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 Nas
Street's Disciple
Columbia

For Nasir Jones, the stakes are always high. His 1994 debut, Illmatic, consistently appears on short lists of the best rap albums ever, while his next five releases are barely mentioned. With every Nas album, millions of rap fans across the world hope for another Illmatic. But judging from Street's Disciple, what legions of haters called "falling off" is better viewed as a search for musical identity.

Illmatic owes its success not only to Nas's lyrical genius but also to the grimy backbeats. The credits read like a New York production hall of fame; simply put, almost anybody would sound good over those beats. His subsequent albums saw few weak lyrical performances but certainly had their share of questionable beats. With every release, the music became the X-factor.

Is Concrete Rose the iceberg Ashanti's Titanic 
has been heading for all these years?
Is Concrete Rose the iceberg Ashanti's Titanic has been heading for all these years?

On 2002's God's Son, Nas began cultivating his own sound with ex-Fugees producer Salaam Remi. The lead single, "Made You Look," was a breakthrough collaboration, a classic track featuring a rejuvenated Nas over beats worthy of the New York streets. Not only had he begun to discover his ideal sound, but he'd also hooked up with a producer with a great ear. Remi stuck with Nas on Street's Disciple, and the result is the best Nas album in years. Nas not only sounds great, but he unleashes some of his most inspired verses. "American Way" is a scattered tirade on the nation's status, with shots taken at P. Diddy and a spoken hook from Kelis (the new Mrs. Nasir Jones). Nas shows love to the fallen on "Just a Moment," with solid help from newcomer Quan on the hook and the first verse. Despite being two discs long and featuring album art depicting Nas as Jesus, Disciple is a well-planned, personal album, the culmination of several years of musical soul-searching and heavy critique. It may not be the best Nas album, but it is undoubtedly the first true Nas album. -- Andrew Friedman

Ben Harper and the Blind Boys of Alabama
The Will Be a Light
Virgin

The beauty of gospel lies in its ability to swim against the mainstream current by embracing maturity and experience as valued commodities. Yet traditionalist notions are precisely what make Ben Harper's collaboration with the masterful Blind Boys of Alabama a mixed bag. Harper, a young, high-ranking acolyte in the Church of the Endless Jam, is supported by a healthy, faithful congregation, but here his precocious presence is dwarfed by the Blind Boys. Their soulful harmonies dominate cuts such as the title song and "Take My Hand," leaving Harper in the corner, unable to summon the punch that the task demands. The best moments come when Harper steps back -- as on Bob Dylan's "Well, Well, Well" -- and lets the Blind Boys evoke a haunting reverence. Maybe with enough time -- it's taken the Blind Boys of Alabama only 65 years or so -- Harper, too, will reach that level of prayerful meditation. -- John Kreicbergs

Ashanti
Concrete Rose
Murder Inc./Def Jam

In connection with any Ashanti album, the red herring has always been the vocal ability -- or, more precisely, the lack thereof -- of Murder Inc.'s gal Friday. Okay, so she's not a great singer. But it's not like pop music is filled with budding Aretha Franklins these days. Before millions of viewers, Ashlee Simpson reveals the industry's prefab truth to be as naked as Lady Godiva, and people are still picking on poor Ashanti?

Still, when a performer so wholly dependent on strong material turns in a collection this slight, people are liable to consider it the iceberg that her titanic career has been waiting to hit since it left the dock. The first hummable cut (the organ-driven soul of "Don't Let Them") comes nearly halfway in -- and you might not make it that far, after sitting through numbingly repetitive hip-pop throwaways like "Only U," where an unwisely overheated Ashanti attempts to pant a message of lust. When a couple of other decent tunes arrive at disc's end, it's far too late. On one of them, "Freedom," Ashanti says of the haters: "In my heart I know they wishin' I would stop." Concrete Rose might take care of that. -- Dan Leroy

The Gourds
Blood of the Ram
Eleven Thirty

Mistakenly thought of as a novelty act after their infamous psycho-bluegrass makeover of Snoop Dogg's classic "Gin and Juice," the Gourds have released a series of compelling, whacked-out alternative country efforts for ten years. Blood of the Ram continues in the same tradition, with top-notch playing, rough-hewn singing and openly bizarre songwriting. Humorous and obscure, images and references collide with non sequiturs to create a dead-on view of rural life. What makes this new effort different is a more organic, looser presentation. In the vein of Dylan's Basement Tapes (but better recorded), the Gourds have created a beautiful, sturdy mess. Tracks like "Lower 48" and "Triple T Gas" show a band totally at ease with its weird world of swampy rock and backwoods folk. Eccentricity and talent are rarely as cleverly matched as with the Gourds. Long may they confuse. -- Darryl Smyer

 
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