LL Cool J The DEFinition (Def Jam) Click here to listen to "Headsprung," and here to listen to "Feel the Beat."On The DEFinition, LL Cool J faces a dilemma virtually unprecedented in rap history: What do you talk about on your 11th album? Hip-hop is a ruthlessly nostalgia-averse genre; few rappers beat the sophomore jinx, let alone survive, as LL has, to ring in their 20th anniversaries. LL could have devoted his new record to boasts about longevity, but he did that rather well seven albums ago. Instead, he hired Timbaland to punch up his beats (every rapper's fallback plan) and stuck with his strengths, unleashing a torrent of braggadocio and pillow talk. On "Headsprung," a terrific, hammering club track, LL puts on a Queens-meets-Dixie drawl. Even better is "Feel the Beat," which has a Spartan old school sound—kick-drum, snare, and a blipping two-note synth figure—and a string of funny rhymes, including some financial planning advice for young rappers: "Why you waste advances on gray market rocks?/ I cop municipal bonds and WalMart stocks."
De La Soul The Grind Date (AOI/Sanctuary Urban) Click here to listen to "Church," and here to listen to "Come On Down."De La Soul were the late-'80s pioneers of "conscious rap," the left-of-center subgenre that sneers at mainstream hip-hop; you might have guessed that they would grow into grumpy elder statesmen. The Grind Date captures the group in high scold mode, railing against "young'uns," gold diggers, and that favorite target of hip-hop purists, champagne-swilling "ball-playing rappers." On their early albums, the harangues were offset by the ingenious production of Prince Paul, whose Day-Glo comedy-funk kept the mood light. But De La Soul parted ways with Prince Paul, and on The Grind Date there's little relief from the hectoring, especially when Spike Lee, the grand poobah of self-righteousness, stops by for a cameo on "Church." The album's only real moment of levity is "Come On Down," when the group is joined by Flava Flav—one hip-hop old-timer who's never lost touch with his inner 9-year old.
Snoop Dogg R&G (Rhythm & Gangsta): The Masterpiece (Geffen) Click here to listen to "Drop It Like It's Hot," and here to listen to "Girl Like U."Snoop Dogg is gangsta rap's velvet hammer—the MC who brought Al Green-style plushness to songs about AK-47s and prostitutes. He's as much a singer as a rapper, and he's always thrived in the company of smart producers, who prop up little bits of rhythm and melody and let Snoop's falsetto do the rest. On his new album, Snoop eases into his second decade of hit-making, sounding as unruffled as ever. The Neptunes-produced smash "Drop It Like It's Hot," with its beat built around clicking tongues, is an example of the astonishingly avant-garde stuff that passes for mainstream pop music these days. But the standout song is "Girl Like U," Snoop's lovely duet with fellow rapper-singer Nelly: just a blunt drumbeat, a few dainty piano plinks, and two honeycombed voices, trading singsong rhymes.
"Yes Yes Y'all" (Rap-A-Lot) Click here to listen to "Yes Yes Y'all.""Ain't shit changin'/ Ain't shit changin'," bellows the Geto Boys' Bushwick Bill in "Yes Yes Y'all," and he's not wrong. The Houston shock-rap pioneers have re-formed (again), and if this lead single from the forthcoming War and Peace is any indication, they've stayed stubbornly on-message and indifferent to recent trends. (No crunk here.) "Yes Yes Y'all" is more up-tempo than the trio's early-'90s records; its generically gangsta-gruff lyrics and rather flimsy beat certainly don't pack the menace of classics like "My Mind's Playing Tricks On Me" (1991), one of hip-hop's greatest singles. But there's something dignified about the Geto Boys' refusal to tart up their sound, and the years haven't dimmed their sense of humor—they still know how to play gangsta rap nihilism for yucks: "What's your position on a snitch, homey?/ Fuck laws!/They say The Beatles was the biggest/ Nigga, fuck Paul!/ And the rest of y'all!"
Dana Owens Album (Interscope) Click here to listen to "Moody's Mood For Love," and here to listen to "If I Had You."Strictly speaking, Queen Latifah isn't the first rapper-turned-crooner. That honor belongs to the late Russell Jones, aka Ol' Dirty Bastard, who in 1999 recorded a strangely touching train-wreck version of "Good Morning Heartache." (Click here to listen.) But Latifah is the first rapper to take her crooning seriously—the first to reclaim her real name and parlay her distinctly mediocre hip-hop career and passable singing voice into a bid for a post-Norah Jones, brunch-music windfall. She's gone to an awful lot of trouble, convening a full orchestra and soldiering, against all good sense and the limits of her vocal range, through the lush, jazzy passages of "Moody's Mood For Love," "If I Had You," and other urbane songs. But it doesn't seem to have occurred to Latifah that jazz singing, like rapping, is all about personality projection—which is why Russell Jones, may he rest in peace, was a better singer, not to mention rapper, than Dana Owens.