the whole. Whether it's the down-and-dirty funk of "Backyard Mississippi" or the epic gangsta storytelling of "Time," Lost stays its course. (Da Game Is to Be Sold, Not to Be Told, ***; Lost, ***)

-- Craig D. Lindsey

Hal Ketchum
I Saw the Light
Curb

Hal Ketchum's work has always been more about substance than flash, and I Saw the Light, his first release in three years, continues in that fashion. A reflection of a troubled recent past (a divorce, a stay at the Betty Ford Clinic) and a much happier present (a recent marriage, a move out of Nashville), I Saw the Light is a refreshing break from country's cookie-cutter mold.

Ketchum sings of despair and renewal with honesty and clarity, yet without resorting to cliche or overbearing sentiment. That he manages to invite strains of blues, folk and rock into the mix makes his music that much more appealing. From the infectious opener, "A Girl Like You," to the achingly beautiful, gospel-inflected "Too Many Memories" to the deceptively simple but remarkably powerful "You'll Never Hurt That Way Again," I Saw the Light is a soul-baring exercise of startling passion and resounding strength. On paper, it all sounds just a little too personal, but with that rich baritone and the songs' solid melodies, Ketchum -- along with session help from Nashville and Austin -- manages to coax country out of its doldrums with fine playing and a little emotional intrigue. (***)

-- Jim Caligiuri

Ramsey Lewis
Dance of the Soul
GRP

Ramsey Lewis hasn't made an album that could be recommended without reservation since We Meet Again, his 1989 duet with fellow pianist Billy Taylor. His last half-dozen releases have been dominated by mediocre funk, unspectacular smooth jazz and unexciting reworkings of songs he recorded years before. And while nothing he's done recently has been extraordinarily bad, nothing has come close to the classic Lewis of The In Crowd, Sun Goddess and Classic Encounter.

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